Short takes: ‘The Last Stone,’ ‘Bird Box’ and ‘The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek’

March 27, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 27, 2020

Lloyd Lee Welch, the prisoner at the heart of Mark Bowden’s 2019 true crime book The Last Stone, is a repellent figure. A seventh-grade dropout who spent years abusing alcohol and drugs, Welch is a chronic liar who insists that the lengthy sentence he’s serving for child molestation is largely the result of bad luck.

And yet it’s almost impossible to turn away from Welch, a member of an impoverished Southern clan rooted in the Virginia mountains. As an 18-year-old, Welch had spoken to police about what he’d seen on March 25, 1975, at a popular Maryland mall from which 12-year-old Sheila Lyon and her 10-year-old sister, Kate, had vanished. The disappearance, presumably a kidnapping, remained unsolved for more than three and a half decades.

Near the start of The Last Stone, members of the Montgomery County, Md., police department travel to Dover, Del., in the fall of 2013 to speak to the then 56-year-old Welch. Although local police had deemed the information they got from Welch on April 1, 1975, to lack credibility, the county’s cold case squad now wanted to question him about the man with a limp whom he’d reported seeing at Wheaton Plaza on the fateful day. And after some initial evasions, Welch indeed confirmed to questioners that Ray Mileski, a known pedophile and murderer with a permanent leg injury, had been at the mall the day the Lyons were abducted.

This was arguably the best lead authorities had ever developed in one of the most notorious criminal cases in the greater Washington, D.C., area. It renewed the Montgomery County detectives’ determination to solve the girls’ disappearance. But because of Welch’s frequent prevarication — he initially told a detective in the October 2013 interview that he’d never been to Wheaton Plaza — they had to search high and low to corroborate the assertions of their possible star witness.

Bowden, a former reporter who covered the Lyons’ disappearance for a Baltimore newspaper, is a master nonfiction storyteller. He’s probably best known for his 1999 book Black Hawk Down, which described a deadly 1993 battle between American peacekeeping forces and local militia in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Working from hours of videotaped interrogation footage and subsequent interviews with Maryland authorities, Bowden painstakingly documents each step of the investigation, which falls into a familiar pattern. Time and again, three Montgomery County detectives question Welch in Delaware detention facilities. Time and again, they come away with a hard-earned nugget of information that prompts them to interview Welch’s family, his associates and potential witnesses. Time and again, they find evidence that their initial suspect may not be the guilty party…

The Last Stone shepherds readers into the sordid world of the Welches, a family that seems engineered to produce sociopaths. It’s a disturbing piece of journalism, and not meant for the faint of heart.

Josh Malerman’s 2014 book Bird Box is a disturbing horror tale. The American singer-songwriter’s first published novel follows Malorie, a young woman who’s survived a mysterious phenomenon that drives those who see it to violent, self-destructive acts.

The story plays out on two narrative tracks. In one, Malorie has just confirmed that she is pregnant following a one-night stand. This realization comes as reports of strange and disturbing murder-suicides are rapidly spreading across the globe. As it claims more and more victims, this strange plague cuts off electricity and other commonplaces of modern life.

Malorie finds refuge with a small group of survivors, all of whom believe that people can only preserve their sanity by shielding their eyes from the bizarre silent creatures that seem to have brought on this creeping apocalypse. The protagonist is relieved to find a group of sympathetic companions, but the group is pushed to the breaking point as circumstances force them to make a number of decisions with life-or-death consequences.

Four years later, Malorie blindfolds herself and a pair of young children and walks down a path through the woods. She is again seeking refuge, but this time her quest involves a sightless journey in a rowboat. Malorie, a proven survivor, is utterly determined to protect the youngsters, but this challenge may be beyond even her considerable abilities.

I listened to an audio version of Bird Box this month, starting just as Covid-19 was beginning to gain a foothold in the United States and finishing after I’d resolved to stay at home to the greatest extent possible. The book has eerie parallels to our current plight; the characters are trying to avoid a menace that is essentially unseeable, and the safest tactic is to stay in a secure well-supplied home.

Bird Box is a chilling narrative that masterfully evokes suspense from unseen menaces. The reader of the edition I listened to is Cassandra Campbell, a prolific audiobook narrator who also read the audio edition of The Heavens. The book ran a little over nine hours. It’s worth noting that a movie adaptation of Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich made a big splash when it came out in 2018.

The first novel The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek is a comedic horror/adventure story published in 2019 by Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, a.k.a. Rhett & Link, a pair of Los Angeles–based writer/director/actor/comedians who previously authored Rhett & Link’s Guide to Mythicality: A Field Guide to Curiosity, Creativity and Tomfoolery.

The tale is set in Bleak Creek, a small town in Eastern North Carolina. It takes place in the summer of 1992, a few weeks before best friends Rex McLendon and Leif Nelson are set to begin ninth grade at the local high school. The duo and their co-best friend and fellow rising ninth grader, Alicia Boykins, have devoted summer break to making a movie called PolterDog.

When a scene the trio films in public goes horribly awry, Alicia is sent to Whitewood School, a notorious institution for wayward youths from which no student emerges unscathed. The heartbroken Rex and Leif — stand-ins for the authors, who grew up in North Carolina and have been friends since childhood — attempt to make contact with Alicia. However, Whitewood pupils are completely isolated from the outside world. Worse yet, the school subjects youngsters to a variety of unsavory instructional methods; some qualify as torture, while others are downright deadly.

Leif and Rex eventually band together with a small group of allies. There’s an escapee from Whitewood; a 26-year-old New York University film school graduate who came to Bleak Creek with a notion of making a documentary; a cousin of the young filmmaker who was one of Whitewood’s earliest graduates; and a local handyman whom the friends call Redneck Batman. It’s safe to say that this motley group’s attempt to rescue Alicia doesn’t exactly go as planned…

The main characters aren’t especially nuanced, but the story is well-paced, and the headmaster and staff of the Whitewood School prove to be chilling adversaries. Neal and McLaughlin make one of their villains out to be a surprisingly sympathetic figure, and the story has an original (or at least not often-used) supernatural element. Unlike The Last Stone and Bird Box, which are both very intense at times, this book is appropriate for younger readers. If you’re interested in some light reading and would rather avoid the rather grim fare described earlier in this post, The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek is an excellent choice.

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