“One of the hardest things about recovery is coming to terms with the fact that you can’t trust your brain anymore. In fact, you need to understand that your brain has become your own worst enemy. It will steer you toward bad choices, override logic and common sense, and warp your most cherished memories into impossible fantasies,” (Rekulak 5).
Mallory Quinn is eighteen-months sober and finds herself a babysitting job in the privileged neighbourhood on Spring Brook, New Jersey. Ted and Caroline Maxwell seem like kind and doting parents who will do anything for their five-year-old son Teddy, who takes an immediate shine to Mallory, and she loves her job. The neighbourhood is safe for her nightly runs, she enjoys the cottage pool house that she lives in, and she loves looking after Teddy, and Teddy loves showing Mallory the pictures he draws. They’re the sweet sort of drawings one expects from a kid: a rabbit, a balloon, of Mallory herself. But then one day Teddy gives her a picture of a woman’s body being dragged through the woods, and then the pictures get more disturbing and far more detailed than a five-year-old is capable of drawing. But when Mallory finds out that a young artist was murdered in the cottage she now calls home years before, she wonders if Teddy’s drawings may be a message from the young woman. Mallory sets out to find out what the spirit wants from her and Teddy before it’s too late.
I have a lot to say about this book, so spoilers ahead!
I have to say, this is the first time I’ve read a book that jumped the shark in it’s last third. It’s honestly impressive how the story changed at almost exactly the three-hundred-page mark. And it’s really disappointing, because Hidden Pictures started off as a really good horror. I mean, it was literally Goodreads Reader’s Choice for Horror for 2022. I’ll admit, I hadn’t heard of the book until I was reading the Goodreads Reader’s Choice Winners, but it won and I was intrigued, that had to count for something.
And honestly, Rekulak pulled me in. I loved how he wrote Mallory’s voice, it was simple and vague, hinting at a darker, tragic past without actually giving anything away. He made Mallory suspicious and flawed, a character that I was truly rooting for. The story was creepy, the writing was easy to follow, I was hooked. I wanted to know what happened to Annie Barret, the artist who had died in Mallory’s cottage, I wanted to know what Teddy was doing during Quiet Time and what his drawings meant. And the drawings are easily the best part of this book. Doogie Horner and Will Staehl do an excellent job creating perfectly creepy childish illustrations that I wouldn’t keep or put on my fridge if a kid gave them to me and seamlessly transitions into the gorgeous professional illustrations that come later in the book. They’re beautiful, they’re sickening, they’re terrifying and really enhanced the overall creep factor of the book. I was so into the story, I thought Hidden Pictures might be a new favourite horror for me.
But the ending…
Last chance to leave, otherwise, WELCOME TO SPOILER CENTRAL!
The last third of the book turns everything you were expecting on it’s head. Rekulak reveals that Teddy is actually a cisgender girl named Flora (and for the rest of the review I will be calling her Flora) who was kidnapped at a very young age by Ted and Caroline Maxwell after they accidentally killed and buried her mother, Margit. In order to escape authorities they cut Flora’s hair, dressed and presented her as a boy to the public, and kidnapped her. They called her Teddy and introduced her to the world as their son. Near the end when “the big reveal” happens, Mallory tells Caroline that she knows Teddy is a girl to which Caroline lies that Teddy is trans: “Obviously, Teddy was born a girl…We knew about your religious convictions–” (Rekulak 319-320).
I’ll also mention that Mallory being religious really isn’t mentioned aside from the fact that as a recovery addict Mallory has “worked the Twelve Steps and I have surrendered my life to my lord and savior Jesus Christ” and that she wears a cross necklace (Rekulak 5). One of the list of rules Mallory receives when starting to take care of Flora is “No religion or superstitions. Teach science” (Rekulak 15) which Mallory never pushes, though her being religious somehow makes her more willing to believe in ghosts and seances and seek the help of next door neighbour drug-addict Mitzi, and Mallory only briefly shows the urge to relapse. I obviously can’t speak for all Christians and religions, but I do know people who weren’t allowed to watch Caspar the Friendly Ghost growing up because his existence showed there was no Heaven. So take from that where you will.
And then Caroline uses Mallory’s religion as an excuse for lying about Flora’s gender identity even though FLORA IS NOT TRANS! There are many very real parents of trans kids who do have to worry about religious/conservative individuals judging their children for their identity, but as one reviewer excellently put Caroline weaponizes transphobia in order to get away with the fact that she killed Flora’s mother. This plot device reinforces the transphobic belief that parents of trans kids are just forcing their children to identify differently and completely invalidates the identity of real trans individuals and children.
There are some clumsy hints Rekulak provides about Flora’s gender identity throughout the book: she always wants to play Dorothy when playing Land of Oz, expresses interest in wanting long hair like the Cowardly Lion and has tantrums when being taken to the barber to have it cut, she asks Mallory about her private parts which results in Caroline getting books on gender and sexuality for Flora to read when SHE KNOWS SHE’S RAISING A CISGENDER GIRL AS A BOY. Mallory makes sure to mention that the books cover topics of anal sex and cunnilingus: “The next day [Caroline] comes home with a giant stack of picture books with titles like It’s Perfectly Normal! and Where Did I Come From?…There are detailed definitions of anal sex, cunnilingus, and genderqueer expression. With full-colour drawings and everything” (Rekulak 116). The fact that Rekulak makes sure to mention anal sex and genderqueer identity in the same sentence, as well as Mallory’s own objection to Flora being taught about her body, and that Caroline pretends Flora is a trans kid makes an unfortunate reinforcement of violence/predator with the queer and trans community, which is also a problematic and toxic idea.
