The Blue Classroom sagely explores the horrors of abuse of power. This fine first novel by Rod Labbe personifies corruption through the character of Sister Emmanuel, who is depicted as a demented Mary Poppins. She’s allowed carte blanche rule over 30 second grade students. The year is 1957, and any impropriety by the staff presiding at The Immaculate Heart of Mary Academy is categorized as discipline. The primary recipient of Sister Emmanuel’s punishments is the class bully. Robbie is an impoverished older boy who has been held back two classes because of behavior issues. Sister Emmanuel seizes on his classmates’ aversion toward him, turning their antipathy into sadistic pleasure when she beats and humiliates the child. Robbie gets deadly retribution but, in the course of the 1998 demolition of the Academy building, human blood seeps from the blue walls of Sister Emmanuel’s former classroom.
Those who witnessed Robbie’s wrath are still haunted by it in middle age. As children they made a pact to not reveal what had occurred, just as they vowed to Sister Emmanuel to never disclose what happens within her classroom. The news of the sanguinary seepage leads to more carnage, causing some of the survivors to feel compelled to speak out. Now in their forties, they seek absolution for their silent complicity. The burden of guilt and fear of reprisal has taken its toll; it’s time to vanquish both figurative and literal demons.
Author Labbe does a good job with the fright fest elements of the narrative, but his strength is psychological insight into the characters. Sister Emmanuel’s loathing for Robbie rings true. His poverty and battling parents remind her of the unpleasant aspects of her own childhood and stokes the rage inherent in her sick psyche. When addressing the students, she often peppers her speech with words like “sacrosanct” and “secular;” which enables her to label the kids “ignorant” when they don’t comprehend. She revels in feeling superior and wielding weight as a tyrant. Minor characters aren’t given short shrift: In a sentence, Robbie’s loathsome father is given a history that explains his abusive conduct.
The Blue Classroom is a horror novel with a reverence for the genre. There are direct references, as well as allusions, to Stephen King’s novels—especially Carrie and It. The action is set in Maine, a locale favored by King; and, like the horror master, Rod Labbe liberally employs pop culture images to define the eras in which the story takes place. Samhain Publishing will follow up Labbe’s debut as a novelist with a follow up book. It will be interesting to see what he does for an encore.Rod Labbe’s debut novel, The Blue Classroom, is available for purchase here