Mike O’Driscoll on new novels by Stephen Graham Jones and Mariana Enriquez
There’s nothing quite like the thrill of a first encounter with the work of an exceptional writer. That sense of anticipation you feel as you work your way through the first few chapters, that willingness – especially if the book lives up to the hype – to submerge yourself in the fictional world of the story and be caught up in its intricacies, is surely one of the most worthwhile pleasures to be derived from reading fiction. Who wouldn’t give a little blood, sweat or tears to relive the experience of reading The Wasp Factory or American Psycho or Salem’s Lot for the first time? Just imagine coming innocently to Titus Groan and reading those lines that hint at the brooding sense of confinement and claustrophobia, and the almost inevitable, treacherous revolt it provokes:
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.
Or reading for the first time the opening pages of American Psycho and experiencing the frisson that comes from seeing these words writ there:
Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First […]
and having the rug pulled from under your feet in the comically mundane descriptions of wealth and privilege set against the visceral sense of disgust evoked at the savage, insane violence that follows.
Reading Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians last year, was such an experience. Which makes it all the more frustrating that Don’t Fear the Reaper (Titan, 2023) is such a disappointment. In Jones’s defence I have to cite my own culpability in not knowing beforehand that, although it purports to be a stand-alone novel, it is in fact the second in a mooted trilogy, following My Heart is a Chainsaw (2021). Perhaps if I had read the latter before coming to the new novel, I might have got more out of it, but in truth the events of the first book – the events that shaped Jade/Jennifer Daniels, the principal protagonist – are repeatedly referred to, summarised and debated through a variety of narrative means, such that one is able, at least to a limited extent, to feel some familiarity with the town of Proofrock, Idaho and its dark, bloody history.
Apart from characters’ memories and conversations about what, by the time of Don’t Fear the Reaper, has become known as the Independence Day Massacre, the main source of our knowledge about those events comes in the form of essay extracts written by one of the teenage survivors of the original slaughter. It’s not immediately clear who is speaking in these sections, but there are enough clues seeded throughout the essay and the main narrative, to reveal the author’s identity. I can only assume those familiar with the first book, would have guessed the identity of the essay’s author much earlier.
Reaper is set four years on from the events of the first book, and essentially it charts Jennifer’s struggle – aided and abetted by various friends and allies – to stop the murderous rampage by a notorious serial killer known as Dark Mill South. He, like Jennifer herself, is a native American, newly escaped from his prison transport whilst en route to show officials where the bodies of some of his previous victims are buried. At the beginning, Jennifer too is fresh out of custody, having served time for the destruction of federal property during the course of the 2015 July 4th killings. We learn that she was herself held as a suspect in those killings, before the testimony of others helped establish her innocence. Chief among her allies in the conflict with Dark Mill South, is Letha Mondragon. Letha, it turns out, was the young female designated by Jade in Chainsaw, as the most likely candidate for ‘Final Girl’ status, which is to say she was the one who most closely matched the characteristics – young, pretty, virginal, smart and resourceful – possessed by the heroine of the archetypal slasher movies. Think Laurie (Jamie Leigh Curtis) in Halloween, or Alice (Adrienne King) in Friday the 13th. In the course of Reaper, it becomes apparent that in the earlier book, Jennifer used her obsessive knowledge of slasher movies and the behaviour patterns of killers and victims, to enlist and coach Letha into helping her defeat the perpetrator of the Independence Day Massacre.
The story begins with a bang – the opening chapter is titled ‘Motel Hell’, and subsequent chapters are all named after key genre movies – with a violent set-piece straight out of the slasher bag of tricks, in which a horny teenager is lured to his death with the promise of sex. It continues pretty much in the same vein, with Jones upping the stakes – in terms of blood and gore – with each new act of mayhem and slaughter. Of course this continuous ramping up of depictions of violence runs the risk of diffusing the narrative’s elemental power, of negating its ability to shock or unsettle, and even of descending into parody. Given the extent to which the novel plays with slasher tropes, this may be intentional, but in any case, Jones’ bravura handling of these set-pieces, the inventiveness with which Dark Mill South dispatches his victims, leavened with the blackly comic tone – one victim, ‘trying to hold his brains in with his right hand’, while trying to escape the killer, attempts to parkour his way down through a bank of gym seats, realising the suicidal nature of his actions, regrets that ‘there’s not even anybody here with a phone to record this’ – helps to sustain the tension and keep us interested.
