By Richie Tankersley Cusick.
On Thanksgiving, Marissa falls through some ice and dies, just as she was about to reveal a deep, dark secret to her sister, Ryan. Three weeks later, Ryan is still mourning her sister whilst coping with falling grades and her mother’s inability to cope with Marissa’s death. She also suspects she is being stalked by a mysterious figure in a lumpy coat and black ski mask. Things go from bad to worse when Charles Eastman, a young man claiming to be Marissa’s boyfriend, turns up, and Ryan’s mother invites him to stay for Christmas. Charles immediately makes it clear to Ryan that he blames her for Marissa’s death, exacerbating the guilt which already torments her. A series of dangerous ‘accidents’ befall Ryan and when no one takes her seriously, she decides to try to uncover Marissa’s secret herself. As Ryan investigates, it begins to look increasingly like someone murdered Marissa, and she fears that same person has now set their sights on her.
Fatal Secrets is consistently engaging, with a cast of interesting characters who are introduced smoothly as the plot progresses. Most of them are likeable: her caring step-father, Steve; her childhood friends, Phoebe and Jinx; her sweet employer, Mr Partini; and the love interest with a name straight out of a Sabrina Jeffries romance, Winchester Stone.
Charles, on the other hand, is a highly unpleasant character and we empathise with Ryan’s discomfort during their initial encounters. His continuing, sinister presence is one of the ways in which Tankersley Cusick makes Fatal Secrets such an unsettling and disorienting read. We shift constantly between danger and safety, which are often represented by cold and hot imagery. Marissa dies in the ice; Ryan’s mother is coldly distant due to her grief; Charles abandons Ryan to freeze in the snow. On the other hand, we are warmed by the familiarity of Phoebe and Jinx’s interactions with Ryan, along with Mr Partini’s kindness and the festive décor of the toy shop. The fireplace in Winchester’s cosy house makes Ryan (and us) feel safe. It’s an effective technique: because of the complacency we feel in the warmth, when we are plunged back into the ice, it is all the more terrifying.
Aside from the horror, Fatal Secrets is also an absorbing ‘whodunit’. Because the various suspects are so well-developed, we cannot help but wish for the murderer to be, or not be, certain characters, and our need to know the perpetrator’s identity makes this Point Horror a real page-turner. When the truth is finally revealed it is a genuine surprise, and the twist makes for a thrilling finale and a crowd-pleasing conclusion.
The sense of threat in Fatal Secrets is persistent. It is genuinely unnerving when Ryan’s mental stability begins to waver. We see everything from her point of view, yet she’s losing the plot. She’s an empathetic character, who gets put through the wringer. This contributes to the horror, while making us like her more. The various ‘accidents’ and ‘incidents’ Ryan is subjected to might not be the scariest in the franchise, but the unrelenting weight of peril bearing down on her makes Fatal Secrets a thrilling, and often frightening, read.