The Three by Sarah Lotz

Posted on: July 02, 2014

Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.

AN unthinkable event occurs. Four commercial aircraft crash in four different cities within a few hours of each other, killing hundreds of people. There are only three survivors, three children, one each from three of the flights — children who seem to be miraculously unharmed. Besides the children, a woman survives for a few moments after one of the crashes, traumatised, hurt and not very coherent but managing to leave a strange, garbled message on her phone that seems to be warning against “the boy.”

The message eventually reaches her pastor, an extremist Christian who begins to believe that the surviving children are three of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The child rescued from the crash site in Japan places his head on the shoulder of his rescuer and whispers “three”; the English girl whose parents and twin died along with everyone else on their plane seems entirely unscathed by the loss of her entire family; the American boy returned to his grandparents seems to have had caused some sort of unprecedented improvement in his senile grandfather. A fourth child, a possible survivor of the final crash, may yet be found in the townships of South Africa, where reports of a silent ghost-like boy are enough to lead to many people searching for the fourth.

Are these children some sort of evil, released into our world by greater forces, or are they simply traumatised victims, not just of a colossal tragedy but also of a world always teetering on the edge of extreme fear and paranoia? Sarah Lotz’ novel, The Three, examines how large-scale catastrophic events can change things the world over, spreading terror well beyond those directly affected and deep into the psyche of society, altering it permanently. The Three is a novel that is extremely contemporary in nature. It deals with the fallout of huge, world-changing disasters, the fear that changes society irreparably after something bigger in scale than 9/11, for instance.

Lotz employs some fantastic metafiction to tell her story. The narrative is presented primarily as ‘Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy by Elspeth Martins,’ an expose compiled by a journalist attempting to understand the phenomena behind the crashes and the cults that develop around the survivors. Elspeth isn’t the only narrator here, though. Included in her book (and so, obviously in The Three) are transcripts of interview, Skype calls, web chats, letters, excerpts from memoirs, reports of aviation experts, paramedics, eyewitnesses and personal diary recordings. There are numerous perspectives here that never confuse the reader, only add to the readability of the book with short chapters and fluid language. There’s a great deal to be said for readability, all of it positive and none of it taking away from the fact that The Three is an ambitious, astute and intelligent novel, extremely at ease with its contemporary nature and perfectly attuned to what the world’s fears are.

The narrators Lotz creates are unreliable, yes, but their own belief in their version of the story is fairly steadfast, though their perspectives are skewed by many factors — their own demons control the stories they tell Elspeth, her own biases in turn controlling the stories she tells her readers. There are many contradictory reports about the three children and the events surrounding them — enough to have you constantly questioning the information you are given. The Three is more than one book and more than one story, each comprised of different documents and different viewpoints with the overall mosaic of the narrative mimicking what present-day real life information overload is, yet again filtered, always filtered, through a lens that you may not be able to trust — even if it be your own. It’s a finely crafted novel, and very much controlled enough to make you afraid, even if you aren’t certain what you should be afraid of. Of course, when your fear isn’t named or explicitly defined, it spreads all the more easily.

It’s very easy to fall headfirst into The Three. It is not just the fear of the unknown that keeps you reading; it helps to have writing that flows so well, regardless of the frequent changes in the narrative points of view. Lotz captures the various narrators’ voices perfectly, easily changing track between both perspective and voice, be it that of Elspeth the journalist herself; or Pastor Len, the leader of the Church of the Redeemer; or Ryu, the Japanese ‘hikikomori’ recluse whose entire narrative is an online chat with the cousin of the Japanese survivor; or the voice recordings of Paul, the struggling actor who is trying to come to terms with being the sole guardian of the American child.

There are some readers of horror who can handle immense amounts of physical horror in books, whether it is the gore and blood splatters, murder and violence that fills the slasher horror genre, or the grotesqueries and mutation of body horror. But very often even those readers will admit to finding the idea of ‘creepy kids’ harder to handle — I do, certainly. But what disturbs me the most about The Three is that I can’t say for sure that it is about creepy kids. That’s what is so unnerving about this book — it just leaves you entirely unsettled and constantly questioning everything — the narrators, their stories, their memories — even your own understanding of the book.

Are the children who have survived these horrific crashes genuinely frightening? Is there something horrible, preternatural at play here? Are they harbingers of the end of days? Is their survival itself a sign of their sheer unnaturalness? We never hear from the children directly — everything we know about them comes to us via the troubled mind of someone affected by the plane crashes. Or are they just victims — of the plane crashes, of too much media attention, of a culture that won’t let a tragedy remain personal? How much of what is feared can be blamed on the paranoia, the demons, the fears of people around the children playing out, projected onto the innocent? Of course, ultimately the question you ask as a reader is, or is it just me?

Let your imagination run free. Sarah Lotz has.