Jones handles the complex relationships between the central characters with acuity and invests them with a convincing emotional depth, particularly that between Jennifer and Letha, two young women with history together and a shared baggage carried over from Chainsaw. Maybe it’s a stretch but in naming the town Proofrock (surely not an incidental decision) Jones might be alluding to Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, as a way to foreground Jennifer’s role as mentor to Letha, perceiving herself as ‘an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two / Advise the prince’. Indeed, the allusion is reinforced by the lines that follow a little later in the poem, ‘At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool’, words that might well have come from the inhabitants of Proofrock, to describe their attitude to the eccentric, slasher obsessed Jade Daniels. Retired sheriff Hardy has also acted as something of a mentor to her, and together with Letha and her husband, Deputy Banner Tompkins, they serve as a surrogate family for Jennifer, providing her with the love and emotional stability that have been absent from her relationship with her birth parents.
Where the novel loses its grip is in Jones’ decision to opt for a shifting, multi-perspective narrative, rather than, as in Chainsaw, keeping the focus on Jennifer. The transitions are abrupt and come not just between but within chapters. After the murders in the opening ‘Motel Hell’ section, we’re straight into the first extract from Gal Pangborne’s thesis, and from there into ‘Scream’, wherein the perspective moves from Jennifer, to Hardy (a crucial ally), to Deputy Tompkins (at first portrayed as an almost cartoonish bumpkin plagued by self-doubt, but later shown to be more resourceful and courageous than suspected), to Cinnamon Baker, a potential victim with her own secrets to hide. This is where, without having read Chainsaw, things become confusing. There’s an assumed familiarity with these characters’ histories and their relationship to each other, and though one can, through inference and guesswork, pick out some of these connective threads, there’s little engagement or pleasure to be derived from all this detective work. As more and more characters are introduced, most of them having played some part or other in the events of 2015, the narrative begins to lose momentum, its focus becoming ever more diffuse. That some of these characters – Cinnamon and her sister Ginger, new history teacher Claude Armitage, Jennifer’s father Tab Daniels and his friend Rexall – are implicated in either or both the crimes of the past and the present, confuses things, makes it harder for us to know who to root for and who to be wary of.
Perversely, of all the shifting narrative perspectives, outside of Jennifer or Letha, one of the few that actually works – in terms of having a distinctive voice – is when Jones makes Dark Mill South the focal character. The voice is reflective, sardonic even, as when, after thinking about the correct height to hang victims’ bodies from trees in order to warn off the townspeople who might discover where he’s hiding out, concludes that it ‘Doesn’t matter’ since ‘there’s not going to be enough of them to hang on a tree anyway.’ At times his deadpan tone is macabrely comic, as when he gives us a matter of fact description of witnessing some hunters making precise cuts in a deer they’ve just killed, and then tie one end of the animal to the tow-bar of their truck, and the other to a tree. When the truck moves forward, Dark Mill South watches in fascination as the deer’s skin is peeled off ‘the same way a magician pulls a tablecloth out from under all the candlesticks.’ When the hunters had cheered, he had cheered too, and filed the process away in his mind for future use. Chasing after Letha and Jennifer, he gleefully concocts a scenario in which he can do the same to them, only he’ll improve on the original by leaving ‘the animal alive when you do it.’
Unfortunately, when the focus is on other characters, like Armitage – who shares Jennifer’s fascination with and knowledge of the minutiae of slasher lore, and whose own motives are at odds with hers – or Cinnamon or Ginger Baker, or any of those destined to become Dark Mill South’s victims, interest wanes. The further into the novel one gets, the more the victims become interchangeable, functioning only to keep the action, and the increasingly convoluted plot, moving along. Without prior knowledge of their precise roles in the events of July 4, 2015, and with little motivation for finding out, there’s no reward for an emotional investment in their fate. In truth, the appeal of Don’t Fear the Reaper depends on the extent to which readers are taken with the slasher phenomenon. If the answer is ‘not so much’, then perhaps this one is not for you.
