On a creepy island where everyone has a strange obsession with the year 1994, a newcomer arrives, hoping to learn the truth about her son’s death–but finds herself pulled deeper and deeper into the bizarrely insular community and their complicated rules…
Clifford Island. When Willow Stone finds these words written on the floor of her deceased son’s bedroom, she’s perplexed. She’s never heard of it before, but soon learns it’s a tiny island off of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula, 200 miles from Willow’s home. Why would her son write this on his floor? Determined to find answers, Willow sets out for the island.
After a few days on Clifford, Willow realizes: this place is not normal. Everyone seems to be stuck in a particular day in 1994: they wear outdated clothing, avoid modern technology, and, perhaps most mystifyingly, watch the OJ Simpson car chase every evening. When she asks questions, people are evasive, but she learns one thing: close your curtains at night.
High schooler Lily Becker has lived on Clifford her entire life, and she is sick of the island’s twisted mythology and adhering to the rules. She’s been to the mainland, and everyone is normal there, so why is Clifford so weird? Lily is determined to prove that the islanders’ beliefs are a sham. But are they?
Five weeks after Willow arrives on the island, she disappears. Willow’s brother Harper comes to Clifford searching for his sister, and when he learns the truth–that this island is far more sinister than anyone could have imagined–he is determined to blow the whole thing open.
If he can get out alive…
Remote islands, time warps, mysterious disappearances, and inexplicable earthquakes, Dead Eleven seems to have something for everyone. This includes the book’s fantastic cover design (be kind and rewind, am I right?) which exudes the 90s feel Clifford Island preserves. In his debut novel, Juliano delivers on, dare I say, “fun” horror. Make no mistake, the stakes are exceedingly high in this novel surrounding our cast of characters which includes Willow, a newcomer to the island who seemingly vanishes without a trace, Harper, Willow’s brother searching for ever-elusive answers, and Lily, a rebellious native islander with a no-nonsense attitude.
The “something-is-horribly-wrong-here” tone of the novel is set within the first few pages by a brief vignette of death on the island. While this itself may be upsetting, what follows is truly unsettling. From there, the plot is off to the races, switching between Willow, Harper, and Lily’s perspectives. As a reader, we are exposed to various documents, text messages, and interviews which accounts for a large portion of the fun I mentioned in reading this book. We meet numerous other “native” island characters who are quirky in their own right, most notably Pastor Rita, a dedicated leader within the community. Pastor Rita’s commitment to her parishioners comes off as a veneer of sorts, the barrier between what newcomers to the island experience and the reality of the situation. I found myself often thinking of Mike Flagan’s limited Netflix series Midnight Mass, the common denominator being the theme of devotion to faith equating to survival.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this novel is its ability to cover the topic of grief and loss. In losing a loved one, it’s human nature to feel isolated. The manifestation of this emotional, detached anguish can be personified through Clifford Island itself, a place that is perpetually trapped in 1994. Often times in discussing both fear and grief, the term “paralysis” is thrown around. You can be afraid to “move on” with the possibility of experiencing further distress or increasing uncomfortableness looming overhead. And that is exactly what Clifford Island has done. While it is an extreme example to hold an entire community in a decade-old past, it doesn’t miss the mark in terms of displaying traits of personal, intimate loss. Willow’s perspective is the perfect vehicle for drawing this parallel, an exploration of grief on a minute and grand scale.
Despite the heaviness of this representation, Lily’s character is a beaming ray of “I-don’t-give-a-damn.” Despite being a teenager, she’s mature enough to go with the flow of the community on the island but still contemplates the reasoning for their lifestyle and wants to know the truth. With enough unsettling events transpiring, Lily grows more than ready to leave behind the safety blanket of “normalcy” on the island to get to the bottom of things. Why are people disappearing? What’s with the random earthquakes? And for all that is good and holy, can she please watch something other than the OJ Simpson car chase?
Dead Eleven delivers on numerous fronts, but the most lovable part of this book is that it feels inclusive to newcomers to the genre. If you’ve never read a horror novel before, this is a great place to start. Juliano’s writing is easy to follow with decent scares and an emotional back-story to boot. The setting is seemingly its own character with fun references to the 90s scattered throughout. The ending is ominous and leaves you wondering how the characters fare soon following their experiences on Clifford Island. Overall, this is a fast-paced read that will most certainly encourage you to always shut your curtains before bed.