Dead End
Chris DiLeo
JournalStone (March 27, 2020)
Reviewed by Bret McCormick

When I laid eyes on the cover art for the book Dead End by Chris DiLeo, my first thought was, “I wouldn’t mind having a poster of that hanging on my wall.” Kudos to Don Noble of Rooster Republic Press.

An eleven-year-old boy witnesses his father’s suicide. His mother instructs him to tell anyone who asks that his father died of a heart attack. So begins DiLeo’s bleak tale of nightmares, insanity, possession, secrets and existential terror.

The kid’s name is Mike Munacy, which I imagine rhymes with lunacy. Mike lives on a steep street culminating in a cul-de-sac, and there’s a dense, dark patch of woods above the cliff behind his house. Unlike most boys, he doesn’t explore the woods. His father once warned him that there was “too much life” in those woods.

DiLeo writes in brisk, short chapters, like Joe Hill in Heart-Shaped Box or Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle.

Somehow, Mike manages to make it through childhood and into the early stages of adult life as a high school English teacher with a passionate life partner named Dani, who also teaches English. When they decide to move in with his mom to save money, life takes a turn for the worse.

Mike’s mom quickly ends up in the hospital. She’s been keeping her health issues a secret. Diabetes. She’s stubbornly uncommunicative but still eager to gobble down three chocolates, even as the doctors are suggesting dialysis. DiLeo peppers the text with little nods to well-known genre authors. For instance, there are doctors named Blatty and Straub. There’s a cop named Koryta, and Dani’s last name is Tremblay.

Mom’s decline make’s Mike a bit less emotionally available than Dani would like. She withdraws in anger, and is soon sleepwalking in the woods, not unlike her namesake Danny in The Shining, who began sleepwalking when the ominous influence of nonhuman entities became oppressive. She suggests Mike pay the woods a visit. But is it really Dani making the suggestion?

The neighborhood is populated by odd characters. There’s a maverick evangelist named Ned, who holds worship services in his converted garage.  A retired veterinarian named Roman seems like an okay guy, but is nursing a terminally-ill wife. Then there’s Del, a somewhat caustic heavy drinker whose wife suffers from dementia and scrambles out of the house to roam the neighborhood at every opportunity.

Mike catches a teen boy burning a book written by preacher Ned. He startles the kid, and inadvertently causes the boy to burn himself rather severely on one arm. In a matter of days the boy has been burned to death atop the cliff behind Mike’s house. He needs to know what’s going on, and decides to do a bit of detective work.

Dani has become increasingly weird, unable to sleep and unable to stay put when she is sleeping. She speaks in tongues and wanders the woods. Finally, she attacks Mike with scissors and is put in a mental facility for observation.

Mike’s cat gets run over, and his veterinarian neighbor, Roman, says Ned’s church van ran over the cat, perhaps intentionally. They bury the cat in the backyard. Spending time with ‘Rom,’ Mike learns the man and his own dad, Ward, shared a love of horror movies. Ward even wrote a story dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft. What’s more, it was published! Wow! Mike would like to write a story, would like to be published. He is an English teacher, after all, but he’s never had the courage to try writing. That is, not until Mike becomes possessed by his father’s typewriter and begins writing a horror novel with the same title as this one.

Bit by bit, Mike learns things – secrets others have been keeping. And all of it is bad. Even Dani has secrets he never would’ve imagined, and it could be Mike’s been hiding things from himself. There’s more than a little ‘schadenfreude’ going on in this community. Look that up in your Funk and Wagnall’s.

The truth of the matter is … “There is evil in the world. Good people go crazy. Children die. Monsters are real.”

Long ago, an exorcism was performed in this neighborhood. A failed exorcism. Everyone knows something about it. Everyone but Mike, that is. His return with his lovely life partner, Dani, has set in motion events that will necessitate another exorcism.

I dare not say more, lest I give too much away.

The rest of the story is waiting for you, if you have the guts to face what’s happening up there on Mullock Street.