First published back in November of 1974, US author Mendal Johnson’s one and only novel ‘Let’s Go Play At The Adams’’ is a surprisingly underrated novel of psychological horror that was based on the real life murder of Sylvia Likens.
When Dr and Mrs Adams go away on holiday to Europe they leave their two children – twelve-year-old Bobby and his ten-year-old sister Cindy – behind under the care of twenty-year-0ld babysitter Barbara Miller. And so, after leaving behind their home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the Adams’ depart with no troubling worries at all regarding the young babysitter’s capabilities, feeling confident in leaving their children in the care of the sensible young girl.
However, the following morning, Barbara wakes up in a drowsy state, in her bed at the Adams’ house with her arms and legs tied down, leaving her helpless and spread-eagled across the bed. As she slowly comes to from the chloroform that she was sedated with, she finds Bobby asleep on a chair beside her. Anger floods Barbara’s senses as she demands to be let free. But against her better judgement, Bobby point-blank refuses.
When the Adams kids’ neighbourhood friends, John Randall (16), Paul McVeigh (13) and his sister Diane McVeigh (17) arrive at the Adams’ house, a new game begins for the group self-dubbed ‘The Freedom Five’. And Barbara is at the very centre of this new game.
At first they don’t know quite what to do with their new captive. With no parents around, and indeed, no one at all within a half-mile radius, the Freedom Five really are left to their own devices now. And unfortunately for young Barbara – those devices were becoming exploratory, inquisitive and increasingly more sadistic.
And as the days pass by, the games continue to get more and more twisted. Tied up all day long, Barbara soon loses all hope of maintaining any form of dignity. Her constant pleading is falling on deaf ears. But as Barbara Miller becomes less and less their babysitter and more their own living-breathing toy, so the horrors that they will install upon the poor girl descend to new inhumane depths.
For Barbara Miller, the future is now a very uncertain thing. Hope lies with convincing the children that what they are doing is wrong. Their game has gotten out of hand and they must stop before it goes too far. But with their new-found power, the confines of compassion and social responsibility are so easily abandoned. And there’s just so much that you can do with a helpless tied-up twenty-year-old girl, when no adults are around to stop you…
Well, I guess the first thing that needs to be pointed out is how breathtakingly nasty this psychological horror novel is. Based on the gut-wrenchingly true story of Sylvia Likens’ murder at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski (and most importantly her children and their neighbourhood friends), Johnson’s loose adaptation of the horrendous torture which eventually led to Likens’ death purposefully utilises a vast wealth of the truly harrowing psychology that make this such a difficult story to read.
US author Jack Ketchums’ own disturbing adaptation of the Likens murder in his notorious novel ‘The Girl Next Door’ (1989) details a story much closer to the true crime. Indeed, most notably in Johnson’s novel is the removal of any adult involvement, purposefully removing Baniszewski’s role from the adaptation. Ketchum’s version used the character of Ruth Chandler to portray Baniszewski, which is where the two novels deviate from each other the most.
It must be said that ‘Let’s Go Play At The Adams’’ sets out as a bit of a slow-burner, cautiously setting down the characters and young Barbara Miller’s predicament to enable an unnervingly sinister atmosphere to gradually creep into the storyline. From early on the reader never knows exactly how far the Freedom Five are going to take this supposed ‘game’, and this one threatening question is a constant worry that lingers over the tale for the vast majority of its length.
What the novel does, and does incredibly well, is examine the way in which the group as a whole keeps pushing the limits of the game further and further than any one of the kids would have done by themselves. It’s pack mentality at an all-time low. And my god is it frightening to see how it just escalates and spirals to maddening new lows as they collectively push the torture of young Barbara Miller along further each day.
Johnson pays particular attention to really building upon the characterisation of the six individuals that make up the vast majority of the tale. Although the five young abductors have highly questionable motives behind carrying on with the disturbing and sadistic torture of the twenty-year-old babysitter, Johnson still quietly examines each of their individual personalities and psychological traits, with much still left open to the reader’s own interpretation.
Written in the third-person-perspective, Johnson cleverly shifts the narration between both the viewpoint of the Freedom Five and that of their captive, Barbara. In doing so, the reader can see the unfolding and escalating horror not only from the side of someone who is utterly terrified at what is happening to her, with the constant questioning of how far they will take it, but also from the equally haunting perspective of the psychotically simplistic logic of the torturers pushing further and further with their ‘game’.
As the tale progresses, we gradually see how the inquisitive innocence of the Freedom Five is slowly withered away. Before long Barbara’s captivity has become less of an excitingly rebellious game, and more of a day-to-day chore for the kids. But by now they are locked in to carrying it on, feeling that they are already too far down a road that they can no longer easily come back from.
From spiralling degradation to new lows of sexual molestation and eventually on to rape, Barbara’s captivity just keeps on descending further and further into an abyss that she is beginning to realise she may never come back out of. And it’s at this chilling point-of-no-return that Johnson really starts getting inside the reader’s head.
Following a horrific finale, the novel ends with one of the most emotive epilogues to possibly have ever been put to paper. It’s cold, chilling and utterly gut-wrenching. The reality of the tale hits the reader hard in the gut; the utter injustice of it all is so incredibly hard to swallow. To end a tale in such a way was certainly a brave decision, and the resulting difficulty for the reader to easily accept such an ending is evidence enough that the author’s plan worked.
This is undoubtedly one of the most disturbing psychological horror novels that you are likely to come across. Its crushing impact and deliberately cold ending make it a novel that you are unlikely to ever forget. Its harrowing story will always stay with you, lurking at the back of your mind, just waiting for a small reminder to bring the terrifying memories of what happened to this poor girl flooding back.
The novel runs for a total of 270 pages.
© DLS Reviews