Two sensational unsolved crimes—one in the past, another in the present—are linked by one man’s memory and self-deception in this chilling novel of literary suspense from National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon.
“We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves.” This is one of the little mantras Dustin Tillman likes to share with his patients, and it’s meant to be reassuring. But what if that story is a lie?
A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.
Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients has been plying him with stories of the drowning deaths of a string of drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses his patient's suggestions that a serial killer is at work as paranoid thinking, but as the two embark on an amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.
From one of today’s most renowned practitioners of literary suspense, Ill Will is an intimate thriller about the failures of memory and the perils of self-deception. In Dan Chaon’s nimble, chilling prose, the past looms over the present, turning each into a haunted place.
Advance praise for Ill Will
“Dan Chaon’s new novel is subtly, steadily unnerving—like a scalpel slipping under your skin and prying it, ever so slowly, from the muscle beneath. Ill Will is a dark Möbius strip of a thriller that will leave you questioning what’s perceived and what’s imagined, and whether the reverberations of tragedy ever truly come to an end.”—Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You
“Ill Will not only confirms Chaon as among our country’s finest writers but makes clear that he is one of our bravest and most inventive. He embraces risks that would have most novelists turning pale and making the sign of the cross. It’s stunning. Read it right now.”—Peter Straub, author of The Throat
“Dan Chaon’s darkly stunning Ill Will ensnares you from its very first pages. It’s both a bone-chilling literary thriller and a complicated tale of family secrets and the strange and dangerous paths grief and guilt can take us on—and it is not to be missed.”—Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me
“‘I believe in bad places,’ one narrator of Ill Will confesses, and he’s right. Dan Chaon’s damaged characters stalk the elusive truth and what may be a serial killer through a nightmarish Cleveland populated by drug addicts and sexual predators. Intimate and unsparing, this is one of the creepiest books I've ever read.”—Stewart O’Nan, author of Songs for the Missing
“Ill Will is a literary masterwork, and that rare, true psychological thriller that comes along once in a decade.”—Alissa Nutting, author of Tampa
“With impressive skill, across multiple narratives that twine, fracture, and reset, Chaon expertly realizes his singular vision of American dread.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Sometime in the first days of November the body of the young man who had disappeared sank to the bottom of the river. Facedown, bumping lightly against the muddy bed below the flowing water, the body was probably carried for several miles—frowning with gentle surprise, arms held a little away from his sides, legs stiff. The underwater plants ran their fronds along the feathered headdress the boy was wearing, across the boy’s forehead and war-paint stripes and lips, down across the fringed buckskin shirt and wolf-tooth necklace, across loincloth and deerskin leggings, tracing the feet in their moccasins. The fish and other scavengers were mostly asleep during this period. The body bumped against rocks and branches, scraped along gravel, but it was mostly preserved. In April, when the two freshman college girls saw the boy’s face under the thin layer of ice among the reeds and cattails at the edge of the old skating pond, they at first imagined the corpse was a discarded mannequin or a plastic Halloween mask. They were collecting pond-water specimens for their biology course, and both of them were feeling scientific rather than superstitious, and one of the girls reached down and touched the face’s cheek with the eraser tip of her pencil.
During this same period of months, November through April, Dustin Tillman had been drifting along his own trajectory. He was forty-one years old, married with two teenage sons, a psychologist with a small practice and formerly, he sometimes told people, some occasional forays into forensics. His life, he thought, was a collection of the usual stuff: driving to and from work, listening to the radio, checking and answering his steadily accumulating email, shopping at the supermarket, and watching select highly regarded shows on television and reading a few books that had been well reviewed and helping the boys with their homework, details that were—he was increasingly aware—units of measurement by which he was parceling out his life.
When his cousin Kate called him, later that week after the body was found, he was already feeling a lot of vague anxiety. He was having a hard time about his upcoming birthday, which, he realized, seemed like a very bourgeois and mundane thing to worry about. He had recently quit smoking, so there was that, too. Without nicotine, his brain seemed murky with circling, unfocused dread, and the world itself appeared somehow more unfriendly—emanating, he couldn’t help but think, a soft glow of ill will.
A few days after the body was discovered, Dustin picked up the phone and it was his cousin Kate calling from Los Angeles.
“Listen,” she said. “I have some very weird news.”
Dustin said: “Kate?” They spoke regularly enough, once every few months or so, but it was usually on birthdays or holidays or around the edges of holidays.
“It’s about Russell,” she said.
“Russell, my brother Russell?” He was sitting at the desk in his office, his “study,” as he liked to call it, on the third floor of the house, and he stopped typing on the computer and glanced over at his ashtray, which was now full of little sugar-free hard candies, lozenges wrapped in cellophane. “Don’t tell me,” Dustin said. “He’s escaped.”
“Just listen,” Kate said.
Dustin hadn’t spoken to Russell, his adopted older brother, since Russell had been sent to prison. He had not written to him or even kept tabs on him, really, and the thoughts that he had of him were of the most cursory sort. For example, he’d see a movie or a TV show that took place in a prison and he’d think: I wonder what Russell is doing right now?
He had a general idea of what prison would be like. This included things like homosexual rape and “shanks” carved out of toothbrushes or spoons. Sometimes he would picture men in the prison library, studying legal books, or in cafeterias, eating the terrible casseroles, or lying moodily, fully dressed, on metal bunk beds, glaring at the ceiling.
Various images of this sort had come to Dustin over the years.
But mostly he’d imagine Russell as he had been when they were growing up together—Russell, six years his elder, who had shot him once with a BB gun in the back while he was running away, Russell, listening to death-metal music and carving a pentagram into his forearm with the sharp end of a drafting compass, Russell, who had used improvised kung fu moves to destroy a magnificent snowman that Dustin had built, Russell, who was delighted by Dustin’s fear of the dark and would wait until Dustin was comfortably alone in a room and then sneak by and turn off the light and pull the door closed and Dustin, trapped in darkness, would let out a scream.
