On 12 January 2012, a day that will come to be known as Black Thursday, four planes crash within several hours of each other. One plane goes down in Aokigahara, an infamous Japanese forest where people go to to commit suicide. One plane goes down in the Florida everglades, one off the coast of Portugal. The fourth crash is the most destructive, landing in Khayalitsha, the most populous township in Cape Town, South Africa. There are only three survivors, one child on three of the four planes – Bobby in the US, Jess in the UK, and Hiro in Japan. Their survival should have been impossible, so the crashes not only cause a wave of shock and grief, but a flood of conspiracy theories and religious fanaticism.
And no matter how absurd some of these beliefs are, you start to feel that they might contain some truth. When Bobby, Jess and Hiro wake up, they’re not quite the same children they used to be, and strange things happen around them. After Bobby moves in with his grandparents, his grandfather Reuben starts recovering from his Alzheimers. Jess’s uncle – Paul Craddock – becomes her legal guardian, but his resolve to take care of her starts to crumble under the influence of her weirdly calm, sunny demeanour (as if she didn’t just lose her parents and twin sister) and the terrifying figure that appears at the end of his bed in the middle of the night. Hiro does not speak except through the unnervingly realistic surrabot designed by his father, a robotics genius.
Journalist Elspeth Martins endeavours to tell the story, and the novel consists almost entirely of the book she publishes – Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy. The book is composed of a variety of materials cutting across a range of cultures and experiences – excerpts from Paul Craddock’s unfinished biography; online chats between Hiro’s cousin Chiyoko and a geek named Ryu who never leaves his room; news articles; and interviews conducted by Elspeth herself. Besides the main characters, we hear from people involved in the rescue efforts, other journalists, investigators, a domestic worker who lives in Khayelitsha, etc. Only at the beginning and the very end do we get more traditional bits of narrative that fall outside Elspeth’s book.
Black Thursday – and The Three as a whole – describes three key things. Firstly, the four terrible plane crashes on Black Thursday, and the grief that follows. Secondly, the three child survivors, seen mostly from the perspectives of their families. Finally, and most importantly, it describes the beginning of the global reaction, which rears up like a monster as terrifying as the children and destructive as the plane crashes. What we have is not just a macabre international incident, but what could be the beginnings of global collapse.
The novel starts out by thrusting you right into the terror of the Japanese plane crash. Pamela May Donald, a Christian from small-town America, is so nervous about travelling in an alien culture that she was too scared to use the toilet at the airport in case she couldn’t figure out how to flush it. Her anxiety sets the tone and intensifies as the plane goes down. She wakes up soon after it crashes, her body broken and dying, flames all around, corpses hanging from the trees of the suicide forest. In her final moments, she sees ghosts and a strange boy, and records a cryptic warning message on her phone:
They’re here. I’m . . . don’t let Snookie eat chocolate, it’s poison for dogs, she’ll beg you, the boy. The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many . . . They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Bye Joanie I love the bag bye Joanie, Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to…
Pamela’s message becomes the catalyst for a wave of religious fanaticism. Pastor Len is the leader of her church (a small, conservative congregation), and after hearing the message he decides that Pamela is a prophet, the children are three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and they need to find the fourth child because these are the End Times and the prophecies of the book of Revelations are coming true. Of course, he has been chosen to spread the word, although for some reason he doesn’t seem to care about taking care of Pamela’s dog although she also stressed this in her message. Pastor Len’s fervour is both disturbing and funny, especially when he says things like this:
It’s clear as a bell. How much clearer could the message be? The Lord is good, listeners, He isn’t going to mess around with obfuscation. (talking about how the crashes and the colours of the planes’ logos are obvious proof that the Four Horsemen are here)
His certainty is very similar to that of the guy who argues (with an overabundance of capital letters) that the Three are controlled by aliens:
The children have been IMPLANTED and they are watching us to see what we will do. THIS CAN BE THE ONLY EXPLANATION!!!!
I scoff at these guys, and yet there were times when I wondered if they were at least partly right. The problem is that you can’t be sure. This is not the kind of horror novel where the terror eventually steps out into the open and everything is explained. To be honest, I wanted more overt horror, but at the same time I’m one of those people who is usually disappointed when the monsters are revealed, and I have to credit the subtle, cerebral horror that Lotz has crafted.
