Four critically acclaimed novels...A master of the Midwestern gothic... If you haven't discovered Susan Taylor Chehak: Welcome to Rampage
Madlen Cramer has come back home with her two young children to be reunited with her childhood friend Rafe, the sexy drifter who has abducted a four-year-old girl from an abusive foster family, leaving the parents for dead.
Once again Chehak has mined her Midwestern roots and produced a highly charged novel where the questions of the present and the past are inextricably bound up with the secrets of the past. In this novel, Chehak sets her story in a small town called Rampage, and as its name implies, it is a place where much violence converges on those whose lives are bound up in its dark history. As the novel begins, Madlen Cramer has come back home with her two young children to be reunited there with her childhood friend Rafe, the sexy drifter who has abducted a four-year-old girl from an abusive foster family, leaving the parents for dead. During this hot Iowa summer, the past will refuse to stay past as painful truths begin to emerge: about Rafe's own foster family; about Madlen's marriage, whose bonds had begun to unravel in the months before her husband's tragic accident; and about her beautiful self-absorbed mother, whose passions bring about the devastating entanglement of two families in an embrace that cannot be undone until Rafe has gone on the rampage that will destroy everything in sight and leave readers breathless.
A master of the Midwestern gothic, Susan Taylor Chehak is that rare writer who brings the closely observed detail to a level of storytelling that has earned her both an Edgar nomination and the praise of critics nationwide. Rampage is for people who understand, on every level, that you really can't go home again.
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About the Author
Susan's other ongoing projects include All The Lost Girls, a website devoted to exploring the lost girl archetype and the grip her story continues to have on our cultural imagination and In Hollow Hill, where she documents evidence for the existence of goblins in the 60 acres of undeveloped woodland at the edge of Nowhere, in Linwood, Iowa.
Susan is also the driving force behind Foreverland Press, an e-book publisher (at www.foreverlandpress.com) devoted to bringing back the backlists of fine writers who might have otherwise been overlooked. Other of her online projects include WhatHappenedToPaula.com, a collaborative web-based investigation into the as yet unsolved murder of a former schoolmate; TheTruthAboutPaulaO.com, a blogged memoir of her ongoing 12-year investigation into the Paula Oberbroeckling murder case; and The Foreverland Chronicles at www.foreverland4ever.com, where she has been working to create detailed narrative record of Foreverland and its denizens.
Susan has taught fiction writing in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, the University of Southern California, and the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. She grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, spent many years in Los Angeles, lives occasionally in Toronto, and at present calls Colorado her home.
Read an Excerpt
To get from the airport in Linwood to the Riverhouse in Rampage, you have to skirt the larger city, drive past the car lots and the strip malls on the northeast side of town, into the black fields along Highway 16, east toward Chicago, until you hit the four-way stop signs at Highway 10. There you turn north and keep on going, up and down the small hills and across the rolling creeks until you come to the unmarked county road near the little gated Rampage cemetery, where you take a right, heading east again now, and at the fork just past the sign that points to a sandy area of the river known as Sugar Bottom, you hold to the left. In a while you will be crossing over the old iron bridge at the Rampage River, and by then the town of Rampage itself will begin to be in sight.
Madlen knew the way without having to think about it--along that winding asphalt road toward what she still, in spite of how many years she'd lived elsewhere, called and thought of as home.
"The river, the river, the roaring Rampage River. If you can't sing a rhyme and sing it on time, we'll throw you in the river."
It was hard to tune in to any good radio stations so far outside of Linwood, and in the silence of the rented car the old half-forgotten chorus that she and Haven and Rafe used to sing was rattling insistently in her head.
"Old King Cole was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was he. He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl and he threw them in the river."
Glen, in the front seat next to his mother, looked at her, startled, when she began to sing the song out loud, softly. Claire, in the back, frowned and squeezed her eyes shut as if thesound of Madlen's voice pained her, then turned and gazed out the window, with the book that she'd been reading closed in her lap, one gnawed finger tucked in to keep her place, her gaze distant, attention lost, her chin cupped in her hand.
"Do you remember the song, Claire?" Madlen asked, catching her daughter's eye in the rearview mirror. In places the highway ran right up alongside the river, but it flowed the other way, so they were traveling against the current, and it seemed to Madlen that she was having to struggle and fight to make her way back.
Claire turned and raised one eyebrow in her Pence-appropriated way. "I don't think so, Mom," she answered, her face infuriatingly placid, covering up the roil of her fear and expressing her disdain by way of her indifference, without either a smile or a sneer. And then she turned back to gazing out her window again, as if the passing flat fields and bowed fences and sun-splashed farmhouses and silos and barns might be together the most absorbing scenery she'd ever encountered in the world and she didn't want to miss a bit of it. Her sigh fogged the window glass for a moment, then it was gone.
