Innocence is the most frightening sight of all.
This compelling but squicky little cult novel by one-time author Mendal W. Johnson is the kind of book that makes you reevaluate what you read for entertainment and why - I mean, why was I somewhat disappointed that Let's Go Play at the Adams' wasn't as disturbing an experience as I'd... uh, expected (not hoped; no, surely not that)? You can tell just by the reprint cover art (Bantam Sept 1980), with its exploitation and fetishization of sexual abuse, that moral discomfort will be in full effect ("A novel of lingerie horror"? Oh, wait, oops). There's also a promise of rare and illicit thrills. Johnson has written a very strange work that offers credible motivation - at first - for a group of five seemingly normal kids who, during one hot rural summer week while their parents are away on vacation, tie up their downy blonde 20-year-old babysitter and... well, you know.
These five children and young adults - Dianne, 17, John, 16, Paul, 12, Bobby, 10, and Cindy, 9 (they've dubbed themselves the Freedom Five in a bit of stick-it-to-the-man early '70s counterculture vernacular) - have upended one of the most basic social conventions: that kids and adults are basically two different species and that the adults are the superior ones. And now, they've captured an adult. They shouldn't have been able to, even with all the planning, because of that bedrock social convention, but here they were, out in the open, breaking the law between children and adults, and nothing was happening. They ignored the taboo, and no lightning fell.
This transgressive thrill motivates them, especially for grubby, twitchy 12-year-old Paul, but ultimately they know and resign themselves to the bald fact that they are entirely responsible and answerable for their own actions, no matter what comes next. They get unknowingly existential, as when Bobby explains to the captive: "Like when we were all figuring out if we could do it, it seemed like something we had to do. Like if you think you can do something, you have to"... till the end, when they realize someone has to pay for the end result of their hellish "fun."
Original non-exploitative 1975 paperback
Loosely based, as you may have guessed, on the torture/murder of Sylvia Likens (like Jack Ketchum's much more accomplished 1989 novel The Girl Next Door), Johnson's work goes down dark avenues and doesn't want to come back. Horror fans will want to keep reading, but they might find, as I did, that Johnson seems conflicted as to why he wants to go to those cruel and twisted places; is his motivation to show us the darkness so we can better understand it? Or is the author secretly getting off on the whole sitch? Judging by the endless descriptions of the knots and ropes and other items that bind poor Barbara in more and more uncomfortable positions, these S&M aspects seem less depictions of fictionalized reality than Freudian slips from Johnson's repressed fantasies.
As for characterization, the tormentors are well-drawn, particularly budding sociopath Paul and oldest sister Dianne, who has some commonality - no matter how denied - with their babysitter. But Barbara is more blank cipher than sympathetic victim and often Johnson intellectualizes her plight rather than giving us the raw, naked hysteria and then detachment that I can only imagine would be real. The author saw Let's Go Play as a political allegory (read here), which honestly I didn't even think of while reading. I suppose if I ever read it again it will be all I can think. This makes me ambivalent about the novel.
Mendal W. Johnson (1928 - 1976)
The final chapter, a shuddering repercussive fadeout that gives no quarter and no ultimate answer, is as unremittingly sad as it is, at moments, difficult to read. It will most likely haunt you afterwards. In the epilogue, we learn of the intimate guilty and ambiguous thoughts of Barbara's one-time roommate Terry as she grieves: Barbara, I hated you for being so easy and simple and happy. You deserved it, I hated you, too...Beauty, I knew you, and I never want to see you again... Goodness, go out of the world so that we can live in it. This seems so ungracious, so unseemly, so terrible a thought to have about a murdered loved one that it actually has a ring of truth. In his own sometimes awkward, sometimes pretentious manner, Johnson might be on to something.
That is some tagline
When he's not focused on babysitter bondage, I believe Johnson is saying that instead of ennobling us, beauty can make us feel lesser beings by showing us its unattainability; that we are cramped and craven, as it awakens in us whispers to dole out pain and humiliation, a torturous desire to topple beauty, to stain it in the dirt-crusted earth from which we can never escape. As if beauty were somehow an escape from the harshest of life's realities, as if it were some ideal beyond the everyday banalities we must endure. How dare beauty remind us, by its very existence, that we'll never possess it?
Is anyone surprised that he never wrote another book?
The difference tonight - her nakedness - did not much affect Bobby. Barbara appeared to be sweet, defenseless, and all that, but to him, she was also a trifle repugnant. The raw thrust of genitals and hair was a little too much for him at his age; everything was overscale compared to his own slight build. Her nudeness was simply another grotesque item in Bobby's troubled week.