Survival as the Child of a Serial Killer in A FLICKER IN THE DARK
Chloe Davis is a successful psychologist living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She’s engaged to an enigmatic and handsome man who puts her at ease like no one else can. He knows about her past and the trauma she’s survived. The one thing he doesn’t know about is her stash of prescription meds that she prescribes for him — Xanax, Ativan, whatever she wants; she needs them to quell the anxiety she’s suffered since 1998 when she was twelve, since her father, Dick Davis, was convicted as the serial killer of Breaux Bridge, their town near Baton Rouge.
Lena, Robin, Margaret, Carrie, Susan, Jill. These were the teenaged girls her father pleaded guilty to killing. “Lena Rhodes was the first girl. The original. The one that started it all.” She was a friend of Chloe’s, a girl three years older, who was the embodiment of a free spirit. Lena was Chloe’s inspiration. When she went missing, everyone assumed she’d run away. Until the next girl disappeared.
Chloe’s young world collapsed when she found jewelry belonging to the dead girls in a box in the back of her father’s closet, the mementos the killer had taken. Her discovery led to her father’s arrest and imprisonment.
“For me, the concept of fear came crashing down with a force my adolescent body had never experienced… the moment of the crash, it made me realize that monsters didn’t hide in the woods; they weren’t shadows in the tree or invisible things lurking in darkened corners. No, the real monsters moved in plain sight.”
Dick Davis was the Breaux Bridge serial killer? Chloe didn’t understand — he was so loving and kind to her as a father, teaching her to ride a bike and writing his own bedtime stories for her. When asked why he’d killed those girls, he’d explained to the judge that he had a “darkness” inside of him.
Anxiety has plagued Chloe for 20 years. She and her brother, Cooper, grew up knowing that the people in Breaux Bridge hated them for what their father had done. Chloe and Cooper “together were childhood trauma wrapped in a bow and placed delicately on the doorsteps of every doctor in Louisiana. Everybody knew, but nobody could fix it. So, I decided to fix it myself.” Chloe became a psychologist to help others going through trauma because she understood it better than any school could teach it. And just maybe, she might eventually mend herself.
But Chloe still needs her meds, the ones she prescribes to Daniel illegally. Louisiana is one of only three states to allow psychologists to write prescriptions. “My pharmacy is my lifeline.” She knows it’s illegal to fill prescriptions that aren’t necessary — she might lose her license or go to jail. “But everybody needs a lifeline, a raft in the distance when you feel yourself starting to sink.” And Chloe was still sinking. She could “sidestep the drug dealers downtown for the safety of the drive-through window, trading in a plastic baggy for a logoed paper bag, complete with a receipt and coupons for half-off toothpaste and a gallon of two-percent milk.”
Now, 20 years later, teen girls once again go missing, and they’re all connected to Chloe. She tells herself it’s just a coincidence, it has to be — until they uncover clues that mimic her father’s murders. Is there a copycat, or did her father have an accomplice?
The truth might just tear Chloe apart.
Willingham writes most of the narrative in Chloe’s present in 2018, but she inserts chapters from Chloe’s youth in 1998 that describe the trauma she and her family suffered after they arrested her father for the Breaux Bridge killings.
As we read on, Willingham inserts secrets that weigh on Chloe’s current state of mind and the tenuous thread that connects her to her childhood and memories she’d rather leave behind.
This debut novel has been optioned by Emma Stone’s production company for an HBO Max series.
What I Like Best:
The twisty turns the narrative takes in revealing what is real and what is invented.
Willingham’s debut novel is masterful in its dive into the psyche of a traumatized young girl and the aftermath she suffers as an adult. A fast-paced thriller I had trouble putting down.
Read Neil Nyren’s review and interview with Stacy Willingham on BookTrib.