Lavender Town Syndrome. BEN Drowned. Slender Man. Modern technology has brought us a continuous supply of unexplained activity and new bogeymen to fear. The internet, in particular, can be a scary place where urban legends find life… and young, vulnerable victims. Jeffrey Hale offers us a new spectre in the form of MR. STICKS, whose Labyrinth may find its origins in the dark web but entices the troubled and lost out into the cornfields of Colorado where faith, blood, and sacrifice are his currency.

When Lucia’s teenage sister goes missing, the twenty-something office worker is forced to return to the hometown she hoped she had left behind. Sixteen-year-old Finley is rebellious and known in the small community for her regular disappearing acts. But Lucia knows this time is different. What she uncovers will leave her questioning not only the characters and motives of all those she grew up with but also the possibility of a supernatural menace that will threaten her own grasp on reality.

And herein lies the problem with MR. STICKS. Just as with the recent widespread panic surrounding the Momo Challenge, the hype is short-lived and soon proven false. MR. STICKS has so much going for it in terms of creating an incredibly unsettling modern narrative – a mysterious and seemingly omniscient bad guy, a technological scavenger hunt (that sounds akin to an ARG experience), the almost cult-like overtones. But this all gets lost in Lucia’s personal journey into her past, her re-evaluation of the relationships of her youth, and her subsequent self-discovery.

While the complex anti-hero, the hard-to-love protagonist, has become a popular trope in contemporary fiction and is certainly truer to real life, there is a danger of alienating the reader and causing an emotional disconnect. While there are good reasons for Lucia’s defence mechanisms, by holding those around her at arm’s length, we are too kept at a distance that makes it hard to empathise with her feelings and decisions.

Hale presents an interesting examination of coming to terms with MS and how Lucia manages her condition day-to-day (something which has recently received mainstream attention through the brave and ever fierce Selma Blair). This struggle adds an extra dimension to Lucia’s fight to find her sister, but also feels like an excuse for her poor treatment and judgement of those she encounters. Lucia has the spirit of a woman much older and simultaneously dismisses the troubled teens she encounters while condemning others for doing the same. This hypocrisy may be an intentional literary device but only serves to lessen the sympathy you may have had for Lucia’s situation.

If you dig deeper beneath the veneer of titillating creepypasta tales, you may stumble upon the deep web – a world into which sexual predators and serial killers lure their prey. Hale isn’t afraid to illuminate this darkness, shedding light on subjects such as underage sex, grooming, child abuse, murder. In fact, there are so many taboo elements to his story, that it begins to feel like throwing everything up in the air to see what sticks. Sadly, the answer is very little. Including Mr. Sticks himself. Finley’s potential demise at the hands of Mr. Sticks becomes a mere footnote rather than the driving force. What is offered up as the true terror of the story battles for attention with Hale’s diatribe against the small-town mentality. In fact, one of the scariest and most disturbing parts of the story is the protagonist’s ability to turn a blind eye to her ex-boyfriend’s relationship with her underage sister.

Despite this, at times, I still felt connected, even excited, as the tension heightened nearing the finale – the showdown with Mr. Sticks himself. Which turned out to be the biggest disappointment of them all. While it wasn’t completely predictable, it ended incredibly abruptly with zero resolution. Hale has a habit throughout the novel of exiting a scene early, leaving you wondering, only to reveal what happened in an argument or offhand comment later. While this is effective for the most part, using the same technique at the very end of the book only serves to leave the reader with the biggest sense of dissatisfaction. It feels almost as if Hale got bored or ran out of time, rather than being an intentional decision to avoid answering any questions or leave things open for a sequel.

While this review may seem overly critical, it is born out of the frustration that MR. STICKS has so much to offer and yet ultimately fails to deliver – much like the eponymous bogeyman. What you get, while interesting, thought-provoking, and certainly unnerving, is not necessarily what you signed up for. Which may actually be the most important lesson to learn in dealings with an enigmatic game maker you discover on the dark web.

MR. STICKS will be released on April 30 through SANDS PRESS.

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