REVIEW: “The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek” by Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal

bleak creekI’ve been a fan of Rhett and Link’s for a while now. Their content is so wholesome and enjoyable – and they grew up fairly close to where I live – so it’s hard for me not to enjoy their stuff. My love of Rhett and Link is what led me to their first novel, The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek. Were it not to have been written by them, it likely would have never made its way onto my radar. But, with its connection to these YouTubers, I eagerly awaited the publication of the book, unsure of exactly what to expect. Well, having read The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek definitely feels like a first novel. And I don’t really mean that as an insult, but an author’s first novel is often very imperfect and that’s exactly what The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek is – imperfect. There are a lot of really good ideas and characters scattered throughout the book, but it’s all a bit hampered by too-few pages and uneven pacing. (Mild Spoilers for The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek follow.)

The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek by Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal
It’s 1992 in Bleak Creek, North Carolina—a sleepy little place with all the trappings of an ordinary Southern town: two Baptist churches, friendly smiles coupled with silent judgments, and an unquenchable appetite for pork products. Beneath the town’s cheerful façade, however, Bleak Creek teens live in constant fear of being sent to the Whitewood School, a local reformatory with a history of putting unruly youths back on the straight and narrow—a record so impeccable that almost everyone is willing to ignore the suspicious deaths that have occurred there over the past decade.

At first, high school freshmen Rex McClendon and Leif Nelson believe what they’ve been told: that the students’ strange demises were all just tragic accidents, the unfortunate consequence of succumbing to vices like Marlboro Lights and Nirvana. But when the shoot for their low-budget horror masterpiece, PolterDog, goes horribly awry—and their best friend, Alicia Boykins, is sent to Whitewood as punishment—Rex and Leif are forced to question everything they know about their unassuming hometown and its cherished school for delinquents.

Eager to rescue their friend, Rex and Leif pair up with recent NYU film school graduate Janine Blitstein to begin piecing together the unsettling truth of the school and its mysterious founder, Wayne Whitewood. What they find will leave them battling an evil beyond their wildest imaginations—one that will shake Bleak Creek to its core.

Let’s talk about the good stuff first. This is a very promising debut novel from Rhett and Link. There’s a really solid mystery at the heart of the novel, surrounded by some genuinely compelling and relatable characters who the reader quickly comes to care for. The mystery, though taking a bit of time to be set up, is suitably creepy and mysterious. It feels like a mixture of Stranger Things, Stephen King’s stories, and Steven Spielberg’s films – in the best possible way. It’s one of those mysteries that envelops you immediately upon discovering it, one that makes you not want to set the book down until you’ve learned all there is to know about it. On the whole, it’s a fairly well-executed mystery as all of our main characters seek to unravel the truth about what’s going on in the Whitewood school. Speaking of the characters, aside from the central mystery, the characters are the most interesting aspect of the story. There’s a great diversity in the characters – most notably in their ages and genders. Rex and Leif, the main characters, are teenage boys; Alice, their best friend, is a teenage girl; Donna and Janine are cousins in the mid-to-late twenties; etc.

Rhett and Link do a very solid job of bouncing back and forth from their various points of view, allowing the reader to intimately know each of the four main characters. Alicia’s POV gives us our best look inside the Whitewood School and all that’s happening there, but we spend so little time with her that it’s hard to fully get a grip on that stuff. The same is true for Janine’s POV chapters; there’s something very interesting about a filmmaker coming to this town and trying to make a film about what’s going on (and the resolution to her storyline is really interesting) but I also wish we’d spent a bit more time with her. Instead, most of the book is told from the POVs of either Rex or Leif. Which, to be honest, makes sense since they’re clearly designed as stand-ins for Rhett and Link, themselves. And, to be fair, Rex and Leif are interesting characters. They’re rambunctious and nerdy and full of passion and determination. It’s very easy to root for them throughout the story and seeing these two very normal kids forced to cope with all that is going on in Bleak Creek does make for a really fun Spielbergian adventure. I just wish we got to spend a bit more time with Alicia and Janine.

