A Haunted Town and a Janitor Who Knows All

Author: Alan Baxter

In the small town of Sallow Bend two teenagers go missing just as the carnival rolls into town. The locals suspect the carnies, but the truth is far worse, mired in the history of the town itself. Two teenage girls went missing, but three come back. One of the girls has long black hair with a white streak, and everyone claims to remember her, except the school janitor, Caleb, an isolated man with a haunting past and an extreme sensitivity to people’s emotions and their lies.

Caleb teams up with Tricia, a local woman who recently lost her son and is having difficulties with her increasingly alcoholic, abusive husband. They both know that that something is wrong with this new girl, Heather. Somehow, they both know that brings evil and death with her. But can they get the others to believe? Together, can elicit the help of the carnival people and gain their trust? Can they stop the evil that has arisen before the town is destroyed? Can they force people to remember and be afraid?

Sallow Bend was another book club choice, and although the premise of carnivals and small-town bigotry towards the unusual or at least unfamiliar is not my favorite theme, I dove in anyway. What I discovered was a so-so tale, one that struggles with a decent, if unformed premise, and a wide cast of characters.

Caleb, the janitor, and Tricia, his soon to be bosom buddy, are the only two characters with much depth. Even then, they are shrouded in secrecy. Caleb admits to having a troubled past, but we are hardly privy to this past, and we hear more from him than we are shown. He claims pain around others – the onslaught of their hidden emotions and agendas is an overwhelming mental mix. Yet this is something we are just told. A straight-forward, unlikely scenario that is never felt. We don’t feel his pain around people, so his heroism and determination to warn the town is static, unbelievable, and a little stale.

Image by joostrikkerink from Pixabay

Similarly, the carnival folk are just there for exotic flair. As the bodies stack up – and of course they do – the carnival owner wants to stick to the schedule. She cannot afford to do otherwise, but the angst and rebellion of her people is an issue that . . . once again . . . is told and not show. It conveniently blows over too. The angst is more of a play act than one that is felt, and it is hard to care about the large cast of folks who barely play a part. The carnival owner herself is struggling. She has inherited this show from her father, and she works to get the same level of respect. Yet her struggle is a sideline, and it doesn’t matter to us or to the story. As a matter of fact, the carnival isn’t important at all, and serves more as a distraction than anything else.

Finally, we start to get to the heart of the matter, and it’s inconclusive. This evil entity is from the town’s backstory, and the way that Caleb and Tricia find this out is ridiculously convenient and doesn’t, frankly, stick with the entire “no one is allowed to remember” motif. The vengeance of this spirit itself is full of plot holes and does not fit its origin. What we end up with is a mélange of violence and action that is piecemeal and unearned with a random other baddie from the carnival thrown in to play. None of it coalesces well together, and none of it makes a lot of sense.

The idea certainly has promise, but the execution is incomplete. Sallow Bend is not a bad story – it’s entertaining enough during the reading – but it’s ultimately disappointing and unmemorable.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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