There is so much going on in Our Share of Night (Granta, 2023; translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell), Mariana Enriquez’s ambitious, at times chaotic and bewildering, but always highly entertaining fusion of supernatural horror and recent history, that it’s easy to lose sight of the deeper socio-political truths that inform the Byzantine narrative. Although not without its flaws – the story takes a while to get going, and at times seems in danger of losing momentum; some important characters are never fully realised; descriptive passages sometimes stall in their tentativeness and indecision; and certain ideas and metaphors become wearisome as a consequence of repetition – at precisely those moments when you think it’s about to collapse in on itself, Enriquez conjures up a particularly startling image (startling because of the juxtaposition of banal horror and political reality) that shifts the narrative on to another, more disturbing and esoteric plane. Shortly after arriving at the country estate of his in-laws, for example, after an interminable car journey mapped out over the best part of 100 pages, we learn through Juan – one of the three principal characters – of a tunnel beneath the house where Mercedes, his mother-in-law ‘used to lock up children and prisoners’, the ‘poor forgotten people, so abandoned they didn’t even turn to the authorities if a son or a brother went missing’, precisely because many of them are ‘detainees her military friends handed over to her.’ This connection between the Disappeared – the victims of the military junta of Argentina’s Dirty War of the 1970s – and those sacrificed by Mercedes as a necessary part of her belief in the ‘exercise of cruelty and perversion as the path to secret illumination’, is central to the novel’s preoccupation with the legacy of colonialism and class exploitation.
In spite of its slippery nature, and the abrupt shifts in time and character perspective, the story is easily enough summarised. The central narrative unfurls in the book’s three longest sections, the first of which takes place in summer 1981 with Juan Peterson driving from Buenos Aires to Puerto Reyes, a country estate in northeast Argentina, with his six year old son Gaspar. Juan will play a key role in the Ceremonial, an occult ritual at which the members of a powerful cult known as the Order, use a medium – Juan – to summon a mysterious entity called the Darkness, from which, through means of human sacrifice, they hope to discover the secret of immortality through mind transference. The recent, accidental death of his wife, Rosario, has injected a note of urgency into Juan’s quest to protect his son and prepare him to resist the malign interest of the Order’s elite, who have plans to nurture him as a new and more powerful medium. Juan wants to spare the boy the merciless brutality and horror of the ceremonial – a ritual that mirrors the atrocities committed by the military junta – but although his ability as a medium makes him a powerful figure, he’s also weakened by degenerative heart disease, as well as the cumulative burden of his role as the conduit between the Order and the Darkness. En route to Puerto Reyes, Juan spends time with Tali, his sister-in-law, and with Stephen, the son of Florence Mathers, the current leader of the order. As well as being his lovers, Stephen and Tali are also key allies in his struggle against the cult.
The section culminates in Juan’s participation in the Ceremonial, where we see precisely the physical and psychic toll inflicted upon him. In the ritual his hands are transformed into ‘bird claws, completely black, burnt, but sticky-looking’; the Darkness grows around him ‘as if it were steam coming off his body’ and proceeds to devour eight sacrificial victims. In the aftermath, he is left exhausted, feverish and unconscious for 24 hours. Upon recovering, Juan warns Mercedes and the cult’s leader, Florence, that he has enacted some magic of his own to protect Gaspar, and an uneasy truce is agreed between them, with the Order’s elders saying they will not seek out the child until he comes of age. It’s a disturbing and hallucinatory sequence, in which Enriquez treads a fine line between pulp hyperbole and more self-conscious literary flourishes, and by the end we’re left bewildered, struggling to make sense of what we’ve witnessed, of the precise nature of the connection between the story’s sinuous and elusive threads.
After a brief interlude in which we’re told how Juan’s heart surgeon, Dr Jorge Bradford – himself a powerful figure in the order – first discovers Juan’s ability as a medium, and of Bradford’s own encounters with the Darkness, the narrative jumps forward a few years, and the focus moves on to Gaspar. Back in Buenos Aires, the ten year old boy’s relationship with his father has become increasingly fraught – even at times shockingly abusive – as Juan, his health deteriorating, tries to prepare his son for life without him. Gaspar finds some solace in the company of his friends Adela, Vicky and Pablo but their days are marked by odd and sometimes distressing events. Although these events in themselves seem minor – Vicky’s dog disappears, on TV the kids witness the final days of Omaira Sanchez, a 13-year-old girl trapped in mud and water as a result of a landslide caused by a volcanic eruption (a scene that signals contemporary obsessions with human tragedy played out as spectacle for the 24-hour news cycle), and the weird buzzing sound that seems to follow Vicky around – taken together, and alongside their fascination with an old, abandoned neighbourhood house with bricked up windows, and the peculiar and disturbing stories they hear about its former occupants, these events portend a disturbing and tragic encounter when the kids finally pluck up the courage to enter the building.