"The river, the roaring Rampage River. If you can't sing a rhyme and sing it on time, we'll throw you in the river." Madlen was picturing Haven's hands grasping her legs at the ankles and Rafe with a hold on her wrists as together they swung her back and forth between them over the grass, while she laughed and screamed for them to stop.
She'd been driving so fast that the scenery was a blur, and when Glen shut his eyes it felt as if they'd maybe left the ground. With the radio off there was hardly any sound, only the engine's steady hum and a whistle of the wind that was blowing through the cracked-open window as they skimmed along the rolling road, over the flat black-topped surface on its long straight infinite-seeming line, sailing between the blurred fields--grass and hay and neatly rowed plantings of soybeans and corn.
Madlen slowed to bump up over the rugged hump of the railroad tracks, and then they were crossing the river on a black steel webwork bridge that arched up high between two stone-strewn banks. It was Glen who saw the sign first, white letters on black: RAMPAGE. POP. 1498.
Claire didn't think she'd ever been in anyplace so small.
Sunlight glared on the white concrete streets; heat was a shimmer on the surface of the road. Glen rolled his window down and leaned his head out into the hot wind, felt it ruffle his lank black hair. Shop windows along a brief block of stores reflected the sun's white light in the squares of their wavery glass. Outside one house a couple of old men were sitting heat-dazed in a pair of chairs, gazing at the road, and they turned their heads together to watch and consider as the Cramers' car crawled by.
When they drove past what looked like it might be a castle--blocks long, with high stone windowless walls, machicolated parapets, rounded turrets, and wind-furled flags--Glen craned to see.
"What is it?" Claire asked her mother.
"The reformatory," Madlen answered. Then shook her head and added, "Never mind."
The streets of the town were shady, quiet, lined with houses and sidewalks, tall trees, straight cement driveways split by rectangles of wild grass. Some bare-bottomed small children played in the high bright rainbow-sparked fan of a sprinkler's glittery spray, squealing, legs churning, hands waved up over their heads high. A man out mowing his lawn looked up and shaded his eyes to watch as the car cruised slowly by, through the town and out of it, and then they were on blacktop again.
There was Mrs. Frye's small white house, set up like a cake on a plate at the top of its rise of grassy lawn and shaded on one side by a huge, shaggy willow whose switches swept the ground. And there was Mrs. Frye, standing in her yard. The sheets were flapping on the line behind her. A jet plane arced across the sky.
Mrs. Frye lived alone, and she'd kept mostly to herself after her husband passed away--dead of a heart attack at forty-five--many years earlier. Unlike his wife, Mr. Frye went peacefully, in his sleep, sometime in the middle of the night, without a struggle, without even a cry, with the result that Mrs. Frye slept right through it. Later she spent some time trying to remember what her dreams had been that night. As well as wondering why she hadn't known what was happening to him until hours after it was over, when she woke, disoriented because it was already light outside the windows, full daylight, long into the morning, and he was still there in the bed beside her, he hadn't moved. In the twenty-five years of their marriage to each other, this would have been the first time that such a thing had happened; not even on the morning after their wedding night had Mr. Frye slept in past dawn. Because there was always work to be done and he'd be up and dressed and on his way outside to do it. It wasn't until she tried to rouse him, pulled on his shoulder and rolled him over onto his back, that she realized her husband was dead. He lay there next to her unmoving, his eyes open, jaw hanging, as if he'd looked at his own death coming for him in the dark and been amazed by what he'd seen. But the doctor explained to Mrs. Frye later that it was only a reflex she was seeing, a tightening of the man's stiffened muscles--Mr. Frye's eyes had opened and his jaw had dropped sometime after he was already dead and not at the instant before.
It had taken a moment for the understanding of what was wrong with her husband to sink in, and when it did Mrs. Frye panicked, reared away from him, struggled to free herself from the twisted sheets. She gasped for breath, horrified not only by the fact that he was dead but even more by the knowledge that he'd been dead for a while, while she was asleep, oblivious, beside him.
She was left childless and without much else to call her own either, only what little was left over of their meager savings after the funeral expenses, some personal possessions, clothes and furnishings, along with the seven hundred acres of farmland that had been the sole source of their modest livelihood. She wasn't able to work the land by herself, and so over the years she sold all of it off, parcel by parcel, until the only thing that she owned outright was her house, not even the land that it stood upon. After Mrs. Frye's death the place would go unclaimed--it would stay abandoned and neglected, sagging steadily groundward over time until one winter it would collapse altogether and have to be bulldozed away in the spring.
Right now the awnings on the upstairs windows made them look to Glen like a pair of hooded eyes, watching him. Their glass panes glared back the sunshine at him, flashing light at the moment that Madlen's rental car swept past.
The woods on both sides of the road thickened, dark with leaves and undergrowth closing in. Madlen turned off at the limestone pillar with its brass plaque that read THE RIVERHOUSE and stopped. She looked through the windshield down the long driveway at the house--its broad brick face, tile roof, and dormer windows--watching it, expecting . . . well, she wasn't sure what. She rolled her window down and listened, heard the chitter of squirrels, birdsong, wind stirring in the trees.
