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Thursday, April 2, 2020 | Books


A teenage boy, wielding a knife, tortures a naked young woman. She is tied to a chair, her mouth gagged. When the boy notices her pleading eyes, he feels not guilt or remorse, but annoyance. Then, in a stroke of inspiration, he solves the problem by blindfolding her.

Welcome, friends, to the gruesomely sadistic world of Mendal W. Johnson’s LET’S GO PLAY AT THE ADAMS’ (1974), a vintage shocker newly reissued in mass market paperback. LET’S GO PLAY AT THE ADAMS’ is part of Valancourt’s reissue of various titles discussed in the excellent PAPERBACKS FROM HELL (2017), Grady Hendrix’s book about the paperback horror market of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Horror fans owe Hendrix and Valancourt a debt of gratitude for resurrecting this brutal lost classic.

It’s an infamous novel. Indeed, due to scenes of youth-administered brutality and for having been so long out of print, LET’S GO PLAY has acquired an unholy contraband mystique. The reputation isn’t unjustified; the scene described above isn’t the novel’s most disturbing, or even a strong contender. The surprise, however, is that this notorious book, which depicts the worst bad behavior imaginable, is so good. Set in a rural but affluent Maryland countryside, told in fluid third-person omniscience, Johnson’s novel is an imperfect but unforgettable plunge into hell.  

The premise is ingeniously fiendish. Bobby and Cindy Adams, conspiring with three of their neighbor friends, drug and tie up Barbara, the Adams’ overnight summer babysitter, intending to keep her captive until their parents return from vacation. Barbara is minimally cared for by the five children; their objective, initially, is simply to do away with all adult supervision. Soon, however, John and Paul, the neighbor boys, strongly abetted by Paul’s sister Dianne, push for further victimization. Thereafter, Barbara is physically tortured and sexually abused. Fearing that she may not survive, she starts fighting back, at which point the brutality escalates even further.

No doubt about it: if you like tales that warm the heart, this ain’t the book for you. The nastiness starts early and never lets up; following a prologue establishing a sense of order between the Adams children and their new babysitter, the first chapter smashes that order by opening with Barbara coming to after being drugged and tied up. The portrayal of her trapped, terrified mind is grimly heartbreaking, and the POV shift to other characters, especially to the torture-obsessed Paul, the knife wielder, or the sexually malicious John, is rarely much of a breather. These kids, all teens except ten-year-old Cindy, have highly active, deeply cruel minds. In short, the ugliness is unrelenting. And the ending! I fully expected a shocking finish, and was still freaked. But then, what else can we expect from a book whose 1980 paperback cover features the tagline “Tonight the kids are taking care of the babysitter” and a door opening onto a woman tied up in a chair?  

And yet, readers hoping for a fast, trashy read will be disappointed. This is an impressively serious and richly detailed work—a parable of adolescent savagery drenched in sweaty late-summer atmospherics. The kids are vividly drawn, their power dynamics keenly observed. In group scenes, such as when the coldly reasonable Dianne registers that the leadership role has shifted from John to her, LET’S GO PLAY is often startlingly perceptive. This book is smart. But also problematic. The novel’s extremeness is of course part of its distinction; it goes too far, daringly. But even so. Do we really need multiple rape scenes? Or to see Barbara, naked and traumatized, through the perspective of not one, not two, but three different teenage male gazes? It’s at least safe to say, though, that Barbara has the author’s fullest sympathy and respect; if a reader doesn’t feel and root for her, the fault is with the reader, not the author.

Still, even on its own nasty, problematic terms, the novel is by no means perfect.

Barbara, a twenty-year-old college student, fun and friendly, and only mildly disciplining, isn’t an especially plausible kidnapping target. Why would children, even supremely fiendish ones, sideline a cheerful housekeeper and playmate? Their initial goal, remember, is only to achieve extra freedom. Johnson tries to justify it by making it a daring extension of their outdoor army games, yet it remains a stretch. The workload to keep her imprisoned is heavy; the extra freedom is light. Not to mention that they all understand that parental punishment likely awaits. Granted, Barbara’s sheer likeability is in one way a useful choice; it makes their escalating disregard for her even creepier. Still, a bummer babysitter, slightly older, less fun and more restrictive, would have enhanced the story’s believability as well as ratcheted up its kids-versus-adults dynamic.

At times, LET’S GO PLAY feels more like a musty academic thesis than a hot-blooded novel. The story is most riveting when it’s filtered directly through its characters’ anxious minds. When Johnson strays into philosophizing narrator territory, the result is sometimes effective, sometimes not. In a few key scenes, such as when the increasingly guilt-stricken Bobby argues against the group’s final plan, the author breaks the spell by digressing into a snoozy civics lesson. Adding to the academic effect is his tendency to overload paragraphs with hyphens and parentheses.

But make no mistake: the hot-blooded novel absolutely wins out. By the end, the story has evolved into darkest nightmare, a fitting close for a tale about the escalating nature of evil acts.

Valancourt’s new edition is a collector’s dream. The 1980 paperback cover art, which ranks among the most gloriously sinister in publishing history, has been lovingly retained, and Grady Hendrix contributes an insightful introduction. The font is small even by mass market standards, but I hardly noticed once the story took hold. Horror fans may want to score two copies: one to devour, one to preserve. The faint of heart, on the other hand, have been duly warned.