The idea that suburbia is a place filled with dark, dreadful secrets is nothing new. Richard Matheson, one of the great American genre writers, was mining this territory back in the 1950s with his novella "The Distributor," and guys like David Lynch and Marc Cherry have pulled bundles of cash and acclaim from that same ground. But there's still plenty of life left in those tropes, and Indiana author Sam Stall is out to claim his own with his amusing new book, Suburban Legends: True Tales of Murder, Mayhem, and Minivans.
As the title indicates, Stall isn't looking for academic sinecures with this work. It's best enjoyed as the literary equivalent of telling tales around the campfire, where the most outrageous stories are saved for scaring the kiddies before bedtime. Many of the nutjobs Stall profiles here are documented elsewhere (these include John Wayne Gacy and John List, the guy who got nabbed for his family's murder by America's Most Wanted viewers 18 years after the fact), but many are of the "Are you pulling my leg?" variety.
What saves Stall's work from being completely dismissible, if not outright ridiculous, is the admirable high-wire act the author pulls off with the tone. The book is related in a voice that balances a healthy dose of skepticism and humor with the belief that the people who reported the various events (mysterious floodings, exploding bottles, even the occasional phantom copping a feel) were sincere, even if, as is apparent in some cases, the witnesses didn't have both oars in the water. This is harder to do than it sounds. As a result, Stall comes off as likable and sympathetic to both the skeptical reader and the witnesses who reported the sightings/events in the first place. There's a lot of murder and dismemberment in the relatively short span of 240 pages or so; freezers and wood chippers each get their moment in the sun, so to speak.
Stall's light touch, breezy prose style and good humor make the book an easy-going pleasure to read, even though the subject material can venture into the gruesome.