A group of children discover that their small hometown is a focal point of supernatural energy and unexplained happenings. Their search for explanations ends ambiguously; years later, they have largely moved on with their lives and have tried to put the past behind them. But a mysterious message from the only member of the group left behind calls them back to fulfill their vows and take on the evil they failed to stop.
If you’ve been into pop culture at all over the past few decades, you’ll probably recognize that as a description of Stephen King’s 1986 Itadapted into two hit movies in 2017 and 2019. But that same description is also the plot of Sara Flannery Murphy’s new novel, The Wonder State.
The Wonder State definitely owes a debt to King, both in its overall setup and its structure, which alternates two timelines, high school and adult. However, there are also important differences. Murphy’s novel is set in the (fictional) town of Eternal Springs in Arkansas, nestled in the Ozarks, rather than the (fictional) town of Derry in Maine. King’s book is horror; Murphy’s straddles the line between fantasy and magical realism.
And, perhaps most importantly, despite there being fewer scenes of horrendous mutilation by evil clowns, The Wonder State in many ways cuts deeper than its predecessor. For King, the adversary was that evil clown first and perhaps accomplice adults second; the friendship of the young protagonists was pure and unbreakable. In contrast, in Murphy’s novel, the real horror is that your friends were never really who you thought they were, and that while betrayal can be made worse by maturity, the seeds are sown almost as soon as you find someone to betray.
Murphy’s novel is mostly told from Jay’s perspective. In 1999, Jay is a high school student, aspiring artist, and social outcast still struggling with her mother’s suicide. Jay’s only friend, Brandi, lives on the brink of poverty with her stepfather Gene.
Then Jay and Brandi unexpectedly befriend Hilma and Max, the glamorous and wealthy children of painters who are drawn to the area for a year by the local color and an artist’s fair.
Hilma is convinced that a reclusive and mentally ill architect, Theodora Trader, has built some magical houses in Eternal Springs. Jay and Brandi confirm; they have long attended a Truth House, where (as the name says) people are forced to speak only the truth. Together with class brain Charlie and football hero Iggy, the four go in search of the other houses and what Hilma believes is a door to another world.
That door is a not exactly hidden metaphor for escape – from a small town with limited possibilities, from abusive families and peers, from painful memories. Hilma and Max symbolize the magic of a world beyond Eternal Springs, a fantasy land of possibility.
However, Hilma and Max are also just children – and, in the end, just adults. When Brandi, who never leaves Eternal Springs, calls the rest home in 2015, Jay abandons her burgeoning art career in Albany. By the time she gets home, Brandi has disappeared and the rest of her friends are more or less successful, but not exactly fairytale-like.
Part of the misfortune is that they were dragged back to Eternal Springs in the first place, putting their lives and projects on hold to take part in a futile search for their missing friend. Charlie, who is black and gay, most eloquently and sharply expresses the collective anger and despair. “I deserve to grow beyond my childhood friendships without sacrificing everything I’ve made,” he says.
Young people don’t choose where or with whom they grow up; they don’t even realize how limited their options are. Few people want to be their high school selves for the rest of their lives. Everyone – and maybe especially people like Charlie or Brandi – deserves a chance to become someone who doesn’t let the limitations or trauma of high school dictate them.
But Eternal Springs isn’t just a trap that draws the friends back in. It’s also a kind of magic that puts their lives in the shadows, not because they can’t escape, but because they can’t return. Jay and Iggy had a brief romance last year that neither of them really passed. The magic of Eternal Springs also haunts the others, both with maybe-been and present-day temptations. And they all carry the guilt of betraying Brandi by leaving her to clean up and take the blame for the mess they left behind, magical and otherwise.
Perhaps the biggest difference between The Wonder State And It– or most other children’s find-magic books – is fate. Jay hopes magic will make them “better people,” like Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy become warriors, kings, and queens in CS Lewis’s Narnia series. But Charlie is skeptical. They’re not royalty, he says; “Chances are we were not prophesied or foretold.”
The past and the future and the magic of both make you. But even more so maybe they are what you make of them. “We’re not going to fight an old evil that can only be overcome by boring teenagers,” says Charlie. The dangers they face are more mundane: abusive parents, condescending parents, low grade bullying, police, poverty, their own ignorance, greed, infidelity and cruelty. It may have made sense for Stephen King, already one of the most popular writers in the world, to see the small town as a launching pad for great achievements – all of its young adventurers become rich and/or famous. Murphy’s earlier novels on the other hand, Girl one And The possessionswere successful but not That successful – just as Jay’s artistic career is promising, but not magical.
This isn’t to say that Murphy’s book is any gloomier than It. The Wonder State is not grim, or even unrelentingly sad. It’s bittersweet, on a small, human scale, with no evil clowns, eldritch evils, or Y2K apocalypse. Jay doesn’t save the world, and her attempts to save her friends or herself are occasionally successful at best. But friendship, home and magic will still have a place in her life if she finds a way to make a place for them. In general, you don’t live forever in a state of wonder. However, sometimes a visit is enough.