“They’re just kids … It’s only a game.” That’s what Barbara, a lovely twenty-year-old babysitter told herself when she awoke bound and gagged. But the knots were tight and painful and the children would not let her go.
“They’re just kids … It’s only a game,” she told herself again. But the terror was real … and deadly!
TW: This review discusses sexual assault.
The reprint of Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ begins with an introduction by Grady Hendrix, which he advises readers to read after the novel. I got roughly three quarters of the way through the book and before reading Hendrix’s introduction, I was thinking “What the actual fuck was wrong with this author?” Hendrix’s introduction made me realise that I was perhaps being overly critical in terms of my assessment of Johnson as a person, though. To call Johnson a sadist because of his novel’s content would be on par with calling Thomas Harris a cannibal. These authors’ books aren’t autobiographies, they’re works of fiction.
Fiction or not, though, I struggled with Let’s Go Play at the Adams’.
I was discussing what I’m going to refer to as ‘human horror’ with a friend the other day and we were both of the same opinion; when the antagonist is a human, the horror novel in which they appear is instantly scarier than a book whose star is something otherworldly or supernatural. Why? Well, simply for the fact that the human antagonist adds an uncomfortable dash of realism to the book. Every cruel, nefarious act committed by a fictional human has no doubt been committed by a real life human. A book in which an inhumane act takes place is made all the more terrifying by the knowledge that it’s act that could be perpetrated against any of us here in the real world.
Normally, I’m okay with this kind of horror, but there was just something about this book. Every sentence is imbued with an intense sense of hopelessness. You know from the outset that Barbara isn’t going to survive this ordeal and you know that the cruelty she’s being subjected to is going to intensify with each turning of the page.
Readers spend most of the book with Barbara. When Barbara’s lying on her bed at night, staring up at the ceiling, her limbs tied to the posts, readers get into her headspace. Readers experience her fear and pain vicariously, meaning that they form something of an emotional attachment to her. Call me dramatic, but the scenes in which she was being abused and tortured, combined with the knowledge that she was ultimately going to die, were unbearable to read. Having spent so many pages with Barbara, I knew what her hopes and dreams for the future were and it was infuriating knowing that she was never going to realise them because of a group of bored and sadistic kids. Going back to my point about fictional acts of depravity being mirrored in the real world, perhaps this is why I had such an extreme emotional reaction to this book. Everything Barbara experiences has been experienced by a real life counterpart. There have been people like Barbara, people with hopes and dreams for the future, who have had their lives snuffed out simply because someone was bored.
Everything I’ve discussed so far isn’t an issue with the book, but more down to me as a person and reader. Reading about certain topics triggers an emotional response in me and an author who can manipulate their readers’ emotions in such a way is obviously a good writer.
However, there are elements of the novel that are very problematic, one being the way in which Barbara’s rape is approached. I feel as though Johnson tried to downplay the magnitude of John’s actions. After the assault, Barbara’s alone in her room, musing about how if it was her “destiny” to be raped, “then she was fortunate that it had been a boy she knew and not some man animal up an alley or in the woods or wherever” (page 144). I’m sorry, but what? No, there’s nothing fortunate about the circumstances in which the rape takes place. I get that this book was written by a middle-aged man in the early 70s, but what the actual fuck? Rape is rape, regardless of where it happens or who the attacker is. I know that some people will argue that this is Barbara’s view, not Johnson’s, but this passage actually turned my stomach.
Another part of the novel that I found problematic was the section in which Barbara is thinking about abortion. This novel was published in 1974, one year after Roe vs Wade, and I feel as though Johnson injected his own opinions on abortion into his writing. In this part of the novel, Barbara reminiscences about a woman she knows who had an abortion. Johnson writes about how upon returning home from hospital, this woman experienced “nausea of the spirit and nausea of living” and asked herself questions such as “Which would it have been? What would it have been like? Who would it have resembled? What have I done?” He also writes about how the woman and her parents had “mutually agreed to kill a baby-to-be, one presumably in healthy condition and fully capable of becoming one of them.” He continues by saying that “the invasions of the body so far endured might soon enough come to be trifling compared to the curette and the removal of a possible baby from her womb.” Again, some people might argue that these are Barbara’s views, not Johnson’s, but for me personally, this passage felt akin to an opinion piece. I appreciate that this was written nearly 50 years ago, but as someone who is fiercely pro-choice, it made for difficult reading.
To summarise, Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ just wasn’t for me, pure and simple.
Have you read Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ or any of the other titles that appear in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell? Let me know in the comments below.
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