On the night that their parents were going to be murdered, Dustin Tillman and his cousins Kate and Wave were sitting at the kitchen table in the camper, which was parked for the moment in the driveway of Dustin’s family’s house in western Nebraska. It was the beginning of June, 1983.
Their two families were planning to leave the next morning to go on vacation together.
They would travel through Wyoming and up to Yellowstone, and they would stay at various campgrounds along the way.
But that night, the camper was like their own little private apartment that they were living in. The three of them were playing cards. A transistor radio emitted songs from a distant Denver rock-and-roll station. A heavy beetle-bodied June bug beat its wings and ticked thickly against the light fixture on the ceiling.
The girls were only seventeen, but they were splitting a light beer, which they had taken from the refrigerator in the camper. They had poured it—half and half—into two glass tumblers. The night was warm, and the girls were wearing their bikini tops and cutoff shorts. They had used a curling iron to make flips in their shoulder-length blond hair, but the flips had grown a little limp. They were twins, not identical but almost. Dustin was thirteen, and he sat there, his cards fanned out, and the girls said:
“Dust-Tin! It’s your turn!”
And Kate reached down and without thinking scratched a bug bite on her bare ankle and Dustin was looking surreptitiously, the way her fingernail made a white mark on the reddish tanned skin, the fingernail which had some polish on it that was flaking off.
In retrospect, Dustin couldn’t remember much that was significant about that particular morning when they discovered the body. The day was clear and cold and sunny, and he woke up and felt fairly happy—happy in that bland, daily way that doesn’t even recognize itself as happiness, waking into a day that shouldn’t expect anything more than a series of rote actions: showering and pouring coffee into a cup and dressing and turning a key in the ignition and driving down streets that are so familiar that you don’t even recall making certain turns and stops; though the mind must have consciously carried out the procedure of braking at the corner and rolling the steering wheel beneath your palms and making a left onto the highway, there is no memory at all of these actions.
You were not even present, were you?
In retrospect: another day, late in the morning, early in the century. Another long Midwestern interstate corridor in Ohio. This particular road connected a whole series of fertile little towns to the cities, though lately what was once farmland was being developed, and rows of identical houses rose out of the muddy fields instead of crops. The backyards of these new communities were punctuated with aboveground pools and swing sets, and many featured little gray manmade ponds, which at this moment in spring looked like parking lots made of water instead of asphalt. Once they were landscaped, maybe they would look more appealing.
There was a lot of roadkill these days, as well. The highways now cut the countryside into narrow parcels, and the displaced woodland animals were often caught moving from one section to the next—raccoons, opossums, deer, foxes, their bodies tossed onto the berm in the positions of restless sleepers, mouths open, eyes closed, almost peaceful-looking.
People, too, seemed to meet their end more frequently on the roads, and Dustin had noticed the way that mourners seemed more and more to erect small roadside shrines to those who perished in accidents, crosses fashioned out of picket wood, often surrounded by a pile of brightly colored objects: usually plastic flowers—pink roses, yellow daffodils, white lilies—but sometimes green Christmas wreaths or plastic holly or ribbons; very frequently clusters of stuffed animals, bunnies and teddy bears and duckies; and sometimes items of clothing such as shirts or baseball caps, which gave the crosses a certain scarecrow-like quality. There was probably a good essay in this, Dustin thought.
Coming up to the exit, he saw the flashing of the police cars gathered together, their blue and red lights dappling in the mild spring rain. Some orange road cones had been set out, and a policeman in a reflector-striped raincoat stood there waving the cars past with a plastic Day-Glo baton.
Dustin slowed and turned down the radio and steered into the detour around the roadblock that the policeman indicated with an elegant sweep of his wand. There was a clutch of cops gathered at the edge of the bridge, grim and damp from drizzle and drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups, and Dustin observed them with interest. He enjoyed watching police-procedural dramas on television, and he had loved it, back in the day, when he would sometimes be called to testify as a court-approved expert. Remembering this gave him a wistful twinge.
He guessed that whatever was going on must be fairly serious.
There was a famous photo of Dustin and Kate and Wave—the picture that had been in the newspapers, which had been nominated for the Pulitzer; it didn’t win but it was recognizable. A remarkable and memorable crime photo.
Here were the children—the beautiful blond twins, and the skinny freckled boy between them—and the police are leading them, hurrying them from the house. In the photo, Wave is weeping openly, her mouth contorted, screaming maybe, and Kate is looking off to the side, fearfully, as if someone is going to attack her, and Dustin is staring straight ahead and you can see that there is blood on the front of his shirt, a Jackson Pollock of blood, and he is stricken, glazed with camera-flash light, stumbling away from the crime scene, and there behind the children and the police is the body of Dustin’s mom, Colleen—you can see her corpse, perfectly framed in the background, her limbs thrown out in a posture that is clearly one of death, violent death, and a broad stain of blood beneath her.
& the imprint of her blood on Dustin’s T-shirt where he had held her, his mom, for a moment when he found her body on the front stoop beneath the porch light.
The other bodies—not in the photograph—are Dustin’s father, Dave, who is in the living room with a gunshot wound to his chest, and his aunt Vicki, who is dead beneath the kitchen table, where she tried to hide from the gunman, and his uncle Lucky by the sink, the corpse slumped against the bottom cabinets, his head thrown back, arms open as if falling backward. Shot in the mouth.
These bodies weren’t the kind that you could show in the newspaper, but the picture of the three children was just enough to convey a vivid sense of massacre—
By the time Dustin reached his office, the news of the discovery had already begun to circulate. Most people assumed—correctly, as it would later turn out—that the body was that of Peter Allingham, a college sophomore and lacrosse player who had gone missing in the wee hours of November 1, after an evening of barhopping and Halloween parties, dressed in a cartoonish, racially insensitive Native American costume: feathers, buckskin, et cetera. Seen by large numbers of people and then gone—very improbably vanishing, people said, on his way to the bathroom at the Daily Tavern, and he never came back to join his friends.
