In ‘Ill Will,’ Dan Chaon explores abuse, murder and memory

March 31, 2017
Dan Chaon’s new thriller “Ill Will” looks at how people remember certain life events. Contributed by Ulf Andersen

While discussing the origins of “Ill Will,” his terrific new thriller (that somewhat disappointingly is not about a rapper named William), Dan Chaon said at least one thread is decades old.

About 10 years ago, Chaon (pronounced “Shawn”) was talking to his brother-in-law about some incidents that transpired when the latter was in college in Wisconsin.

“There were a series of drownings that happened in the upper Midwest,” Chaon said. “The police thought it was drunk kids falling in the river, but there were enough mysterious things about it that a lot of college kids thought it was a serial killer.”

Chaon was fascinated by this sort of urban legend. “The college kids didn’t have any real proof or evidence, but they were still drawn to it.”

Then, as writers often do, he put it in a drawer for a while.

Years later, Chaon started toying with the idea of a guy who testifies against his brother, who then later gets out of prison. He also became interested in the West Memphis Three, the three teenagers — Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin — who were convicted in the 1993 murder and sexual mutilation of three young boys, possibly with some sort of connection to satanism. (After years in prison and some newly uncovered DNA evidence, the three entered Alford pleas in 2011 and were freed.)

Chaon mentions an incident where he grew up. “Some gravestones in the cemetery got knocked over,” Chaon said. “When you think about that you think, ‘drunk teens.’ Back then, folks were convinced it was satanic ritual in the cemetery. The police were there coming for evidence; some of the ministers wrote letters to the newspaper. People were genuinely scared.”

All of which Chaon poured into “Ill Will.” Dustin is a Cleveland shrink who specializes in recovered memories and satanic ritual abuse. His life is not in the best shape: His wife has terminal cancer, and his son Aaron has started experimenting with very hard drugs — not to mention the mysterious drownings to which he finds himself drawn by a cop he is treating.

“There is this idea that people of the 1980s were just not very bright or really superstitious or something like that,” Chaon said of the “satanic panic” era. “Back then, the people who questioned it were treated with suspicion. People would say, ‘Of course this is happening, what’s wrong with you?’ And it’s not like this is an anomaly in American history. In the ’50s, Commies were crawling out of the basement. This stuff goes back to Salem witch trials.”

And then there’s Dustin’s brutal past, which has come roaring into the present. When Dustin was a young teen, his older brother Rusty was convicted of killing their mother, father, aunt and uncle. Rusty, who was adopted, went to prison after Dustin testified against him.

Many years later, some DNA evidence has sprung Rusty, which is faintly terrifying to Dustin and his twin cousins Waverna and Kate, the three of whom were sent to live with their grandmother after the murders, wherein some unhealthy things may or may not have taken place.

Dustin’s world starts to come apart at the seams when he starts doubting everything he remembers about … well, everything. Did the murders take place as he remembers them? Though Rusty manifested abusive, often savage behavior throughout Dustin’s life, does it mean that Rusty did this particular horrible thing? How and why do we remember the things that we do or do not remember, and how does that shape us down the line?

“The ritual abuse thing also became part of psychological culture,” Chaon said. “This idea that children don’t lie about these things became really entrenched for a while.”

Chaon also notes that satanic panic worked on an allegorical level. “It was a way to talk about actual abuse, I think,” he said. “At the time, the idea that childhood abuse was mostly perpetrated by family members was too outrageous, too awful. People would rather believe that it was evil, Satan-worshipping strangers.”

Ping-ponging around the timeline and told from multiple perspectives, “Ill Will” is a seriously disquieting read. “I was really interested in the nature of how people come to believe things and how an incident can have a whole variety of different interpretations,” Chaon said.

“I wanted to show these different things from multiple perspectives, and breaking it up allowed me to create certain kind of suspense lines that I wouldn’t have been able to get with a more chronological approach,” he said. “The more I thought about the idea of dissociation, about the act of NOT thinking about something, the more important it became to the novel and how it was told.”

Chaon said he didn’t intend for “Ill Will” to be about the current moment, but in a time when some people question the veracity of almost everything that the president says and conspiracy theories flourish, there certainly are parallels.

“Yeah, that Pizzagate thing?” Chaon said, referring to the heavily debunked 2016 theory that a child sex ring was centered on a Washington pizza place — a theory that nearly destroyed the business. “That seemed right out of my novel.”

Which, given the grim, plausible horror in “Ill Will,” can’t be a good sign.