The Third Parent (Thought Catalog)
By Elias Witherow
Everything changed in Jack’s life the day his family heard an unexpected knock on the door. For the next four years, they lived in abject terror at the cruel hand of Tommy Taffy. Tommy was an inhuman creature, resembling a life-size Ken doll, who insisted he was there to help the parents raise their children right. At night he would force them to sit in the living room and listen to his lectures on being good people. Then Tommy would debase, violate, and forever scar the four helpless residents of this home. Jack is an adult now, and he doesn’t know it, but his path is hurtling towards a bloody, violent reunion with Tommy very soon.
I first came across the Tommy Taffy short stories earlier this year. They are just some of the wonderful horror fiction written by up and comer Elias Witherow. I previously reviewed his short story collection The Worst Kind of Monsters and the Tommy Taffy stories. Now, Witherow has gone back to write what appears to the final chapter in the Tommy Taffy series in this novel, The Third Parent.
I was trepidatious at first when I saw this novel, thinking Witherow may just repurpose and elongated his original quartet of stories. Thankfully, this is a continuation of a different family with a much different outcome. A line near the end of the novel reveals the events of the previous stories are still in canon and that Tommy’s grasp is incredibly far-reaching. With echoes of Stephen King’s IT, Witherow explains the origins of Tommy and provides a satisfying end to the story. I also detected light touches of David Lynch as the idea of dreams and questions about the boundaries of our reality and the possibility of ones beyond our surface in the final act.
In the original short stories, the pace was quick, and so violence erupted frequently. In the novel, the story is allowed to slow down, and we get to delve deep into the psyche of our protagonist. The trauma is much more palpable in his adulthood then we had in the short stories, and he becomes almost as a frightening figure as Tommy. When the true violent nature of Tommy finally does surface, it is unrelenting. For most of the novel he implies and threatens, but when the dam finally bursts you realize how genuinely monstrous he is. He has no real desire to kill, rather forcing people to witness their family members’ suffering is his chosen tool of submission.
As I said in my Roots of Fear analysis of the themes of the short stories, the overlying message here is about society’s complicity in domestic abuse. The novel comes dangerously close to being a little too didactic and on the nose but shows restraint from becoming a rant. There is a strong enough focus on the characters that you don’t get pulled too far out of the fiction. That said, I would have liked the book to have been a little longer, especially when it comes to developing characters outside of the protagonist. His older sister doesn’t get as much of a spotlight I would have preferred developing her more as this would have led to an even stronger connection in a very dark scene about mid-way through.
Witherow continues to carve out a unique niche in contemporary horror. His monsters always feel different from anything else I’ve read or seen. My familiarity with IT and Pennywise, the clown, go only as far as the films, but I would argue Tommy Taffy is a remarkably more horrific figure. The intimacy of Tommy’s evil is what cuts so deep. Pennywise wants to consume you, but Tommy wants to break you and make you submit entirely out of your helplessness. I am very interested in following Witherow’s career and discovering what other monsters he comes up with.