The Forbidden Zone – Tom Trott

*I received a free copy of this book, with thanks to the author.  The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*

Blurb: Every summer camp has its campfire stories, and that’s all they are: stories. But not here.

On the surface, Boys Club Camp is just like every other British summer camp: strict officers, woodland games, and night-time pranks. But Tommy remembers that summer in ’97, the year he turned thirteen, when he was the only one plagued with those little niggling questions: Why does the sound of howling cut through the cold night air? Why are the officers so obsessed with the legacy of Boys Club’s long-dead founder? Why aren’t boys allowed in the east woods?

A scream heard in the night led Tommy and his friends on a journey of discovery, to solve a mystery a hundred years in the making: what is the real purpose of Boys Club? The answer could only be found in the dark heart of the woods: the Forbidden Zone. Now an adult, Tommy needs to understand what they found there. It is his last hope of saving their lives.

The Forbidden Zone is about 80% coming of age drama, 20% wild paranormal horror.

For most of the story, we get a slow, claustrophobic exploration of a boy’s summer camp: the bickering and competitiveness; the toxic masculinity of some of the adults and the silent complicity of the more sympathetic, but less dominant figures; the utter helplessness of childhood when faced with adult authority, backed by parents and peers.

The story is told as a written account from an adult, married Tommy, as he takes us back through some experience from that time that has left such an indelible mark on his psyche that he is waking up shaking and terrified. So, this is his cathartic account of events in the summer of 1997 at Boy’s Camp (similar to the Boy Scouts in some aspects, but not all!)

Even with the clear promise of some thrilling action from the very start, the slow-pace throughout most of the novel fooled me into thinking that maybe Tommy was exaggerating the trauma of the remembered events. The sadistic deputy leader of camp, and the prospect of losing his close connection to his best friend seem to be the biggest threats to Tommy’s safety at camp, even with a few odd chalk markings and midnight prowlings.

Then, suddenly, about three quarters of the way through the story, just as camp seems to be winding down without major incident, everything implodes and the final section of the story is all frenetic action and occult insanity. It could almost be a completely different book – if it hadn’t been for the subtle hints and building pressure that gently led the characters, and reader, to the tipping point.

This action-packed grand finale takes some careful reading, as there are only a small number of characters, but as they rush about the woods in the dark, it got rather confusing trying to keep track of what was going on. I couldn’t stop reading at that point, even if I had wanted to, as I was completely invested in Tom, Ant, Floyd, Danny and the other boys, and desperately needed to know whether they’d all make it out in one piece. I even felt a bit sorry for some of the adults – Pip and Terence, especially – as Tom’s investigations uncover the truth about what happened to them in the past to make them who they are.

Tom Trott has perfectly captured the haunting hopelessness of a boy on the cusp on manhood, who doesn’t feel he fits into the template of manliness laid before him and is conscious of how the children and adults around him perceive his differences. The horror aspects too, are well-written and chilling, as the slow simmer rises to boiling over. The only issue I had here was the uneven pacing. It felt a little frustrating to sit through every daily recitation of the next day’s itinerary, and to witness every exchange of “inane chatter” during the day-long orienteering challenge, and I did feel that some of the frantic action at the end could have been spread out a little more, to spice up those longer, slower patches.

Having said that, I freely admit that I was gripped by the characters and enjoyed the unusual twists the story took as it unfolded – it felt something like the slow climb of a rollercoaster, followed by the breathless fall!

I’ve read other novels by Tom Trott (his Brighton Detective series) and this latest book proves that he is a skilful and versatile writer, so I will be looking out for his next story, whether mystery or horror, with interest.

”The problem with you lot is that you don’t respect your elders!’ he thundered.

‘Respect is earned,’ I chimed in. That was me, I was a smartarse. But it was true. There are two meanings of the word respect: it can mean treating someone like an authority, and it can mean treating someone like a human being. And because of that there are people who like to say “if you don’t respect me, I won’t respect you”, but what they mean by that is “if you don’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a human being”. Pudding was one of those people.

‘You’re always so clever,’ he shot back. They always told me that like it was an insult.

– Tom Trott, The Forbidden Zone


Find more from Tom Trott at his website here, or follow him on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Goodreads.

You can find my thoughts on his Brighton Detective trilogy on the following links: You Can’t Make Old FriendsChoose Your Parents WiselyIt Never Goes Away, and Tom’s thoughts on Ira Levin here.

The Forbidden Zone is available on Amazon right now.

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