We challenge you to read the gripping opening to J Robert Lennon's stunning new psychological thriller, Broken River, without being desperate to know what happens next.

Following a string of affairs, Karl and Eleanor move with their twelve-year-old daughter Irina from Brooklyn to a newly renovated, apparently charming old house near the upstate New York town of Broken River.

Before their arrival, the house stood empty for over a decade. The reason is no secret: a brutal double murder took place there, a young couple killed in front of their child. The crime was never solved, and most locals consider the house cursed.

The family may have left the deceptions of their city life behind them, but all three are still lying to each other, and to themselves. Before long the family's duplicity will unleash forces none of them could possibly have anticipated, putting them in mortal danger. 

Broken River is out on 1st June. Read the first chapter below. 

1.

It is a few minutes past one in the morning when the front door slams shut. Anyone remaining in the house – but there is no one – would be able to hear, through the closed door, the footsteps of three people hurrying across the porch and down the stairs. There are voices, too – a man’s and a woman’s, and a child’s. The adults are quiet, or they are trying to be quiet, but their voices betray strong emotion: fear, in the case of the woman; and in the case of the man, impatience and frustration, which could easily be interpreted as a response to his own fear. The child’s voice is plaintive and confused, as though she (a girl, most likely, of around five) has been awoken from sleep and hurried out of the house without explanation.

The state of the now-empty house would suggest that this is precisely what has happened. Many of the lights have been left on. In the kitchen, the dinner dishes are still soaking under sudsy water in the sink, and a drawer and a cabinet have been left open and disordered, as though objects have been removed from them in haste. Three of the four mismatched wooden chairs that surround a small table – its laminated plastic surface scratched and gouged and peeling up at one corner – are pushed neatly underneath it; the fourth is lying on its side upon a linoleum floor that is equally scratched and gouged. A few coins lie on the tabletop, along with a half-empty pack of cigarettes, one of which burns in a white plastic ashtray.

Anyone standing in the kitchen right now would hear, through the screened, half-open window over the sink, footsteps on gravel outside. The three people – the man, woman, and child – have evidently reached a driveway or parking area adjacent to the porch. The man and woman are arguing, and it is possible to determine from their tone that they are trying to decide upon something quickly, and don’t agree about the proper course of action. An especially perceptive listener might describe the woman’s voice as accusatory, and the man’s as defensive, and might be willing to imagine a scenario in which the man is to blame for this crisis, and in which the woman is registering her displeasure about the circumstances that led to it. The child, meanwhile, has begun to cry, and is demanding something that has been left behind. If an observer in the house were to climb the stairs that lead up from the kitchen, he or she would reach a narrow hallway interrupted by three doorways. Two of them are open right now, and light spills through them onto the frayed hall carpet. The first of the doors is on the left, and behind it lies a small bedroom: clearly the child’s. The bed is unmade; open drawers interrupt the face of a painted bureau. Some clothes appear to have been hastily grabbed from these drawers; a few articles have fallen on the floor. One drawer has tumbled out of the bureau entirely and lies face-down on the pink-painted wide-plank floor, on a pile of small socks and underpants. Also visible on the floor, between the upturned drawer and the bed, is a stuffed toy frog. Perhaps this is the item that the crying child is demanding.

If so, the child’s parents do not sound enthusiastic about the possibility of coming back to retrieve it. Instead, their footsteps in the gravel outside have stopped, and the jingle of keys can be heard in the still night air. It is even possible to see them now, from the child’s room: if an observer here were to turn off the overhead light and move to the open window, he or she could make out the family standing around a station wagon parked at an awkward angle on a weedy gravel drive. The car is a Volvo, from the mid-eighties, perhaps, with rust eating away at the edges of the doors and in the wheel wells. It is hard to tell the color by starlight (tonight is a clear night), but gray or light blue would be a good bet. The man has gotten the driver’s side door open and has dived into the car, and the woman is shouting at him – she is no longer trying to keep silent – to unlock the other doors. The man curses, and there is a moment of relative quiet wherein an attentive observer could discern the sound of the other locks popping open. The child is wailing now – she is clearly terrified by this strange nocturnal excursion and by the unprecedented desperation of her parents. The woman flings the rear passenger-side door open and pushes the child inside. She is in there for several long seconds, attempting to reassure the child that all will be well, in a tone of voice that indicates the precise opposite. Perhaps she is attempting to fasten the child’s seat belt. The man is shouting at her to just get in, fucking get in with her and close the door. In the end the woman obeys, and before the door is even shut, the engine has been started and the car begins to execute a sloppy three-point turn. At last the car is pointed away from the house; it is thrown into gear, and the tires spin, sending a shower of gravel out behind it.

If the observer in the house were to leave the child’s room and continue down the hallway to the next open door, the one on the right, he or she would find a larger, similarly disrupted bedroom. It would seem to belong to the man and the woman. The bed is mussed, with the sheets pushed down to its foot, but only one side appears to have been slept in. A collection of items on the small table at this bedside – a paperback romance, a snarled elastic band with several long hairs tangled in it, and a single earring (its twin is lying on the floor, in the shadow of the bed) – make it appear likely that it is the woman who lay here alone tonight. Perhaps, then, it was the man who stayed up smoking at the kitchen table.

The third room will have to remain unexamined for now, because a new sound is demanding our observer’s attention. It is emanating from the now-darkened child’s bedroom: or, rather, from its open window. The sound is that of a car – the mid-eighties Volvo station wagon, it would seem – scraping through brush and crashing against the trunk of a tree. There is a shout – the woman’s. Something, some obstruction or unexpected event, has caused the man to steer the car off the drive and into the woods. As the observer turns and approaches the room for a second time, light sweeps through it, and out the door and into the hall: headlights: not of the now-disabled Volvo, but of a new vehicle that has come up the drive towards the house. Car doors open with a rusted groan: the Volvo’s. Another car’s doors can be heard to shut, cleanly, quietly: this car is newer, denser, larger.