And then there’s a weird point near the end when Mallory recognizes Flora as a cisgender girl: “It was really remarkable how a blue dress and slightly longer hair shifted my entire perception of you. Just a few subtle cues and my brain did the rest of the work, flipping all the switches. You used to be a boy. Now, you were a girl,” (Rekulak 365). Flora was never a boy but forced to present and believe she was one, she was never trans, and a dress and long hair doesn’t equal what it means to be a girl. Hair and clothes aren’t gendered.
This “twist” came out of nowhere and was done purely for shock value. It is so insulting to the trans community and trans readers, I can’t believe Rekulak wrote this into his book, that his editor and publisher had no problem with this plotline, and that more reviewers haven’t called him out on this.
The last third of the book nearly reads like an entirely different book. What started as a horror ghost story turns into a thriller with a psychotic couple literally forcing a child to present as a different gender so they won’t be discovered as murderers/kidnappers. Caroline and Ted become satires of themselves, it was almost comical reading how ridiculous they were speaking and presented for the rest of the book.
There’s also a weird part with Mallory where she mentions her time as a user and takes care to mention that she was never raped, and that she’s very fit and physically much stronger than the privileged people around her because she runs and swims and works out despite only being sober for eighteen months. It’s like Rekulak wrote Mallory as a past addict to make her unreliable, but didn’t actually want to give her the qualities that many addicts face like relapse or physical and sexual abuse. It’s almost like Rekulak made her a “good victim,” a tragic heroine who readers will sympathize with because she avoided the fate of other addicts.
And also, copaganda! Adrian, a Mexican landscaper who comes from a wealthy family that becomes Mallory’s love interest, is viewed in a prejudiced light by Mitzi who says “[t]his might sound racist but it’s true. These men–they’ve already broken the law once, when they crossed the border. So if a criminal sees a pretty girl all alone in a backyard, what’s stopping him?” (Rekulak 60). And Mallory is understandably and correctly horrified by Mitzi’s racist outburst, but later when Adrian is being frisked by police after he and Mallory snoop around Mitzi’s house, Mallory says: “Adrian seems to think he doesn’t have to listen to them, that he’s somehow above the law” (Rekulak 285).
MALLORY! HE’S A PERSON OF COLOUR! IT DOESN’T MATTER THAT HE’S RICH, NOTICE HOW THEY’RE FRISKING HIM BUT NOT YOU, A WHITE WOMAN?! A WHITE WOMAN WHO, AS A FORMER ADDICT, PROBABLY HAD SOME NOT SO GREAT RUN INS WITH THE POLICE?!
And then, as if random transphobia and copaganda wasn’t enough, surprise fatphobia! When Mallory rehashes the death of her sister, it is necessary that she mentions that her mother worked in a hospital and that she was fat. She was so fat! Mallory’s mom “was short, overweight, and she smoked a pack a day–even though she worked at Mercy Hospital…so she knew all the health risks,” (Rekulak 248). But then when Mallory reunites with her mother at the end she’s wearing leggings, she’s got a Fitbit! Rekulak says that the “biggest surprise was learning that my mother had started running! All through high school, Beth and I could never drag her off the couch, but now she was pacing nine-minute miles. Now she had Lycra shorts and a Fitbit and everything,” (Rekulak 360-361).
WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THIS?!
And then, to top it all off, the last chapter of the book is even weirder because it’s written in second person as a sort of letter to Flora where Mallory explains WHY THE BOOK IS WRITTEN SO BADLY. Again, I had no issue with Mallory’s voice. I liked that it was simple and straightforward, no purple prose, just a young woman telling her story. But for whatever reason Rekulak felt he needed to explain WHY the book used the voice it did.
Hidden Pictures started as a great horror with chilling pictures adding a great haunting factor to the book, but it completely fell apart in it’s last third. I honestly have no idea how so few reviewers, from BookTok and beyond, are talking about this. To use such outdated, dangerous tropes for horror and shock value against the trans community is disgusting, and I can’t believe this book was able to get published when everything hinged on this toxic “twist.”
Publication: May 10th 2022
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Pages: 373 pages (Hardcover)
Genre: Fiction, Horror, Thriller, Mystery
My Rating: ⛤⛤
Fresh out of rehab, Mallory Quinn takes a job in the affluent suburb of Spring Brook, New Jersey as a babysitter for Ted and Caroline Maxwell. She is to look after their five-year-old son, Teddy.
Mallory immediately loves this new job. She lives in the Maxwell’s pool house, goes out for nightly runs, and has the stability she craves. And she sincerely bonds with Teddy, a sweet, shy boy who is never without his sketchbook and pencil. His drawings are the usual fare: trees, rabbits, balloons. But one day, he draws something different: a man in a forest, dragging a woman’s lifeless body.
As the days pass, Teddy’s artwork becomes more and more sinister, and his stick figures steadily evolve into more detailed, complex, and lifelike sketches well beyond the ability of any five-year-old. Mallory begins to suspect these are glimpses of an unsolved murder from long ago, perhaps relayed by a supernatural force lingering in the forest behind the Maxwell’s house.
With help from a handsome landscaper and an eccentric neighbor, Mallory sets out to decipher the images and save Teddy—while coming to terms with a tragedy in her own past—before it’s too late.