This actually perfectly segues into my problems with the novel. The biggest problem with the book is its pacing. It honestly feels like the story needed another hundred pages to really do everything it wanted to do. Like Stephen Speilberg’s films and Stephen King’s stories, much of The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek is focused not on what’s actually happening in Bleak Creek but on how Rex, Leif and the other characters react to what’s happening. This isn’t necessarily a bad approach to take with a story like this – grounding a supernatural plot with the very real reactions of those living through it is a great tactic to use to get an audience on board with what’s happening – but what King and Speilberg do that Rhett and Link couldn’t quite do is balance the elements of what’s actually going on and how the characters react to it. The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek probably spends a bit too much time setting up the world and exploring the interpersonal dynamics of the characters and not enough time actually establishing the real threat of the mystery. So, when the dangers of the Whitewood House start becoming apparent, it’s hard to fully buy it as we don’t really know anything about it and haven’t spent enough time properly building it up.

Speaking of that, it takes over nearly a third of the book for the real mystery to actually be revealed and then it takes another third of the book for us to make any actual progress on the mystery, but then right as the final third is starting, the answers are just revealed to the reader.  Normally, the reader would learn the truth about the mystery alongside one or more of the characters, but that’s not really what happens here. There’s literally a chapter where we, the readers, are just told what’s going on and why in an extremely expository way and then we never really get to see the characters learn this information; they learn parts of it but it’s unclear if they learn all of it. The whole thing is just handled really strangely; it’s as if Rhett and Link realized at the last second they hadn’t actually properly explained what was going on, so they shoehorned an extremely expository chapter into the novel so the reader could better understand the climax. Solving the mystery in this manner totally undercuts the climax, though, as it robs readers of the chance to get to see the characters react to this revelation. They know bits of it, but we know all of it and getting to see the characters properly react to it would always be more interesting than the (fairly anticlimactic) climax we got. It’s not a bad ending or anything, but it does feel like it could’ve been so much more if they had more time to do it. And that makes it a bit disappointing for me.

There’s a few other sorta weird nitpicks about the writing of the novel that I wanna mention as it adds to the idea that The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek feels and reads like a debut novel. There’s a common saying that new authors should “write what they know” and that’s exactly what Rhett and Link do as this book is littered with references to their childhood. The main characters are clearly named after, and based on, Rhett and Link and the whole novel feels very North Carolina-ish, what with the pig-picking, thinly-veiled racism, and overt religious tones in the small town of Bleak Creek – which feels like an obvious stand-in for Buies Creek (also Harland County instead of Harnett County, where Buies Creek is located). The names are honestly a little distracting because, while obviously partly inspired by their childhood, this is clearly not something they actually went through and it feels a bit too on the nose to basically name their main characters after themselves. None of this is a bad thing but it did pull me out of the story numerous times and felt like the kind of thing first-time authors do in their first books that more experienced ones shy away from unless they are literally writing about a thing that actually happened to them – which clearly is not the case here. It’s not a major problem, but it was something that irked me a bit and hampered some of my enjoyment.

All in all, The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek is a solid debut novel from Rhett and Link. It’s certainly imperfect, littered with some of the tell-tale signs of a debut novel and suffering from a severe case of too-much-story, not-enough-pages. But all of that aside, it’s very enjoyable. Even with the pacing issues, everything moves along at a brisk pace that keeps you deeply invested in reading the next chapter and seeing what Rex and Leif are up to or how Alicia is handling her time in Whitewood School or how Janine intends to unravel this mystery through her films. As for the mystery? It may have a less-than-stellar conclusion, but it’s still a very intriguing and well-developed conspiracy. I wish more time had been spent with it, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, either. The shining stars of the novel are easily its characters, all of whom feel fully realized and instantly relatable. It’s easy to root for them and Rhett and Link do an excellent job at bringing readers into their heads through numerous different POV chapters. All in all, if you like these kinds of stories or if you’re a fan of Rhett and Link, it’s a book worth checking out. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a fun read and a good way to spend a dark, dreary fall/winter afternoon.

3.5 out of 5 wands.

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