Aqil Ozorowski was sitting in the waiting room of Dustin’s office, wearing earbud headphones and gazing at his smartphone, texting vigorously. His dark, shaggy hair hung down like blinders on either side of his eyes, and Dustin stood there in the doorway with his briefcase, waiting to be noticed. He felt a bit nonplussed. They didn’t have an appointment, but Aqil had the habit of simply appearing.
He was an odd case. He had ostensibly come to Dustin for smoking cessation hypnotherapy, but his susceptibility to hypnosis was very low. Instead, their sessions had devolved into loose, vaguely intimate discussions, with no clear goal in mind. They’d talk about some conspiracy theory that Aqil had read about on the Internet, or they’d talk about Aqil’s insomnia or about his resentful feelings toward the pop star Kanye West—but after the first few appointments they had all but ceased to mention smoking. “I just don’t think I’m ready yet,” Aqil said. “But I do think you’re helping me, Doctor. You’re a good listener.”
Actually, Dustin wasn’t sure that was true. In fact, he had learned very little about Aqil in the months that they’d been meeting. Aqil was about thirty years old, Dustin guessed, and based on his name Dustin thought he might be biracial, but he wasn’t sure. Aqil had dark, deer-like brown eyes, and his long straight hair was either black or a dark auburn, depending on the light. His complexion could indicate any number of races. He gave no indication of his family background, even when Dustin asked direct questions. “Honestly,” Aqil said, “I’m not really interested in that stuff. These shrinks always want you to tell stories about your childhood and your past, like that’s supposed to explain something. I don’t really do that.”
The one thing that Dustin did know was that Aqil had been a policeman and that he was now on medical leave from the Cleveland Police Department, though that situation, too, had never been clearly explained. Some kind of psychological difficulty, Dustin assumed. PTSD?
Paranoia? There were no medical records that Dustin had been able to access, and even when he’d undertaken a surreptitious Google search it had yielded few results. Aqil was listed as a graduate of the Cleveland Police Academy. There was a grainy photo of him on his high school football team, where he’d been a running back. He had a defunct LinkedIn page. Whatever he’d done to get himself on psychological leave from the police department, it hadn’t made the news.
Still, there was apparently something he needed. He glanced up at last and gave Dustin a grin. He politely pulled the plastic cowrie shell of earbud from his ear, as if Dustin’s waiting room were his own private space and he was surprised to be interrupted.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Dustin said. “I didn’t realize we had an . . .” and Aqil blinked a couple of times.
“Did you hear the news about the dead kid?” Aqil said. Dustin turned on the light and set his briefcase on a chair and Aqil stood up and stretched.
“. . . appointment?” Dustin said.
“Do you want to hear my theory?” Aqil said.
Reading Group Guide
A Reader’s Guide
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN LYNDA BARRY AND DAN CHAON
Lynda Barry is a cartoonist and writer, currently an associate professor in interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her many books include The Freddie Stories, Cruddy, What It Is, and Syllabus. Chaon and Barry sat down for a conversation at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in San Diego, where they were teaching a class together.
Lynda Barry: Can you talk about how this book showed up?
Dan Chaon: I can talk about it, but I think that’s one of those questions where writers are most inclined to lie. They really don’t know, but they always want to have an origin story.
LB: But I’m interested in the images that started to accumulate—can you tell me about the first images that you saw in your mind’s eye?
DC: The drowned boy in the opening paragraph was with me for a long time. It came from a story my brother-in-law told me about these tragedies that were happening on the campus where he was going to school back in the early 2000s. Guys would go out to a bar and they would disappear and then the next day or sometimes quite a while later their bodies would be discovered in a river. There was a particular story that he told me about a kid disappearing on Halloween, dressed as a Native American brave. That image stuck with me: this blond white kid dressed in this garb, in this costume, floating in a river in October-November, in Wisconsin. I didn’t really know what it meant, except I’d known for a long time I wanted to write a novel with a serial killer in it.
There were also a lot of images that were just from driving around Cleveland. I was obsessing over the decorations people put up around the sites of car accidents. Seeing these various little shrines that get erected. In Ohio and the Midwest, they can be very elaborate, and there’s something that strikes me as ritualistic and almost pagan about them. Often—because they are made with stuff that isn’t meant to be outside, like stuffed animals and ribbons, pieces of clothing, poster board—they have a very short life span before they start to look terribly weathered and ruined. That idea of ruin. It’s something I come back to a lot. I’m drawn to ruins and I’m fascinated by them; I don’t really know why.
LB: So who shows up first? The drowned boy shows up, but which of the main characters first shows up?
DC: Dustin. For sure. He and his patient Aqil were the first people in the book. That opening section was written maybe ten years ago. But I kept running into the problem of how to write an “investigation” of a “mystery.” I had this psychologist and his patient and they were discussing this case, and I had the list of victims and the possible clues, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I just thought, I’m not really that excited about doing a procedural. And then this other thing came to me. It was originally written as a separate piece—the stuff about the brother getting out of prison and the family murder. So these were two versions of Dustin. The family murder stuff, all those characters came together separately. The cousin calling him—she was originally a sister—the cousin calling him and telling him the story, the two sons, the wife who was a lawyer, the decision not to tell anybody about what had happened. All of that was part of this other book that I was also working on and that one felt more alive to me for a long time. But there was also something missing. And it wasn’t until the two things started to converge and I began to see the Dustin character and the psychologist character coming together into one person that the book started to feel like it was moving on its own.
LB: Talk about that.
DC: Well, it’s this shift—it’s hard to talk about without sounding mystical or crazy but it’s probably the same for people in mathematics or people who are thinking about a problem—the problem seems like it’s frozen, like there’s no momentum. Then suddenly you add a piece and everything starts to flow together and move and become alive.
LB: When the thing starts to move, it’s almost in the way a dream starts to move.