It’s unclear if the children are truly malevolent or evil, but they are childish in ways that have their own terrible implications. And part of what’s scary about The Three is our alienation from the truth. As readers, our experience is similar to that of the characters and the fictional public in the novel – there’s so little we know, and so little that we can know. Elspeth’s book is our best source of information, and it’s full of people who don’t know what the fuck is going on even when they think they do. Horror stories usually have that one person who understands what’s happening, but no one on Earth understands the Three, except the children themselves (who might not be children anymore) and they’re not telling. We are held at a distance, with no hope of knowing the whole truth.
Unfortunately another problem is that some people claim to know the truth and can wield their crackpot theories in the absence of better explanations. Pastor Len and similar right-wing religious fanatics are the main problem here, and the Three represent a massive opportunity for them to grab at money and power. The Christian fanatics can be quite scary, but The Three also questions the tendency for all of us to indulge in conspiracies:
why are people so fast to think the worst or waste their time believing in frankly bizarre and convoluted theories? Sure, the odds of this happening are infinitesimal, but come on! Are we that bored? Are we all, at heart, just Internet trolls?
You also need to think about the way Elspeth’s book itself fits into this story. She makes it sound so noble and authoritative, claiming that it’s “an objective account”, and her motivation was to “to provide an unbiased platform for the perspectives of those closest to the main players”. At the same time, she warns readers “to remember that these accounts are subjective and to draw their own conclusions”.
“Objective”? “Unbiased platform”? These terms are deeply suspicious, even if Elspeth’s intentions are good. She’s limited in terms of what she can include in her book. Notably, none of the children get a an “unbiased platform” and are always seen through the eyes of others. And we don’t hear from people like Reuben (who experiences at least a temporary cure for his Alzheimer’s), the children who go to school with Jess, or the doctors who treat the Three. At the same time, many of the people Elspeth talks have already interpreted events based on the way things turned out, or are speaking with the understanding that their words will be made public. Elspeth also chooses what goes into the book, and edits the interviews she conducts, so how “objective” is all of this?
Then there’s the warning about subjectivity and the request that people draw their own conclusions. Sounds reasonable until you remember that people like Pastor Len drew their own conclusions from subjective accounts like Pamela’s last words. So while Black Thursday tells us most of the story of the Three, it becomes a part of that story too, with the potential to be just as dangerous as it is enlightening. As Lotz’s readers, we get to read just a little bit more at the beginning and the end, enough to get a glimpse of the terrifying big picture.
I also wanted to comment on the narrative structure. Because it’s made up of so many POVs and forms, the story moves slowly and thoughtfully. Lotz does a great job of making the interviews and other accounts seem realistic, which has loads of advantages but a couple of disadvantages too. When people tell stories they contextualise them by talking about themselves and their circumstances, and often draw out the details. This is partly why it moves so slowly, but it also gives the novel depth and texture. I really liked the bits of Japanese and South African culture and language that Lotz weaves into those parts of the stories. I learned the Japanese term hikikomori – “Someone who is socially isolated to the extent that they rarely (or never) leave their room” – and the emoticon ORZ (a figure kneeling with its head on the ground, indicating frustration or despair. The O is the head, R the torso, Z the legs).
There are loads of characters, but Lotz handles them very well by giving them distinct voices or at least intriguing stories. For example I enjoyed reading the interviews with Reba, a woman from Pastor Len’s church who claims to have been Pamela’s best friend but very obviously isn’t. There’s a short piece from a black South African domestic worker that does a fantastic job of relating class issues in the country, while other South African characters add a dose of humour with local styles of speech. Jess’s uncle, Paul Craddock (a gay English actor) is a bit bland, but his story is the creepiest as Jess unnerves him in ways that the other children’s guardians do not experience.
Several of the reviews I’ve read argued that the many POVs makes it hard to connect with the characters. Personally this wasn’t really a problem for me, not because I connected strongly with the characters but because I think having them at a distance is kind of the point and suits the story.
On the other hand the story is also necessarily incomplete and this did bug me a bit because I wanted to know so much more. In writing this review though, I started to better appreciate the balance Lotz struck between information and intrigue about the Three. Those kids are just one subject in the novel. The is also about us, the weird and warped ways in which we might react to an event like Black Thursday, and how the world could be changed by it.