True Story (2020) – Kate Reed Petty

Title:True Story
Author:Kate Reed Petty
Publisher/s:Riverrun/Jonathan Ball Publishers
Date published:2020
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Jonathan Ball Publishers kindly sent me this novel in exchange for an honest review.

True Story is a revelation. An ode to the horror novel, and dark academia, and to the process of writing itself. Perhaps you could say that it is a love story about the horror genre, or perhaps not. You could possibly consider it a novel about the human condition, or about how all humans are really just monsters deep down inside. I know I’m getting away with myself here, but forgive me, I have ulterior motives. Kate Reed Petty’s novel is hard to define, and maybe it’s a bit of everything I’ve mentioned, and very possibly none of it. I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

In 1999 a couple of male lacrosse players drive a girl home after a high school party. The girl, from a nearby private school, is definitely drunk, but needless to say so are her chaperones. Eventually, she is dropped off at home, and left on the porch of her house draped in one of the boy’s school jackets. The boys go back to a local diner where they meet up with the rest of their team to discuss the night. Around the table, one of the boys, Max, tells everyone that he sexually assaulted the girl whilst she was passed out on the back seat of the car, and that his friend, Richard, joined in. Also sitting at the team’s table is a girl called Haley Moreland.

The next day the girl, Alice Lovett, “the private school girl” finds out what happened to her, and she will be plagued with rumors and taunting for years afterward. What comes to light is that Haley and Alice are in fact best friends, and have been since they were 13. They used to write amateurish little screenplays for movies that they acted out and filmed. Haley has always dreamed of being a filmmaker, and Alice, with a penchant for words, will become a writer. A ghostwriter for other’s people’s books, for other people’s stories.

Nine years later Nick has a bit of a drinking problem. Nick also used to be on the same lacrosse team as Max and Richard. Nick never really liked Max much, but Richard is his “oldest friend”. Nick would do anything for Richard, and he usually does. Before he can get his life together though he’s going to go and spend a weekend in his ex-girlfriend’s family’s cabin in the woods and drink a lot, and think about his ex Lindsey, and how their relationship ended. What happens in the woods will haunt him for years to come, and leave him literally scarred.

It’s 2011, and Alice is in a relationship with a man referred to only as ‘Q’. This is a man with very sinister motives, but Alice just wants to be loved and cared for, and slowly starts to abandon her writing career, if only to make Q happy. What people will sacrifice for love is quite clearly everything – even their own memory.

Alice doesn’t actually remember anything from that night in the car with Max and Richard. All she has to hold onto are the stories she was told from the rest of the kids at school, and from Haley, her best friend, and the one person who has always had her best interests at heart, and who believes in Alice’s writing. Now, a decade later, Haley wants to tell Alice’s story. She wants the two of them to make a movie about what happened all those ago in high school, but now it’s 2015 and four years have passed since Alice left Q. She’s hiding out in Barcelona, reluctant to help make the film.

It’s 2014, and Nick is living a relatively sober life whilst doing odd jobs for his “old friend Richard” to pay the rent. With his own problems to deal with Nick is also starting to think he’s being followed, or watched. Is it paranoia? Does it have something to do with that “private school girl” nonsense? Or does it have something to do with the job Richard has asked him to do?

It feels as though the closer we get to the end the more rattled the characters become. Their lives are intertwined, but they are almost never in the same room. The atmosphere is almost as choking and sinister as a campy slasher film, or as darkly comedic as the ’80s film Heathers, or as suffocating as Stephen King’s Misery (the book and the film). It’s a novel that jumps through time, beginning with B-grade horror scripts written by two 12-year-olds, to 1999 when girls were blamed for sexual assault, to Alice’s attempts to get into college amidst a culture of silence. It follows the anti-hero Nick through a nightmarish weekend in the woods and the terrifying narrative of a woman in a relationship with a possible monster.

In the end, the question remains as to the truth of it all, as to how far a rumor will travel, and what sort of hitch-hikers that rumor will pick up along the way. Is everyone just a monster in disguise? What is truth anyway? Is it our own interpretation of what we believe to be true, or is it something else entirely? Petty’s novel will make you question the validity of even our own memories and our own individual reactions to trauma. This is psychological horror at its absolute best, and a story about people at their absolute worst.

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