DC: Right. But it’s not like the dream comes unbidden. There is some kind of conjuring that happens. This dreaming-awake thing. You have to sort of call out for something, but you’re not exactly sure what you’re calling for.
LB: My understanding is that you were surprised as you wrote this. You didn’t have it all mapped out.
DC: I really like that method. Some people need to have an outline. I don’t. I want to be surprised along with the characters, and I want the characters to develop organically, without any expectation of what they’ll do or how things will turn out. So I’m relying heavily on the subconscious, or the dream-state, or whatever you want to call it.
At the same time, I had a structure from early on. I knew that I wanted the book to have multiple sections from each of the character’s main point of view and that each section would comment on or call out to the other sections. And I knew I had these two mysteries that needed to be solved in some way, so that gave me a framework as well.
LB: There’s the mystery, there is the serial-killer thing you said you wanted to do, and there is another something, too—the horror and the supernatural stuff.
DC: I think that was the thing that made the book really come alive for me. When I recognized that the book was haunted, that the mood palette was dread and horror in various forms, then I could go forward. I knew what kind of music was playing.
I realized that it was connected to the feelings I had in the years following my wife’s death: that sense of being in a dream or nightmare, that sense of the world as hostile and unknowable. I knew that I needed to plunge into that state of mind and let it pull me along and see where it took me. As a writer, I do that a lot—I grab the thing that’s the most emotionally raw—because it feels like it’s a way to tame it somehow or take care of it. Take care of it is the best term. Because it’s never tamed.
LB: Maybe learn to travel together.
LB: Because it’s your equal. It’s as big as you are.
DC: Or bigger. That was the feeling that I had with the mood of this book, this ill will, that it was bigger than me and it could easily swallow me. And I guess that’s where all the drowning comes from.
LB: I’m thinking of Aqil. You say that he and Dustin show up together. I wonder how much you knew about him.
DC: Nothing to start out. In the original version Dustin was a psychology professor and Aqil was his student. And Aqil was this fictional version of a kid I really liked working with back in the early 2000s. He was one of those students I talked to a lot; he came to my office and just hung out, so it was easy to plug him in as a placeholder. And then over time he slowly vanished and Aqil became someone else.
LB: Talk about that thing you said, you just “plugged him in . . .”
DC: When I’m creating characters, you know—you start with this sort of empty doll that you’re playing with and for me it’s often useful to give the role of this character to someone that you know. It’s something I do in the early stages of writing. Like, this character of the cousin will be played by my sister Sheri, and it helps me bring them to life. But by the end there is not much connection between the real person and the character. I just need to get that heartbeat or that living core to bring the puppet to life. For people who do acting, that’s probably a familiar method, to start with someone that you know or some emotion that you know and extrapolate from that.
LB: For some reason, I want to talk to you about your college experience. Because you’re writing about young men. You went to Northwestern. Did you picture that at all?
DC: No. I was trying to place it in Ohio. But I think you are right to sort of call out my own college experience just because I was in a fraternity and I did do a lot of partying, so I’m familiar with that kind of young male stupidity. I was definitely aware that there was often something about the deaths of these young men that was treated unsympathetically. I’d read these news articles about these kids who drowned, and in the comments section there was always this kind of malevolent hilarity and delight that seemed to fit with that sense of ill will. There’s a line that comes up in the book that is a direct quote from the comments section of one of the news articles: “If there’s a serial killer, the serial killer’s name is Darwin.”
There’s something people find funny about “stupid deaths.” We find them cartoonish, slapstick. But the humor requires a certain reduction of a person—an obituary is a kind of thumbnail or caricature that allows us to pass moral judgment: A good life. A bad life.
A tragic death. A deserved death.
Maybe the stories we tell about ourselves—and even our memories—are similar. There’s this thought that Wave has that is a good summary of the book, in a way: “Most people seemed to believe that they were experts of their own life story. They had a set of memories that they strung like beads, and this necklace told a sensible tale. But she suspected that most of these stories would fall apart under strict examination—that, in fact, we were only peeping through a keyhole. . . . Was it possible that we would never really know? What if we were not, actually, the curators of our own lives?”
And yet there’s a kind of eager glee in the way we like to put things together into neat categories. That’s one of the things that I find most striking about the way we consume news stories, especially “human interest” or “crime” stories. You read the comments on those kinds of stories, and you can feel the deep pleasure we take in nailing someone into a box.
LB: I think of Aqil reading those comments. How giddy it would make him. You know?
DC: I do.
LB: It’s easy for me to imagine him at large in the world.
DC: Especially now.
LB: When I’m reading a really good book, and it’s really strong, it does flavor everything I’m looking at, like you said, like a soundtrack. When the book you’re writing is really happening for you, what does the world look like to you?
DC: Once you are really going, that music is always playing. You’re going to listen to this song over and over and over like you did when you were fifteen! (laughs)
LB: You played it until it was gray.
DC: Right. It was a presence all the time. One of the interesting things about writing a novel is it’s this huge black hole that sucks everything into it. Every time I was driving there would be a little detail that would get tucked in there, any anecdote someone told me, anything that I thought was funny, everything got pulled in and transformed by the music of the book into a totem of ill will. Like, for example, there really was a kid skateboarding outside of my house. It was on a nice summer night and it was a kind of charming thing, hearing the sound of that skateboard, seeing a kid enjoying his vacation. And then suddenly the skateboarder turned up in January in Cleveland, skateboarding outside of Dustin’s house, and suddenly it’s super sinister and unnerving.
LB: That’s one of the things I like very much. The supernatural or the horror aspect of the book—for the reader, it’s a choice. You can see the book as being that way or not. The book reads just fine either way. Do you remember where you got jammed when you were writing?
DC: I got jammed after writing the first section. Figuring out the time line and how to move forward. For some reason—I guess because it seemed logical—I believed that the next section should be Dustin and Aqil investigating these drowning deaths. It wasn’t until I decided to switch to Aaron’s perspective and Aaron’s voice that things started moving again. I needed to jump past the point where Dustin and Aqil were beginning their investigating and look at it from an outside perspective rather than from inside Dustin’s head. That was the defibrillator the book required. And in the end, for me, Aaron became the heart and soul of the book. I never would have guessed that at first.