Heavy footsteps break twigs and crush leaves. There are shouts – men issuing commands, to one another, to the fleeing family. Someone, doubtless the woman from the house, is screaming – at first in surprise, then in alarm, and then in outright terror. Then, for a few moments, the woods are quiet. The chaotic action that immediately followed the accident has ceased. The woman, for now, is no longer screaming. Only the man can be heard; he pants and grunts; he weakly protests. Now the woman begins to cry. Deep male voices ask sharp questions, issue threats. The man and woman attempt to respond, to comply, but their efforts are evidently ineffective. Flesh can be heard to come into violent contact with flesh. The man groans. The woman yelps, begs.

It is unlikely that any genuinely feeling person could bear to hear the sounds that come next, not for more than a few seconds. And so let us assume that our observer is not a real person, but merely the idea of an observer: an invisible presence without corporeal substance, incapable of engaging emotionally with the sounds that reach the house. These sounds are to last for nearly fifteen minutes. They are the sounds of suffering: the man and woman are enduring physical and emotional agony. It is unclear whether information is being extracted from them; or if they are being punished for something they have done, or are supposed to have done; or if these acts are merely sadistic. In any event, they are acts of physically violent, sexual, and psychological torture, and the man and woman react the way any human animal does when the last of its defenses have been stripped away and it is facing the inevitability of its own death. It is not necessary to describe those reactions here, only that they come to an end following two short, sharp noises: gunshots.

There is silence once again. Then the male voices return, quieter now, more efficient. Three of them: it is not necessary to discern the differences among them. The three men are working together. They effect movement in the brush; they grunt, as though lifting something heavy. A quiet metallic snick implies the opening of a car trunk or rear door, and a thump indicates that a heavy object has been placed roughly inside. This sound is accompanied by the clanking of wood and metal, as though some tools have been displaced by the heavy object: shovels, perhaps. This process – the lifting, conveyance, and depositing of something heavy – is repeated, and followed a moment later by the opening and closing of the newer car’s doors. The glare from its headlights, which during the chaos of the last half hour has remained fixed upon the walls of the child’s bedroom and of the hall outside it, once again begins to move, and the sound of the car’s engine recedes into the distance. And then, one of the Volvo’s doors opens and closes, and its engine starts up. It seems that, with some effort, its new driver has managed to extract the station wagon from the brush and navigate it back onto the gravel drive. Soon, it too is gone, in the same direction as the new car, albeit with an altered set of wheel and engine noises: scrapings and knockings and a rhythmic clanking, as of a fan blade bent off true. The Volvo is not right. Surely it is barely roadworthy. Our observer might conclude that the car, like its former occupants just minutes before, was nearing the end of its functional life. In fact, it is likely that it will never be seen or heard again.

For some time, the only sounds audible from the house are of the wind in the trees – it seems as though a storm may be coming – and the creaking of the front door on its hinges. The door was left open by the fleeing man and woman. The wind has come into the house and it has begun to move other things – some papers left out on the kitchen counter, a bit of onionskin on the linoleum behind the pantry door. The lit cigarette in the ashtray burns faster, and the wind pushes its smoke away, at an acute angle, towards the further recesses of the house. The cigarette is propped in one of the three heat-discolored notches cut equidistantly along the ashtray’s edge; in twenty minutes the line dividing the intact cigarette and the ash has reached the notch, and the remaining unconsumed cigarette tips back and tumbles silently onto the table’s surface. 

Now, in a gust, doors slam shut throughout the house. The front door is the last, and loudest. Rain – big drops of rain – begin to fall outside, intermittently at first, then in a steady if irregular rhythm, and then in a torrent. After three minutes of this, rapid footsteps sound on the porch and the front door opens only wide enough to admit a lone person before it closes again behind her.

It is the child. She’s crying – sobbing wildly, choking on her sobs – and mucus drips from her nose and over her lips. She locks the door behind her and calls out to her parents. Of course there is no answer. The child does not appear surprised. She knows that something unprecedented, terrible, and irreversible has happened, and that her parents are not likely to answer. At the same time, she believes the opposite: that her parents are nearby and will soon come to her aid. This is, after all, the only arrangement she knows. For a few minutes more the child stands in the vestibule, continuing to cry, her arms hanging at her sides, her eyes darting wildly, surveying the interior of the house, which our observer might guess she suddenly sees as alien, subtly and permanently changed, as though in a dream. At last the crying stops, and the child stands panting and rubbing her face. She takes a few steps into the kitchen. It appears to frighten her. She takes note of the fallen chair and the few scraps of blown paper lying beside it. After a time, she moves a few feet to her left, slowly, her back sliding along the kitchen wall. Then she lowers herself to the floor and sits there, her legs splayed out like a doll’s.

The child is wearing a thick cotton nightgown printed with pictures of suns, rainclouds, birds, and umbrellas. She moves a hand up to the neckline and begins to twist the fabric around her pointer finger. She then puts this knot of cloth into her mouth and chews on it, champing with her bicuspids, like a dog with a bone. Her eyes stare straight ahead, unseeing, and the fabric is soon dark with saliva. She falls asleep, and the nightgown-wrapped finger drops from her open mouth. But the finger remains tangled in the wet fabric and her arm hangs there, stretching out the nightgown at the neck. The child snores. The rain continues to fall.  

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

Want more like this? Sign up to our monthly newsletter