Madlen and Haven had moved away from Iowa when the children were small, and she had not been back to visit since then. Now it seemed as if nothing about this place where she'd grown up had much changed. Her father was in the yard. His figure was so familiar to her--from that distance she could imagine that Deem was still a young man. Except that standing at the top of the porch steps was his new wife, Ruth, with her arms wrapped around herself. She was watching their car where it was stopped at the top of the drive. She said something to Deem, and he turned and looked and saw them there. He raised his hand and, grinning, waved.
Claire was impatient. "Mom, what are you doing?" she asked, her voice rising. Their eyes met in the rearview mirror.
"We're here," Madlen answered, and let her foot up off the brake. After everything that had happened, there she was now, finally: home.
* * *
You can feel it when a storm is coming; even before they start to mention it on the radio or over the television news, you know inside yourself it's on its way. A storm is not a sudden thing. It doesn't blow up out of nowhere. It starts slow and then it builds. It grows into something larger than itself and then it begins to move toward you and it gets even bigger, gathering up its strength as it nears. This is some of its appeal.
The storm that killed Evelyn Frye that summer came into Rampage from the southwest, brushing the edges of the old quarry cliffs, swirling out across the river and then bringing itself up high, traveling fast, so that when it got to her house up on its rise of land just this side of the limestone bridge, it was as severe as it was ever going to get.
First there is a hollowed-out-seeming stillness, a silence that's started to seem like a sound by the time you notice it, an emptiness that hums and roars and makes your teeth ache in your head. By then the sky will have begun to darken. It will close itself down over the land like an upturned bowl, glower bluish and yellowish, then start seeping purple and green. It's best to crack your windows to it, everybody knows this, it's the advice they always give you on the news, between the watches and the warnings. That's supposed to keep the whole house from exploding out against the low pressure that's been brought on by the full-blown blast of the wind.
Evelyn Frye knew this. She'd lived in Rampage all her life, and so she knew what to do. She knew that she should go down into her basement and take shelter in the southwest corner there, but that isn't what she did. She stayed put upstairs instead, and she listened to the thing as it approached her. Like a train coming, is what people who live to tell it always seem to say--a steady, growing roar. She raised the shades in the front room and pulled back the curtains in the bedroom, maybe to try to get a look at it. Then, wresting open the latches, she lifted up every single one of those old-fashioned double-hung windows front and back all over the whole house. Mrs. Frye didn't only crack a couple of them for safety's sake, she went ahead and opened each window wide, and she knocked out all the screens besides, so that later what it looked like was that instead of trying to keep her house from blowing up in the storm, maybe what she was actually doing was inviting the wind right inside.
And inside it came to her, too. It surged around in the rooms, knocking over furniture and toppling lamps and breaking dishes, while outside in Rampage the sirens wailed and the trees were tossed and cracked and some of them altogether brought down. The rain swooped in next, following along like an afterthought to the wind. It splattered Evelyn Frye's bedroom curtains, drenching them. It puddled on the linoleum in the kitchen and flooded the dining room and soaked into the hallway rug. Outside, lightning lacerated the sky and the thunder rolled along on top of it, echoing off and dying out across the far fields like a barrage of bombs.
Sheriff Tom Nicholls speculated afterward that most likely what happened then was that there in the midst of the worst of the storm, Mrs. Frye became confused. After a while it must have got so bad inside her house that she couldn't tell the difference anymore, in the dark and with all that noise, between what was outside and what was in. Maybe she was trying to get her windows shut again. Maybe she'd changed her mind. Maybe she'd realized the seriousness of her mistake.
She struggled with the door, in her bathrobe and her slippers, trying at the same time to keep the robe from flapping open--she would have been naturally discreet that way, the way that older women often are. Her hair would have been blown free from the pins and curlers on her head, and the rain would have been drumming in at her. She was deafened by it, made blind.
She was on the porch and thought she was inside the house. She went down the steps, believed it to be the cellar. She flailed and staggered outside in the yard, was turned around and around, disoriented and lost.
By the time it was all over, by the time the storm had moved on and the wind had died down, its pure fury spent, when it was only the rain still pouring and the thunder distant and low, by then Mrs. Frye was not able to understand anymore where she was or why. The trees around her didn't seem to be the same, the land did not look right to her, she couldn't see her house anymore, she wasn't able to find it in the dark with no lights, no moon, not even stars because they were all of them hidden from her by the overcast, the thunderclouds, the fog, and the rain.
All the electricity for miles and miles around had popped out, and the only light that came to her was from the Rampage Reformatory, which had its own generator. Mrs. Frye tried to head for that glow, thinking that at least it was something, even if she could no longer be sure exactly what.
As the Rampage weekly paper quoted Sheriff Nicholls afterward, "She didn't make it far." She slid off the road into the ditch and lost her slippers in the