Two further sections interrupt the main story, and though these digressions initially seem frustrating, like the Dr Bradford interlude, they shed new light on what has already been revealed, adding detail and texture to the political and historical threads woven through Enriquez’s carefully structured narrative, as well as deepening our understanding of the motives and intentions of the central characters. The longest and most substantial of these interludes is the second, ‘Chalk Circles’, told from the point of view of Rosario, Juan’s wife, in which some of the gaps in our knowledge of the entwined histories of the Order’s two pre-eminent families, the Mathers and the Bradfords, are sketched in. Rosario, a numinous presence throughout the first section, is here allowed to speak for herself. Enriquez makes clear that despite being deeply invested in the culture and practices of the Order, it is Rosario’s love and empathy for Juan, and her recognition of his fate and the fate of their (at this point, unborn) son, that motivates Juan’s attempts to prevent Gaspar from becoming the Order’s tool. It is she who encourages the relationship between her sister and Juan, and Juan and Stephen, knowing how crucial such allegiances will be, particularly against a woman – Florence Mathers – whose craving for arcane knowledge and power, led to her attempting to school her younger son, Eddie in becoming a medium, with horrific and devastating consequences.
The third interlude is narrated by Olga Gallardo, a journalist compiling a report into the discovery of a mass grave, whose investigations lead her to discover connections between the fates of the Disappeared and the practices of individuals involved with the order. Like Rosario, Olga’s detective work adds to our background knowledge of the events that coloured Gaspar’s later childhood, at least until, while pursuing the truth about the fate of one of his friends, she finds herself prevented by some mysterious force from locating Gaspar’s house. An unsettling encounter with a representative of the Order prompts her to abandon the investigation and doubt it will ever see the light of day.
The final section shifts the focus back on to Gaspar, covering a ten year span in which the boy becomes a man, albeit one still struggling to understand his arcane and bloody inheritance, while at the same time trying to resist the compelling lure of the Order’s malevolent influence. Reflecting on a warning he had received from a former lover, to give up his dead, Gaspar acknowledges his ambivalence: ‘They sought me out, here I am. I don’t know how to let go of the dead.’
The novel would undoubtedly have benefited from some deft editorial pruning, particularly of aimless descriptive passages where nothing is said at length, and that serve only to induce the kind of torpor analogous to that which both Juan and Gaspar feel after encounters with the Dark. Certain ideas and phrases are repeated without any real development, and some of the novel’s events take an age to play out. And yet, although it won’t satisfy – and may even repel – many of its readers, for all its meanderings and missteps, Our Share of Night is a hugely ambitious, inventive and compelling work of modern fantasy. It wears its influences lightly: particular sequences, themes and images, offer riffs on specific works by Stephen King, Alan Moore and Mark Danielewski; gothic and magical realist tropes are picked up, played with and tossed aside; ancient rituals, human sacrifice and the tarot are repeated motifs; another is the Left Hand of Darkness, which not only links anthropologist Rosario to the protagonist of Ursula Le Guin sf novel of the same name, but also draws parallels between Juan’s pansexuality and the ambisexual inhabitants of Gethen. Music, and specifically the rock music of the counter-culture of the late 1960s, plays an important role, with allusions to the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Hendrix, and, significantly, David Bowie, who is mentioned as a lover of one of Rosario’s inner circle of friends while they are residing in London. These allusions are not there merely to add period colour, they serve to suggest potent links between the liberating power and influence of contemporary music and culture on the rarefied existence of these fugitives from the Argentine elite, and also, with the Stones and Bowie’s flirtations with the occult, to imply that the fascination went both ways.
In the end though, what lends the book its unsettling power, is the extent to which Enriquez succeeds in blending these disparate, and at times antithetical, elements, to craft a work that exposes the bitter truth of how the poor and dispossessed were, and continue to be, exploited by the rich and powerful. The point is made clear to Rosario: when she questions her father about the need for human sacrifice, he responds, ‘These people are marked for death, girls. We’re doing them a favour.’ Such explicitly stated contempt for ordinary people continues to resonate.
Mike O’Driscoll is the author of horror, crime and fantasy fiction whose work has appeared in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best New Horror, Interzone, Black Static & elsewhere. His story ‘Sounds Like’ was adapted and directed by Brad Anderson as part of the Masters of Horror TV series. You can find him on Twitter @MikeODriscoll6 and at his website: www.mike-odriscoll.com.
IZ Digital is Interzone’s online sister zine. Become a member of the IZD Ko-fi for a euro a month to get EPUB editions of stories. Or just buy IZ a digital coffee/tea/raktajino – it is hugely appreciated and helps a lot.
You can also start a 6-issue EPUB subscription to Interzone and get even more amazing writing delivered electronically, bimonthly.
Reader memberships and subscriptions are the lifeblood of zines like IZ Digital and Interzone – thanks for reading, and supporting!