Published: 24th December 2017
One cold November night in 2014, in a small town in the northwest of England, 21-year-old Arla Macleod bludgeoned her mother, stepfather and younger sister to death with a hammer, in an unprovoked attack known as the Macleod Massacre. Now incarcerated at a medium-security mental-health institution, Arla will speak to no one but Scott King, an investigative journalist, whose Six Stories podcasts have become an internet sensation.
King finds himself immersed in an increasingly complex case, interviewing five key witnesses and Arla herself, as he questions whether Arla’s responsibility for the massacre was as diminished as her legal team made out.
As he unpicks the stories, he finds himself thrust into a world of deadly forbidden ‘games’, online trolls, and the mysterious black-eyed kids, whose presence seems to extend far beyond the delusions of a murderess…
Sometimes not every book in a series can be flawless, and this is a case in point. With an excellent if distinctly chilling concept to begin with as it takes a deep dive into exploring the finest aspects of human psychology, it initially has all the makings of being another outstanding instalment in the Six Stories collection, only for the plot to gradually lose all sense of direction.
The familiar podcast format which works so well acts as a reliable guide, but here it proves that the narrative style can only be so effective if the story does not hold up. Although like always it handles some extremely delicate subject matter in a sensitive and highly thought-provoking way, a lack of cohesion sets in and as a result it feels rather muddled, with the twists at the end not quite having the impact they should.
One night in November 2014, a young woman called Arla McLeod bludgeoned her family to death while suffering from psychosis, and having admitted to her actions at the scene she was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. She is now serving her sentence at Elmtree Manor, a secure hospital, where elusive online journalist Scott King has been given exclusive access to interview Arla for the latest series of his podcast.
Scott wants to understand Arla’s state of mind and what drove her to kill her family in such brutal fashion. He learns that she had experienced multiple visions of so-called Black-Eyed Kids, groups of mysterious children who would appear in certain places. Arla claims they visited her that night. They also discuss how she was represented by the media and the public during her trial and sentencing.
The following episodes of the podcast look into Arla’s troubled upbringing and how she was deeply influenced by Skexxixx, a musician with a pseudo-Goth image whose songs contained dark, nihilistic themes. As he learns more, Scott becomes convinced that a holiday to Cornwall as a teenager was the catalyst for Arla’s eventual actions, but his investigation is jeopardised when he starts to receive a series of threatening messages from an anonymous source.
It all starts off so promisingly with the first episode, which is Scott’s interview with Arla herself. A lot of questions are raised and at that point all aspects of the case are incredibly fascinating. There are the insights into Arla’s state of mind, the social commentary and debate over her detention, and the claims of how Skexxixx’s lyrics helped drive her to commit such a violent act. We already know that she is guilty, but the thought of knowing more feels like a tantalising prospect.
The problems start when Scott receives the first threatening text message, as from there the plot loses focus and gradually the discussion becomes less about Arla and more about the topic of online abuse. While it does lead to quite a compelling final episode, it feels out of place and instead sums up a story that seriously lacks a clear direction.
That is further epitomised by a series of interviewees between episodes two and five, whose connections to Arla were tenuous at best, with the possible exception of Paulette. That makes it a frustrating read as it means we end up finding out so little, even though the portrayals of Angel and Anthony as two social misfits who just wanted to be accepted, was fairly powerful. Otherwise, all the talk about Skexxixx and bizarre online challenges just got rather tiresome.
Even the wonderful podcast format does not manage to rescue things. Like every other book in the series it is written in the form of a transcript, with Scott’s narration in italics. In between each episode there are mysterious recordings of Arla speaking to a therapist, which are relatively hard to follow at first but make more sense as you approach the end.
Arla is a really complex character and despite the fact she has committed an unspeakable crime, there are moments where you are surprisingly made to feel sorry for her – indeed it is Arla herself and the unpredictability that she brings that ensure the opening episode is the highlight of the book. As for some of the other contributors, they were at least authentic. Angel had the air of someone who had not quite grown up yet and Anthony provided a sense of rationality, while Tessa was annoyingly non-committal, which in fairness Scott is very quick to point out.
There are no real settings that stand out other than the clinical environment of Elmtree Manor that is used a good case study as the basis for some of the questions about whether Arla is receiving suitable punishment for her crime. Then again, there is a murky atmosphere that prevails here, with eerie descriptions of the Black Eyed Kids, the falling London rain while Scott interviews Angel, and the general unhappiness of Arla’s life.
In between episodes five and six there is an unexpected twist, but that allows the full picture to emerge about the recordings and the person threatening Scott. From there I managed to work things out quickly, and then we get another twist at the very end which should come as a major surprise but actually it felt a bit contrived and because the story had not been at all gripping for a while until then, I was unmoved by it.
Overall, this series is so consistently brilliant that it was a shock to the system to see this one slide from its fabulous premise to become a disappointing read. For all of the many topics it covers with great detail and depth of thought, the plot just deteriorates and each passing episode does not offer the insight you crave, so this particular series of the podcast does not live up to the rest.
This book does deal with numerous difficult topics that you may want to be aware of before reading. The main theme that runs throughout is about mental health, with lengthy discussions about psychosis and hallucinations, while it also covers bullying, cyber-bullying, and online abuse.
Elsewhere, there is injury detail relating to how Arla killed her family, fatphobia, and implied sexual assault.
So disappointing! I have loved all four of the other books in this series that I have read to date and for that reason I thought there was no chance of this one being anything different. I enjoyed the start, but the story just became less and less interesting as it went on.
My rating: ⭐⭐