REVIEW: Hidden Pictures by Jason Rekulak
From Jason Rekulak, Edgar-nominated author of The Impossible Fortress, comes a wildly inventive spin on the classic horror story in Hidden Pictures, a creepy and warm-hearted mystery about a woman working as a nanny for a young boy with strange and disturbing secrets.
Fresh out of rehab, Mallory Quinn takes a job in the affluent suburb of Spring Brook, New Jersey as a babysitter for Ted and Caroline Maxwell. She is to look after their five-year-old son, Teddy.
Mallory immediately loves this new job. She lives in the Maxwell’s pool house, goes out for nightly runs, and has the stability she craves. And she sincerely bonds with Teddy, a sweet, shy boy who is never without his sketchbook and pencil. His drawings are the usual fare: trees, rabbits, balloons. But one day, he draws something different: a man in a forest, dragging a woman’s lifeless body.
As the days pass, Teddy’s artwork becomes more and more sinister, and his stick figures steadily evolve into more detailed, complex, and lifelike sketches well beyond the ability of any five-year-old. Mallory begins to suspect these are glimpses of an unsolved murder from long ago, perhaps relayed by a supernatural force lingering in the forest behind the Maxwell’s house.
With help from a handsome landscaper and an eccentric neighbor, Mallory sets out to decipher the images and save Teddy—while coming to terms with a tragedy in her own past—before it’s too late.
Dear Mr. Rekulak,
When I saw your name on this arc, I knew I wanted to read it even though it seemed very different from the first book of yours I read, “The Impossible Fortress.” Despite having read the blurb, I had a totally different idea of what was going to unfold. As a result, I was riveted to the twists and turns of the novel.
Mallory Quinn is not the typical older young adult I’ve read about. We meet her in a bizarre psychological medical experiment when she’s still addicted to whatever she can get her hands on. Then the story fast forwards to her in rehab. She’s wrecked her relationship with her family but is almost eighteen months sober and clean. Now she has a chance at a job as a nanny for an affluent couple in a rich town in New Jersey which is light years away from the South Philly neighborhood in which she grew up. The mother is a psychologist who works with recovering military vets but it’s the father who grills Mallory during the job interview.
Amazingly Mallory gets the job and starts working and living a dream. Teddy is sweet and soon the two of them are making up stories, swimming in the pool, and wandering through the nature park behind the home. Then Mallory sees some of Teddy’s newer drawings and they are unlike anything she’s seen Teddy draw before. It’s not just how different in artistic skill they are but the subject matter is deeply disturbing. How on earth could a five year old produce these?
Mallory begins to hear things at night and gets the feeling she’s being watched. Is Teddy being haunted by the ghost of a woman supposedly murdered over 70 years ago in the little one room house at the back of the Maxwell’s property and now trying to tell her story? Or have the drugs Mallory was on fritzed her brain into seeing something that’s not really there?
Though there aren’t any detailed descriptions of Mallory in the depths of her addiction, she pulls no punches in admitting to the reader she was addicted. Later we learn the tragedy of how and why her addiction began.
As she is interviewed for the job and sees the picture perfect little town in which the Maxwells live as well as how they interact with each other and the wholesome house rules under which she’s expected to live, my alarm bells started going off. It’s really, creepily perfect. At first Mallory is delighted with how easy the job is and how well she gets along with Teddy. Teddy’s not a faultless child or a plot moppet by any means but when she runs into situations she needs help with, Mrs. Maxwell is there with her psychological expertise and child care experience. Mallory might not always agree but knows not to go against Teddy’s parents.
Until things begin to happen that unsettle Mallory as well as Teddy. These start slowly, gradually, and build up. Some can be explained away … until they can’t be anymore. One of the long term effects of the kind of drug use Mallory did are mental lapses and the brain inventing false memories. She begins to worry that this is what is happening while her NA sponsor is concerned that she’s using drugs again.
The mystery of what’s going on deepens. Clues are discovered but can’t be fit together to make enough sense. Teddy’s drawings get worse and Mallory’s idea of what – or who – is causing everything freaks her out. Is a ghost haunting them?
I enjoyed the slow build up of the story. It’s very atmospheric in different ways. The bonding between Mallory and Teddy is delightful to watch. Teddy is an intelligent child with occasional five year old sulks. Mallory discovers how much she enjoys her job and getting her life back on track. The drawing parts are unsettling. The growing menace snuck up on me until I felt I was chest deep and with dangerous water still rising. Something is going on but what?
The explanation makes sense even before the villain exposition ties everything together in the end. Mallory keeps her head on straight until a final scene when it suddenly dawns on her that maybe she shouldn’t have done something. But she still manages to save the day in a taut race against a killer. The final section is emotional in a good way with an ending that allows Mallory as well as Teddy and the reader to decompress and feel better about the future. There are a couple of plot holes that might or might not bother people but I finished the book satisfied. B+