LB: I guess that’s how I do it, too. Building sections of the book and putting them next to each other to see if this natural knitting, like bones knitting, to see if that starts to happen.
DC: The stuff you do with collage was very much an inspiration—like the stuff in What It Is, for example.
LB: How so?
DC: As we’ve been hanging out together and teaching together I’ve been thinking a lot about how collage works and how important it is to my thinking about fiction. The way it can unlock certain kinds of problems because it’s based on association, rather than linear logic. So you lay something next to something else and it has sort of a vibration.
LB: It reacts. It has magnetic pull. Pull or push or nothing. It reminds me of how the tarot works.
DC: Also the idea of comics—I was trying to get at some of the things comics can do. I think some of the collage-y aspects and even some of the weird typographical stuff in Ill Will is influenced by wanting to steal some of the narrative tricks of comics. By laying one panel next to the other and there’s that gap that the reader has to leap over to get to the next panel and I thought of that. I was really after the things that that gap can do.
LB: And you know what’s really badass about that gap? In the moment it takes your eye to move from one panel to the next, there’s already an assessment of how much time has passed between the first panel and the next one. Like if Charlie Brown is just lifting his hand in the next panel you know it’s just a fraction of a second that has passed. If he’s already in the distance you know it’s more. Or if in the next panel he’s old. So what’s amazing about the gap is the automatic calibration of time lapsed as you cross it. I love the many spaces between the frames in Ill Will.
DC: It also depends on the reader. Some readers really like that and some don’t. But I really like it.
LB: I like it because it made me feel like I was going a little crazy. Like I could hear all of it at once. You know when it breaks down into those smaller and smaller streams?
DC: That was one of my favorite aspects of the book.
LB: Did you get excited when you were writing that part?
DC: Oh, man. I was so excited. It was that feeling of where you just have butterflies in your stomach? And it’s like you can feel these pieces kind of coming together, sort of floating and moving in three dimension, side by side, and that feeling—it was like going on a roller coaster for me.
LB: It’s interesting because it is a physical sensation. And how wild it is that just writing these sentences can create that in somebody.
DC: Also the moment you somersault over one of the gaps and you’re in a different part of the story and something just completely surprises you. I couldn’t believe when I got to the Rusty section, and landed in Rusty’s voice, and it just kind of jumped into me, I couldn’t believe how much he was alive—I could have written from that guy’s perspective for a whole book. I was so taken with him. And I didn’t expect that. Through most of the book he’s a really bad guy and I wasn’t very attached to him. And then suddenly I was and that was so strange.
LB: It’s when he comes into the present tense. The now. So much of what we know about him—I mean some of it we witness directly but it’s mostly what people say.
LB: And then there’s that part about the arson—
DC: (laughs) Well, I didn’t say he was an angel. I just said I like him.
LB: People talk about setting like it’s something you decide on before you start putting things together. I mean you go and pick it out. Like, “This book shall be set in England in the eighteenth century.”
DC: I think for me what comes first is that music we were talking about. And for me there are certain landscapes that have that kind of music. I’m talking about the music of ruin. The music of gray and melancholy. Certainly Nebraska in the 1970s, which I know very well because I grew up there, and Cleveland, the place I live, they felt like they were in tune with that music in a nice way for me.
LB: Sometimes you’d go out scouting, wouldn’t you?
DC: Yeah. I went scouting for that section that takes place in Painesville and I went there and I walked the banks of the Grand River and followed the paths that Aqil and Dustin did. The House of Wills was already on my mind because I pass by it on my way to work. It’s just this old abandoned funeral home on East Fifty-fifth in Cleveland that I became really fascinated by and invented a crazy backstory for it.
LB: East Fifty-fifth is a street of ruin.
DC: There is this other building on that street that has a sign out front that says fresh start and it’s like this cement-block building and all the windows are broken out. (laughs) And there are also these old and beautiful churches and mansions from the late nineteenth century that are still standing on that block alongside the strip malls and the DMV. That little stretch on Fifty-fifth between Carnegie and Woodland, there’s a lot going on there.
LB: What else gave you butterflies?
DC: Aaron. Aaron and Rabbit. And Rabbit’s mother. That completely came out of nowhere. When that scene between Aaron and Rabbit’s mother happened, that was when I knew that the book was its own thing and I wasn’t driving the bus anymore. You asked about being stuck, but there is also this point where you realize that the book is so not stuck, that there is no way to stop it. One time my wife and I were walking on the beach and some guy came spinning by in a little dune buggy and we stepped aside and we were like “What the hell?” and as he passed us he turned and yelled, “I can’t stop!” and he just kept racing down the beach. I never did find out what happened to him. (laughs) That was what happened to the book.
LB: And I don’t know what that is, but for me it’s the reason to write.
DC: Yes. It’s the only reason.
LB: You know what it’s like? It’s like when the ocean lifts you. You’re standing in the ocean and you don’t think much is going on and then it lifts you off your feet and puts you back down.
DC: I think there are equivalencies in all the arts. There is that kind of lifting that comes from singing or playing, or the lifting that comes from drawing or the lifting that comes from dancing and from acting. I feel like I’ve been really drawn to acting as a metaphor. There’s that moment when you’re not pretending to be them, you are them.
LB: You have to be them. I know that when I’m drawing a person in any kind of distress my body and my face have to go into it, I have to feel it and make that face.
DC: Like a grimace.
LB: Yeah. I also have to do the pre-grimace.
DC: I want to try that.
LB: I find most questions you find in interviews with authors tiresome. Like “What are you working on next?” I don’t think answering that is going to give me a lot of information about you or this book. So what do you think people could talk about in these author interviews?
