The Girl on the Porch by Richard Chizmar
Publisher: Subterranean Press | Release Date: August 31, 2019 | Pages: 152
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Have you ever read a book so thoroughly unsure of what it was supposed to be that you had to go back and read the synopsis to see how it was being marketed and to whom? According to the publisher’s description, The Girl on the Porch is a thriller, and a harrowing one at that, “A rollercoaster ride of compelling twists and turns,” they claim. Thank God for marketing writers, because I would not have picked up on any of that from the text itself.
The Girl on the Porch is a thriller without any thrills. As far as a rollercoaster…well, picture a rollercoaster low to the ground, maybe about half an inch high, without any bends or turns or loop-de-loops, and instead of racing along you’re stuck in a creaky old car that barely nudges itself along the track. There’s no acceleration, no sense of excitement or adventure, but sweet fiddling Jesus Christ are you ever glad when it’s over, even if all your left with is the demand for your time and money back, eager to go find an actual, honest to goodness real goddamn ride!
I guess you can kinda sorta tell this book is meant to be a thriller, and marketed toward what the publisher must think is still the big trend in thrillers, since its title belongs to the burgeoning and overused formula of The Girl / With Something / Who Did Something / In-On-Or There Abouts Somewhere. This book’s initial premise is one of promise, and according to Richard Chizmar is based on a true story of a home security camera’s late-night recording of a woman in chains appearing on the porch. It’s a frightening event to be sure, one that’s ripe with all kinds of storytelling possibility. Unfortunately, the author here proceeds to drains this premise of any potential, excitement, or mystery. Chizmar takes this great idea and then frames it in the most plodding and boring way possible.
Is this book a thriller or a mystery or a real-life horror? No. Sadly, The Girl on the Porch is little more than a mundane suburban melodrama about neighborly worries and baking cookies out of guilt. It could have been a truly compelling mystery if seen through the eyes of the detectives that operate here on the periphery. It could have been an engaging thriller if the central character, Kenny, seemed even the least bit interested in trying to figure out who’s following him or leaving footprints in his wife’s garden. Instead, he’s more eager to mow his lawn. Yes, dear readers, Kenny is such a boring-ass, milquetoast protagonist that his greatest joy in life is doing yard work. Next to watching football, it’s maybe his greatest passion.
There’s a mystery man stalking this small suburban neighborhood in the wake of this unknown woman briefly appearing on Kenny’s doorstep before disappearing into the night again. Imagine how interesting that aspect of the story could be, and then nix all that from your mind entirely because instead you’re going to read about poker games, yoga classes, high school football practice, and Kenny’s favorite reading chair when he’s not cutting the grass for the bulk of this slim novella’s hundred-some pages.
Chizmar had a really neat concept here and then deliberately decided to tell it in the most mundane, antiseptic, and dullest ways possible. There’s no sense of engagement in the material here, and certainly no reason to even try connect with it. There’s no growth and certainly no arc or journey for any of the cast, and the characters are forgettable paper-thin cardboard cutouts who do next to nothing for the entire story. We do get a few very, very, very, very, very brief glimmers of interest, though, such as a too short but legitimately scary moment around the half-way mark that ultimately, like the rest of this book, ends in cliched disappointment. It’s such a small moment of potential, but ends up being little more than a cock tease in a narrative that suffers from a serious case of erectile dysfunction. This is a story that never once rises to the occasion and instead is content to be a sad, limp, shriveled up disappointment.
What’s worse is that I actually like Chizmar quite a bit. His collaboration with Stephen King for Gwendy’s Button Box was stellar, and his chapters for Serial Box’s Silverwood: The Door, Season 1 were standout entries. I’ve dug most of the short stories I’ve read from him in various anthologies. Even when I found some of his lesser works, like Widow’s Point, to be overly familiar and formulaic, I still found certain things to appreciate and had a good time reading them. Not so with The Girl on the Porch. I found myself on the verge of quitting this book several times, I was so fed up with its go nowhere, do nothing attitude, but mustered through since it’s such a short read. Then, several times I became actively angry at this book for wasting so much of my time with its utterly passive pointlessness.
If The Girl on the Porch is meant to be a thriller, then it’s the most lackluster and impotent one I’ve ever read. If it’s supposed to be a mystery, then it’s one in which not a single one of our central characters seems even the least bit interested in solving. For an author as good as Chizmar, it’s painful to see him slumming it here, and so meekly too. I had high hopes for this one, but, sad to say, this is easily the most disappointing book I’ve read this year.