Ten - Gretchen McNeil

No mysteries about it--Ten is entirely unremarkable. In all honesty, the 'several kids stuck on an island with a murderer' concept is hardly a new one, and the extreme archetypes of high schoolers that most definitely exist here make for a quite status-quo-abiding story, albeit a somewhat more exciting one. 

  Ten's real savior is the same as another McNeil novel by the name of 3:59: mystery and suspense, both finding their peak in ambiguity, and unknown. This is always at a certain point of the story: it's been long enough for the protagonist to have figured out what's happening, but the details are still out of sight, and she has yet to take the culprit(s?) down. 

   For the entirety of Ten, we follow an introverted writer (how unrealistic) named Meg, as her weekend of fun (translation: drama) slowly descends into midterms-level chaos. She most certainly isn't revolutionary in the way of heroes, but she and Josie have something in common, as the respective heroes of their novels. Both of them are smart and analytical, getting rid of the requirement for male backup (though not getting rid of the backup himself) and doing away with the formality of freezing the story in fear or confusion. 

   It could be argued, however, that horror is nowhere near about being centered around character work, and that looking for internal struggle is moot, as our character must simply be a vessel for thins we discover about their circumstances as action--not emotion--leads the narrative onwards. 

   We begin Meg's journey by meeting her best friend, Minnie, a skittish, loyal perfectionist with an interesting--if problematic--story/character arc and a tendency towards interpersonal conflict. 

   Minnie is where the narrative comes closest to questionable. In a horror novel with neither the influence of the eerie or paranormal at play, one must rely solely on the twisted capabilities of the mundane human mind. Minnie, for a time, becomes both a subject and a point of conflict, just like all the other characters, but the difference between her portrayal and everyone else's is the fact that she had bipolar disorder, and it's occasionally used as an explanation. This is where it becomes daunting for an author to go on with such a character in hand. A point of notability for McNeil, however, is the fact that Minnie's disorder doesn't become an exoneration under pressure to positively represent a mentally ill character. (But it's still iffy.) I'm not going to lie, the way she twists motivation and the need for belonging is actually quite fascinating, and Minnie's desires make her an intriguing possible culprit. 

   Minnie also has several subsequent appearance in the predominantly typical first chapters. It's a good thing that the "first few essentials" as I call them, are established in this comparatively short time. Mainly because while McNeil lays the traps of uncertainty well, her interpretation of the gore-less, average teen world is boring, stagnant, and hellish. She constructs cliques and archetypes you recognize (not from real life, from other teen novels) and lulls you to sleep with the same traditional order of social tension you've likely seen (and rolled your eyes at) at least a dozen times.
   It's not until things get interesting (see: bloody) that McNeil's characters even begin asking for your attention. Here, you take interest in the commanding narcissist once she cracks, the charming boy-off-limits once he's put in life-threatening danger, the genuine jackass once he's made to trust through desperation, or frankly, most everyone else once they're dead. 

   Long story short, I don't give a shit about her characters unless they're about to get murdered. 

   But even in this situation, the average build-up can be made exceptional through fitting ambience. What does it feel like when you read of breathing the heavy air? Of cit closing in on you, while surrounded by the winds of paralyzing fear? Of walking through a wonderland of horrors, each step begging something else to go wrong? In Gretchen McNeil's case, it feels just like it should: utterly chilling. I swear to god, this woman could make a crowded Starbucks scary. You watch. (er, read.)

   A Northern West Coast island may not immediately strike as the perfect stage for a series of murders, but the way everything is described suits the ominous plot line perfectly, in all the moments we spend alone with Meg in the dark. Or, in the case of a few particularly memorable scenes, the storm. 

   This storm is used as a method of isolation for intensity, as is the resulting power outage, or the sheer distance of the island itself. They ball build a "wall" entrapping our characters in the same way you might lock battling teenagers in an arena. 

   The use of isolation here is excellent, for McNeil uses it to press a burden of urgency on the situation, and it even ends up being more effective than any personal struggles bearing the same cause. It comes to a point beyond the strange, where we're all playing a guessing game of, "what will go wrong next?" 

   It is here in the sequence of events that Ten truly hits its stride. Once the pressure ramps up and the bodies start stacking, mcNeil gets to flex her puzzle-building skills in what can only be called a thrilling sequence of uncertainty at its very best. 

   At its very worst, however, it veers off into the same basic tensions we read about for the first several chapters. We're faced with what is essentially a re-has of similar arguments, but argued with fewer and much louder voices. 

   A highlight of the good would be the emphasis of problem-solving in dire situations. Along with a worthy trail of clues, a suspense writer must have a worthy set of actions, steps the protagonist must take to uncover (rather than stumble upon) the next clue. We constantly watch Meg search the island for solutions, before finding an "it's too late" dilemma and being forced to search for something else. 

   The new revelations tend to come at a decent pace, which is a guaranteed garner of success for a tale of suspense. In addition to this, each new point of conflict is creatively thought out, yet fitting, and it inches towards the point of throwing us a bone in the form of a pattern, but never quite reaches it. Meg faces a similar situation, but with less time on her hands. 

   meg also spends much of the book teaming up with a fellow high-schooler named T.J (the aforementioned male backup), who works well as a sidekick, but seems to drag the boring machinations of high school into moments least in need of their presence. He's also something of a Gary Stu, savvy in anything and everything necessary, allied in a simple and un-compelling way, and utterly standard. I'm just going to say it: he's not interesting or messed up to be in a horror novel. His bland safety comes close to--but never actually reaches--the point of canceling out Gretchen McNeil's ambience or suspense writing. 

   And then, just when it seems we might truly be presented with a shocking twist, our established status quo is preserved. It's safe to say that readers expecting a complete shock will ultimately be disappointed--after all, it only makes sense: the horror element is most effective while slightly hidden, and when all is revealed at the end in a climax and a crazed confession, the conclusion tends to be underwhelming. 

   But with Ten, the problem is exacerbated by the disappointing central payoff of yet more teen drama. And don't get me wrong, it isn't obvious the whole way through, but it's obvious near the end. (And that's enough for it to feel predictable.) 

   It's quite frustrating, actually, as Ten was shaping up to be a challenging, elaborate puzzle of a thriller. 

   However, even though Ten occasionally falls into its own traps, it's worth a read if one enjoys pondering, gore, and watching "normal" life go terribly wrong. The archetypical characters are played around with enough to not be wasted, the storyline moves fast enough not to dawdle, and it makes just enough use of its premise to be somewhat memorable in the hands of a seldom reader of horror. 

   To sum it up, Ten works for some entertainment, and a little mental challenge, but it is in no way free of fatal flaws, or, thankfully, fatal wounds.