DC: To me the most interesting is usually about the things that you discovered, what you had questions about and what you were left with. This is a book with a lot of questions for the reader to—(breaks off laughing)
LB: What was a question you had at the beginning of the book that you didn’t have at the end?
DC: (long pause) Whether Dustin would survive. (another long pause) The questions that I was circling were interesting to me because there was no answer and so the book allowed me to kind of run a ring around those things and to look at them from a bunch of different angles and to drop closer and then draw farther away from them. And those things include: what memory is, whether we can ever really see ourselves the way that we exist in the world, and the nature of deception and self-deception. Those were ideas I was
really interested in and I think the book does an entire tour of them, but they aren’t something with an answer, right? It’s like you’re touring Ohio and someone says “So what’s the answer?” There is no answer. But you learned a lot about Ohio.
LB: The story seems like a very long, slow suicide.
DC: Yeah. Maybe. We were talking about Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays a while back, and that’s there a bit in Dustin. There is also Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which is a long, slow suicide in some ways. The character of Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House definitely is in there. Dustin is very much a Shirley Jackson character.
LB: Did you miss the book when you were done?
LB: Did it just sail off? Like, no goodbye party, just gone?
DC: There were some characters I would have liked to have spent a little more time with. Rusty comes to mind. Wave to some extent. Xavious Reinbolt. I would love to know what he’s up to right now. Although I kind of know. (laughs)
LB: Can you describe your writing area? That’s something I’m always interested in.
DC: I live in Cleveland Heights on a curvy street lined with three-story houses from the early 1900s. I have a study on the third floor and at a certain point in the book I stopped cleaning. There was a really nasty shag carpet, and piles of books and papers and it became increasingly like a hermit hoarder’s hideaway place. And then when the book finished, I hired someone to come strip it down and now it’s extremely Spartan. Or pretty Spartan. That was when I knew the book was really over.
LB: All the smoke from all the cigarettes you smoked while you were writing that particular book got peeled off.
DC: Rolled up. Taken away. The end of a book is not like a funeral. It’s like your kid graduating from high school. It’s a beginning of something that you’re not going to be part of that much anymore, but it’s not like the book died. I think there are times when a book dies but this wasn’t one of them. It just graduated.
LB: I haven’t had a lot of experience writing novels, but with the two that I did write, I was really surprised by the complete vanishing of the characters once I had figured out the last sentence. I mean, I had to go back and edit but it was gone. It was gone at the speed of something falling from a building or shooting into space and I never saw the characters again. Not in that way. It’s not that it’s sad necessarily. It just shocked me. It shocked me so much I tried to write another book so I could see them again.
DC: I actually do it with pieces of language or with images, so that an image from the last book is usually moved into the next book. Like Await Your Reply and Stay Awake both have the same quote from Thomas Carlisle.
LB: I got to see you read from this book, and I was struck by how many characters there really were and how you had a voice for all of them.
DC: I guess we’re going back to that thing about discovery. In some ways, I was really exploring and thinking about this idea that we contain multitudes. We have an executive function who thinks they’re in the cockpit, but who is really in charge? I think there are multiple voices because there are multiple spirits talking at once in this book. And they may be all contained within the same person but they are not all necessarily aware of one another. Or they are all acting independently. Like, for example, you’re aware of the spirit—that part of your mind—that can’t stop playing that damn song in your head. You don’t want that song to be playing but some part of you has control of the record player.
LB: Somebody’s insisting. (pause) You know there is a way that people talk about books, where they talk about symbols, like, say there’s an owl with a broken wing and someone says, oh, that’s a symbol for not being able to get an erection. (laughs) I always hated thinking of books that way.
DC: Yeah. I hate that, too.
LB: But I can tell you that this book calls to mind so many images from early Christianity when the devil was a lot more hairy and around. Dustin goes to him willingly in this weird way. But it’s not that this is a symbol for the devil. It’s that the devil is a symbol for this.
DC: I know nothing about early Christianity.
LB: It’s not early Christianity. So many religions are about this. Shakespeare is about this. The character of Iago. The more I think about Aqil in this book—and I’ve read it three or four times, four times when I put it all together—the more I think about him, the more formidable he becomes.
DC: I certainly didn’t know that he had that kind of power until I got to the end. Not until the moment when he kisses Dustin’s hand. And that was when he really just lifted his head and winked at me for a minute.
LB: Because it was real.
LB: That’s just what Aqil says when he does it, right? He says now he knows it’s real.
1. Who killed Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle? What is the most plausible answer? What is the most emotionally true answer?
2. What is the purpose of the typographic eccentricities in the book—the gaps, the columns, the missing punctuation, etc.? How did you go about maneuvering through these elements?
3. Which of the characters has the greatest self-awareness? Who is most trustworthy? Which of these traits makes a character more likeable?
4. At one point, Jill tells Dustin, “Poor people pass down damage the way rich people pass down an inheritance.” To what extent does social class play a role in this novel? Do you think what Jill says is true?
5. The term “motivation” is often used as a way to frame characters in a novel. What motivates these characters? What does the concept of “motive” mean?
6. Dennis assumes that Dustin has committed suicide at the end. Do you think so? Is Dustin, as Wave tells Aaron, “the bad guy” of the story?
7. The book’s epigraph is from the French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine: “We often meet our destiny on the road we take to avoid it.” Could the characters in this book have avoided their destinies, or were they doomed from the outset? If you compare Dustin, Rusty, and Aaron, who had the best chance to avoid his fate? Could any of them have escaped?
8. One of the mantras Dustin tells his patients is: “Sometimes a dead bird is just a dead bird.” What does he mean? When is a dead bird not just a dead bird?
9. When Rusty is in prison, a psychologist tells him that he has a virus. “And the virus will demand that you pass it on to someone else. You don’t even have that much of a choice.” Do you think this is true? If so, what kind of “virus” is it, exactly?
