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. Published in hardcover in 1974, Let's Go Play at the Adams' is very loosely based on the mind-numbing torture/murder of Sylvia Likens. Adams' has acquired over the decades a grubby allure due to that aspect, as well as the scarcity of its various paperback editions, which finds vintage copies going for three figures. I found my copy at a library sale in 2011 for, um, and please don't hate me, a solitary dollar (Update: the novel has been brought back into print thanks to Valancourt Books!).
You can tell, by that reprint cover art alone (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, of titillation, of the forbidden—precisely the kind of recipe fans of horror paperbacks crave. But is there more to the novel than that?
Dubbing themselves the Freedom Five in a bit of stick-it-to-the-man early '70s counterculture vernacular, five siblings, from teenager to child—Dianne, John, Paul, Bobby, and Cindy—have upended one of the most basic of 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 twitchy 13-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."
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 situation? 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 seemed to me less depictions of fictionalized reality and more like weird slips from Johnson's repressed fantasies (or maybe, as a sailor, he just liked knots?). Like I said, this is a squicky book.
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 the babysitter. But babysitter 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 Adams' 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.