'Dismantled' Peels Away Multiple Layers of Lliterary Spookiness

by Catherine Ramsdell

28 July 2010

Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon is a well-paced page turner with multiple layers of literary spookiness.
cover art


Jennifer McMahon

US: May 2010

“To understand the nature of a thing, it must be taken apart” is the motto of the Compassionate Dismantlers—a group of college students and artists who perhaps focus too much on the dismantling and not enough on the compassion. Suz, the founder and leader of the group, begins her dismantling by burning a sculpture she created in a college art class. When questioned by her professor, Suz smiled. “‘Don’t you get it?’ she asked. ‘It’s the ultimate act of creativity. Destruction is transformation. In order to be reborn, you have to die.’”

Suz, Henry, Tess, and Winnie make up the Compassionate Dismantlers and, along with Henry and Tess’ daughter Emma, they are also the main characters in Jennifer McMahon’s eerie thriller Dismantled

Interestingly, or perhaps ironically, the book itself seems to contradict the Compassionate Dismantler’s motto. In fact, in the last chapter of the book, Emma argues that “You have to put things together. That’s the only way to make sense of the world.” This not only seems to be one of the main themes in the book, but also what the readers should be trying to do as they wade through the book’s many twists and turns.

In the beginning, Dismantled’s plot appears almost clichéd. A bunch of young people—in this case the Compassionate Dismantlers—let a college prank go too far, attempt to cover it up, and then spend the rest of their lives worrying that someone will find out what they did. Thankfully, McMahon’s take on this scenario has little in common with the pedestrian I Know What You Did Last Summer-type stories. This book is a well-paced page turner with multiple layers of literary spookiness.

The book opens with Emma’s birth then quickly flashes forward to present day. The rest of the story alternates between the glory days of the Compassionate Dismantlers (they officially dismantled a few months before Emma is born, and she is nine in the story) and the present day. There are mysteries in each time period.

In the first chapter, the reader learns that something happened to Suz and that the group “had promised, that last night, never to speak of what happened. To never return. And if anyone should ever contact them about Suz, they were supposed to say that at the end of the summer, last time anyone saw her, she was headed west, for California.”  In the present, strange events begin to unfold—mysterious postcards, a suicide, a fire, an affair—leaving the characters and the reader to wonder if something supernatural is afoot or if a more human, and real, explanation exists.

Along with the pacing, the imagery and strong writing style add to the tension and suspense. For example, the book opens with a haunting set of images:

When Tess’s water broke, she was staring into the long-forgotten aquarium, her eyes fixed on the bodies of the frogs floating like lost astronauts in oversize spacesuits, something clearly not of this world. They were pale and spongy, having frozen and thawed with the cruel cycles of winter and spring. It was, somehow, to Tess, as if they were stuck in limbo, waiting to be rescued, to rise singing from their own tiny galaxy of stagnant water; calling out in deep, vengeful bullfrog voices, How could you leave us here? How could you forget?

Forgetting these images is impossible for Tess and Henry, but most readers will also be unable to forget this opening, particularly as these images appear and reappear throughout the story. The Compassionate Dismantlers are expert at leaving things behind—friends, ex-boyfriends, feral cats, and the dead—and as such the sentiment “How could you leave us here?” is asked or implied regularly. More disturbing are the parallels drawn between Emma and those pale and spongy frogs.

Emma tells her father that she swims like a frog, and after she almost drowns, she relates: “I was a frog and I tried to jump through the hole but I got stuck. Stuck like dolphins get stuck.” Her father Henry, on the other hand, has persistent nightmares about Emma suffering a fate similar to that of the frogs: “Dog paddle. Frog kick. Splash. Legs bent. Extended. Pretzel-thin limbs. Her face goes under. Henry holds his breath, too. His heart beats double time in his chest. His breath goes whistley. He knows she’ll drown. He’s seen it in his nightmares a thousand times.” 

There’s also something rather other worldly about Emma. Anyone who remembers with trepidation the clowns of Poltergeist or Stephen King’s It, will find Danner, Emma’s all seeing and all knowing imaginary friend, a particularly gripping storyline. Danner talks to Emma, plays games with her, drinks wine at dinner, pinches her, and tells Emma “everything you have is mine.”

Later, the likeness of Danner that Emma creates in sculpture form adds further tension to the story. Trying to follow in her parents’ artistic footsteps, Emma gathers household items, a blonde wig, and one of Tess’ old sundresses and creates a Danner-Doll that looks amazingly like one of the long lost Compassionate Dismantlers. Emma cuddles, caresses, and nuzzles the doll, “but the most disturbing thing by far is the doll’s eyes. Emma has taken close-up photos of the eye of the moose… blown them up, cut them out, and stitched them onto the plain white face… Henry can almost seem them move.”

The mysteriously disturbing Emma/Danner plot line is by far my favorite, not only because it is so unnerving but also because its ending is startling. Unfortunately, not all the plot lines end so creatively, and most likely the astute reader may not be completely surprised by the ending.  McMahon gives readers just a little too much foreshadowing and a few too many clues. Strangely though, the characters in the book never seem to grasp any of these clues and are completely surprised at the end of the story, which is a little disappointing.

While some of the characters may seem a tad unsuspecting, the book provides more than enough thrills and chills to compensate and is an engaging read. Tess and Henry may be a little forgettable; Emma, Danner, and the haunting imagery are not, though. The thought of those frogs will make me shiver for the rest of the summer.



We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Jason Molina's Mythological Palette, Warts and All

// Re:Print

"Osmon lights the oil lamps on the process of Molina’s creative wonder, from toddling on the shores of Lake Erie to the indie folk pedestal he so deservedly sits upon today.

READ the article