10. Why do you think Aqil does what he does? Is he a predator? An opportunist? Does he target Dustin from the start, or is it an idea that comes to him gradually as he gets to know Dustin? If Aqil is evil, what is the nature of his evil?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Couldn't put it down but ended up sad and depressed at the ending. Left with nothing redeeming about any of the characters and no understanding of what was real and what was imagined. Very disappointing.
I tried to like this book, I really tried. I read it entirely, but it just felt like a waste of time. It had potential but that seemed to get lost in the second half of the book.
Couldn't put it down. It's like a nightmare
Disclaimer: This ARC copy was sent to me by the publisher, Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine, via NetGalley for an honest review. WHEW! What a whirlwind that story was! After becoming introduced to The Girl on the Train, I have been in a frenzy trying to find similar books. I came across Ill Will on Netgalley and HAD to give it a go. Let me tell you readers, I have so many STRONG and INSANE emotions rushing through me right now…I barely know where to start! This book is like a bad mushroom trip that feels WAY too real. Thirty years ago, Dustin and his cousins woke up to find their parents brutally murdered in their home. Already flushed with loss at a young age, a life sentence is handed down on Dustin’s adopted brother Rusty who is blamed for the crimes. Now years later with children of his own, Dustin works as a psychologist in Cleveland. Soon a call from Dustin’s cousin brings panic into his life, as he is told that Rusty’s sentence has been thrown out and he is being released. Now Dustin begins to reflect back on the night that changed his life forever, and whether he and his cousins were right about testifying against Rusty and blaming him for the murders. All the while, a staggering number of male college students being found dead is making headlines. Though the police call the strange occurrences “accidental drownings”, Dustin’s new patient feels otherwise and suspects foul play. Could there be a link to this madness, or is Dustin slowly falling down a rabbit hole? This is a truly interesting and dark story. There are tons of misleading twists and shocking occurrences, and the characters are truly gritty. Dustin is our main character and the reader follows him as he relives moments from his past, while also dealing with his present. One day Dustin gets a call from his cousin who tells him that Rusty, his adopted brother and the person who took the fall for the murders, is being released from prison. He is told that new DNA results were discovered which proves that Rusty couldn’t have murdered his new family. This brings a panic into Dustin’s life because now he is unsure if Rusty was the culprit of the crime, or if he was just blamed because of the things he had done in his past. As Dustin reflects on his past growing up with Rusty, I was…how should I say this…COMPLETELY f***ing disturbed. There is some SERIOUSLY dark and grimy things that go on between these boys. Rusty can be described as a tough and hardheaded boy at an early age, and grows into a metal loving hooligan that likes talking about satanic rituals and even goes as far as sacrificing small rabbits. Dustin is a young an impressionable boy, and sees Rusty as his knight in shining armor. He proves to be a more than gullible child, and will allow his mind to be overturned by suggestions and hints by his older cousins and Rusty. In each flashback that these characters take the reader in, we are given glimpses of each characters flaws as a child and reasons why they could or couldn’t have been the ones to murder their family. To see the full review, go to my website: Jenacidebybibliophile.wordpress.com
This is the first book I've read by Dan Chaon so was not familiar with his writing style. I didn't like all the going back and forth in time. It was quite confusing at times for me. But I was curious enough to keep on reading. I wanted to know what the truth was from what happened in the past. It also lead to what was happening in the now. Lots of dysfunctional relationships between sisters, cousins, and a foster brother. I would have rated this 3 and 1/2 stars.
Multiple mysteries nestle one within another in this thriller that spans decades. Our protagonist is or isn't unreliable but his wife has recently died leaving him two teenage sons he is barely able to parent. Her death has thrown him off kilter and then he learns that his adopted brother, in prison for their parents' brutal murder, has been released, found innocent through DNA testing. The author uses unusual writing styles to ratchet up the tension and mystery. The ending is a shocker. I received my copy from the publisher through NetGalley.
Ill Will by Dan Chaon is a challenging yet excellent novel. It is a literary mystery in the best sense of the term. This book explores numerous issues like repressed memory, family ties and animosities, as well as daily activities that can become difficult during times of stress. There is no hero in this thought provoking book. It is a book that takes you into the lives of a family who has experienced violent death and destruction perhaps at the hands of one of their own. That is a question that remains unsolved until the last pages. But is it really revealed? I could not say with certainty who was the killer and who was framed. There is a lot going on in this well-crafted novel. I suggest that you sit down and read Ill WILL. But when you do, remember that this is not your typical mystery. It is a multi-layered expedition into the hearts and minds of people that may remind you of yourself.
I received a free electronic copy of this novel from Netgalley, Dan Chaon, and Random House Publishing Group - Ballentine in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all, for sharing your hard work with me. This is a novel of the life of Dustin Tillman, beginning with the death of his parents and Aunt and Uncle when he is 13 in June of 1983, seeing him through his relationships with others - his adopted brother, the cousins who shared their parental loss with him, his wife, his children, the patients he tries to help in his practice as as a therapist. It is a strange and solitary and chaotic journey. There are times you want to snatch him up and set him straight, but for the most part you rather pity him his lack of true connection to other lives. But when he decides to break out of his shell, watch out! He and his patient and perhaps friend Aqil Ozorowski begin a journey that can only end in disaster.
I received this book in exchange for a fair review from NetGalley. I really wanted to like this book, because the blurb intrigued me. The beginning was confusing, because it jumped back and forth in time, but it pulled me in. The more I read, the more strange it got, by the time I got a third into I started to get annoyed. Too many different plots competing against each other, then the pages started to split showing two different sections of a chapter on the same page. This happened a few more times further on also. The way this set up, you couldn't tell what section belong with which. That would go on for two or three pages, then back to normal pages. I started to get annoyed with the characters, I don't think there was a likable or bright one in the bunch. The one character right from the start said "serial killer" to me, too many things about him stood out. Most of the characters, either young or old, in present time or past were too stoned to know what was going on. I totally agreed when one of the sons asked his father, how far up his butt his head was, that he couldn't see what was going on. I finally skipped to the end to see how it resolved, but even that was a confusing mess. Sorry, even without the page problems and an intriguing blurb, this was not a book I would even try again once the page problem was fixed.
