Synopsis: “Welcome to Wonderland”. By day, it’s a magical place boasting a certain retro charm. Excited children, hands sticky with cotton candy, run frenetically from the Giant Octopus ride to the Spinning Sombrero, while the tinkling carnival music of the giant Wonder Wheel–the oldest Ferris wheel in the Pacific Northwest–fills the air. But before daybreak, an eerie feeling descends. Maybe it’s the Clown Museum, home to creepy wax replicas of movie stars and a massive collection of antique porcelain dolls. Or maybe it’s the terrifyingly real House of Horrors. Or…maybe it’s the dead, decaying body left in the midway for all the Wonder Workers to see.
Vanessa Castro’s first day as deputy police chief of Seaside, Washington, is off to a bang. The unidentifiable homeless man rotting inside the tiny town’s main tourist attraction is strange enough, but now a teenage employee–whose defiant picture at the top of the Wonder Wheel went viral that same morning–is missing. As the clues in those seemingly disparate crimes lead her down a mysterious shared path of missing persons that go back decades, she suspects the seedy rumors surrounding the amusement park’s dark history might just be true. She moved to Seaside to escape her own scandalous past, but has she brought her family to the center of an insidious killer’s twisted game?
While I love reading horror anytime of the year, there’s something about October that lends another layer of darkness, and if I stumble across a particularly good piece of horror fiction, well I’m a happy camper. When I saw Wonderland offered on NetGalley, it was the cover design that originally caught my attention. I mean look at it–it’s brilliant! There’s the creepy clown face and inside it’s cavernous mouth are the equally creepy rollercoaster and Ferris wheel set beneath an ominous sulfuric looking sky. How awesome is that?! While I have been known to pick a book strictly by it’s cover, in this case, there was something more that appealed to me. Every October, the tiny town of Topsfield MA is home to the oldest agricultural fair in the U.S., The Topfield Fair. Despite living one town over I don’t go as frequently as I used to, but I have many fond memories of it, except for the year I was 8 years old and became separated from my family. I wandered around completely lost and terrified out of my wits for about a half hour, before a kindly carnival worker reunited me with my very relieved parents. Ever since, while I still enjoyed the fair, it also held a vaguely sinister air for me. So, being the twisted and masochistic person that I am, when I saw this gorgeous cover and read the synopsis, of course I just had to read it! And I’m so glad I did because the story definitely lived up to the cover.
For those of you who like me have Coulrophobia, aka fear of clowns, (yes I googled it) you’ll be happy to know there are no killer clowns. But, given that it does have a scary attraction called the Clown Museum, I couldn’t resist the oopportunity to include these fun little gifs:
My favorite killer clown, Pennywise
Supernatural’s Sam Winchester, confronting his childhood fears.
And this one from Zombieland because, well–it just gives me the giggles.
No, Wonderland doesn’t have any supernatural killers, but that doesn’t make it’s all too human villains any less scary. And yes, there’s more than one here in this Disney-like carnival whose original owner was using for less than savory purposes. After his well deserved fiery demise, Wonderland was bought by one of his previous victims and successfully transformed into a popular tourist attraction.
Enter Vanessa Castro and her young son and teenage daughter. Desperate to give her children a fresh start after the tragic death of their father, she’s also running from a scandal that’s derailed her police career in Seattle. Picturesque Seaside looks like a dream come true, until the first body shows up, and a disgruntled Wonderland employee goes missing. She discovers that there have been quite a few young teens, all boys with similar physical features, that have mysteriously disappeared over the past eight years. The only connection being that they all worked at Wonderland. With her dream fast turning into a nightmare, Vanessa soon realizes she can’t trust anyone except for an old friend from Seattle.
For the most part, I really liked the character of Vanessa. She’s not only dealing with a complicated past, but she’s trying to fix what’s become a very strained relationship with her fourteen-year-old daughter. In addition to trying to catch a killer, she has to battle the politics which are always involved when a small town is solely reliant on one company. The only thing I didn’t care for is that near the end, one of the many surprises involves her husband’s death. The problem is it’s dropped in briefly and shockingly, and just as quickly the story moves on and what happened is never brought up again. I actually had to go back and re-read that section because I wanted to make sure I hadn’t imagined it.
All the characters in this are interesting, including the villains, but I think my favorite is Vanessa’s daughter Ava. In some ways she’s your stereotypical teenage girl– all snarky attitude, and crushing on a boy who’s too old for her– but there’s a lot more under the surface which comes to light in the latter half of the book. I’m not going to include any spoilers, but let’s just say it starts with her job at the Clown Museum. Remember when I said there were no killer clowns? Well there are plenty of these:
No, they don’t actually come to life but that doesn’t make them any less terrifying!
Despite Wonderland only being 312 pages, Jennifer Hillier packs a lot into it’s relatively short length. With characters such as a menacing janitor, a female CEO who has a penchant for her cute, blonde 18-year-old male employees, and a security guard who hasn’t been seen since the latest disappearance of a young teen–well, let me just say good luck figuring out whodunnit! In less skilled hands there would have been far too many characters and too many things going on, to successfully hold your attention, but Hillier somehow manages to successfully juggle all these details and drop bombshell, after bombshell.
Wonderland is the first book I’ve read by this author, but it certainly won’t be my last. Now I have to just find the time to read some of her previous novels. If you’re looking for a good scary read for Halloween, that you can pretty much finish in one sitting I highly recommend this. And if you go to a local fair anytime soon, make sure you have plenty of company!