Do you like dark and gritty suspense novels that threaten to make even the strongest of constitutions a little faint? How would you feel if satanic cults were blamed to be involved as one disturbed ward of the system is witnessed killing his foster parents? What if the witnesses were young teens, traumatized and unsure of what they witnessed? Were they having a mass episode of hysteria? Were they truly watching a satanic ritual in progress or were they so confused, they were unable to differentiate fact from fiction? Feel something vile crawling under your skin, feel morbid curiosity and dread fear that this could really happen in a society as lost and unstable as ours can be. Dan Chaon will take us into a world beyond our control, beyond our comfort zones and into the world of ILL WILL where the villain is actually a victim himself and may truly NOT be the villain after all. As this tale is told, oen man will relive the times he remembers as a horror, after he hears his foster brother will be released from his life sentence, because guess what, he didn’t do the crime. So who did? Will Dustin’s brother Rusty seek revenge? As Dustin gets roped into another cold case by one of his patients, he finds himself tumbling headlong into the dark abyss of murder, mystery and strange tie-ins to his brother’s case. A Psychologist be trade, has Dustin’s own fear of his brother’s return set him on a path of discovery that will reveal more than he bargained for? Very dark, with a heavy and ominous feel, this chaotic read will send you into a twisted world where fact and fiction become stuck in a murky quagmire that threatens to never let you go. I received an ARC edition from Ballantine Books in exchange for my honest review.
The lives of Dustin and his cousins were changed forever by the horrific murder of their parents thirty years ago. Even after they are grown adults and have gone their separate ways, Dustin and his cousins never forget the brutal incident. However, each one of them remembers it in very different ways. Now, Dustin’s brother, Rusty, is being released after 30 years in prison. He had been accused of the murder of his own parents and of his aunt and uncle. Somehow, evidence came up that showed that Rusty had not committed the murders after all. Just as this is happening, a psychiatric patient of Dusty’s convinces him that the drowning deaths of several young men are, in reality, linked, ritualistic murders. Once convinced of this, Dusty becomes obsessed with the idea, neglecting all else. He and this patient begin investigating these murders. This story is a psychological thriller in its truest sense, because so much of the interpretation and, consequently, the telling of the plot takes place in the minds of the characters. Even the ‘fuzziness’ of memory is depicted in the way the writer wrote some parts. Sadly, this story was so overly long that it dragged in spots. When I finally arrived at the end, my questions were not fully answered. The author left, in my opinion, too much of the interpretation of what actually happened, to the reader. Thank you to netgalley for the free copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased opinion.
I'm not sure how to review this book. There were sometimes when this book was down to earth and readable. Then there were times when it was out there and it was like reading psycho babble from someone who was on some really heavy drugs. Of course, one of the characters was really eff'd up, so I guess during those times, we were seeing the world from Aaron's eyes. I've never done H, but he was talking like he was doing acid or something. Anyways, for the most part, I did enjoy this book. It was crazy at times. The ending was really ccccccrrrrrrazy. I definitely did not see it coming. I still have some questions about some of it. Like why was Aaron's car in Chicago? I guess I will never get an answer to that question. Believe me, this was an out there book. It definitely held my interest while I was trying to figure out exactly what was going on. For the most part, I didn't start to question things until towards the very end. Then it started getting really weird. I mean it was weird throughout the whole book. Three teenagers (two twin sisters and their boy cousin) whose four parents were shot to death in the house while they slept in the camper/RV while they slept right next door. The girls 17 and the boy 13. That sounds morbid, but I'm not telling you about the kids. (Hiding the spoilers) I'm just going to say that I didn't put this book once I got into it. It was a strange one, however I was mesmerized, entertained, shocked, curious, and like a trainwreck - I could not turn away. Thanks Random House - Ballantine for approving my request and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.
Ill Will by Dan Chaon is a highly recommended psychological thriller that contains murder, drug addiction, and satanic ritual abuse. In June of 1983 the parents of Dustin Tillman, 13, and his cousins Kate and Wave were murdered. At the time his adopted brother, Rusty, was convicted of the crime. Now Rusty is being released from prison as DNA evidence now proves he was innocent. Dustin testified about his memories of witnessing a satanic cult ritual at Rusty's trial which helped convict him. Now Dustin is in his 40s and a psychologist in Cleveland who uses hypnotherapy. He is still recovering from his wife's death from cancer. His oldest son is off at college, but the youngest son, 18-year-old Aaron, is quickly acquiring an addiction to heroin and has been secretly talking to Rusty and learning about his dad's past. At the same time a patient of Dustin who is a former police officer is telling him about the series of drowning deaths of drunken male college students that seems to point to a serial killer on the loose. Dustin is someone who is easily persuaded and influenced by others, although the extent of this isn't clear at first. The story is told through several characters, flashbacks, and in multiple timelines, as well as following two different story lines. At one point Aaron's narrative is even shared through a split two-column page and in first-, second-, and third-person points of view, which works surprisingly well in this story where disconnection is a theme. Charon has created a disturbing thriller with Ill Will and presents its many complexities in surprisingly straightforward eloquent prose. There is more going on, in the past and present, than is evident at first. The characters are complicated and unreliable. There is a sense of foreboding and doom that looms over the novel while you are reading. Because of the multiple points-of-view and timelines, you won't have any answers to nagging questions right away and some questions will never be answered. My only complaint about Ill Will is that it seemed to drag a bit in the middle, making it feel overly long. If the narrative is compelling enough that it commands my complete attention I normally don't notice the length, which makes me think that there could have been a bit of tightening of the plot in the middle to keep the sense of foreboding at the fore-front of your mind rather than allowing the "this seems a bit long" thought to enter. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Random House Publishing Group.
If you enjoy strange stories about weird and unlikeable people, told in a jerky and changing format style, this book is for you. You will finish it with a sense of achievement.