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A Turn to Terror

SIXTEEN YEARS AGO, Dan Chaon came out with a stunning, discomfiting debut collection of short stories called Fitting Ends. Its young narrators related wrenching tales of betrayal, violence, child abuse, and mental illness in oddly subdued, unadorned voices that gave the stories a peculiar, disorienting force. Luckless children and adolescents lurched from unwelcoming town to town, negligent household to household, deadly accident to accident. Yet the author’s emotional penetration, sympathy, and stealthy sense of humor, made reading about these tormented lives a rare and rewarding pleasure.

In his subsequent three books, another collection, Among the Missing, and two novels, the dismal, compelling You Remind Me of Me and the grisly, repellent Await Your Reply, Chaon established himself as America’s pre-eminent Anti-Resilience-Of-The-Human-Spirit literary provocateur, a laudable and necessary role. Chaon’s characters may persist; they may endure; but, refreshingly, they do not prevail. Now, in his most recent collection, he retains his title: the traumatized adolescents and children who flounder through his earlier stories are back, considerably older and not a whit wiser. In Stay Awake, Chaon’s people have somehow reached middle-age but are still somnambulists stumbling through the after-effects of often unthinkable disaster. Pursued by half-remembered terrors, paralyzed by baffled rage, haunted by inarticulate yearning, they remain emotionally deformed, unfinished creatures.

Gene, the protagonist of “The Bees,” whose murderous past is nearly as hidden from him as it is from the reader, has a memory so unreliable he loses pieces of the previous night as thoroughly as long-ago events, often has difficulty knowing exactly where he is, and feels strangely detached from himself. The trauma that triggered these textbook symptoms (the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is a touchstone for Chaon) is revealed so starkly and vividly in the course of this story that “The Bees” lacks the quieter power of some of the more restrained narratives in this fine, odd collection of what the pulps used to call “weird tales.”

In “I Wake Up,” twenty-five-year-old Robert has adjourned to the bedroom above his adoptive parents’ garage as well as to a misty non-sequential interior world in order to avoid his own horrific act of origin, the murder of two of her children by his biological mother. “I had never been a very good rememberer,” he says in the matter-of-fact, clueless, sad locution of most of Chaon’s male characters. The story begins like a folktale: “Twenty years passed.” And now his eldest half-sister, one of his mother’s eight children (“We all had different dads. All of us were living with her when LaChandra and Nicholas were killed.”) calls him on the phone nightly and revives his slumbering memories. Cassie, like many of the women in the book, employs her own impoverished language—all cliché and psychobabble—to endure: “‘Only connect, Robbie,’ she said to me from time to time. ‘That’s what I firmly believe. Only connect.’” For Robert, this sisterly connection leads ultimately to an appalling epiphany.

Chaon’s preoccupations—identity, adoption, families shattered by drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide, child-murder—have quickened rather than expanded. And he has simultaneously narrowed his literary strategy. His edgy, spooky stories have turned the corner into the frankly uncanny. Many of these stories have shifted from the metaphorical to the literal—while an early Chaon character might feel a kind of doubleness, a vague sense of living alongside another version of himself, in the title story of this latest collection a girl is born with two heads. Chaon’s people have always experienced the world as sinister and spirit-crammed. In Stay Awake, these perceptions, these symptoms, seem less like pathology and more like an accurate assessment.

In short, Dan Chaon has—along with Colson Whitehead, Justin Cronin, Lev Grossman, and others—crossed over into genre, literary couture’s new black. (It is not the first time; most reviewers considered his second novel, Await Your Reply, a thriller.) But unlike his trendy peers, Chaon can really wear this suit. Horror, to alter the metaphor, fits him like a glove.

Over time, Chaon’s world has adjusted to his characters rather than the other way around. The new world is full of ghosts, not “ghosts.” Characters are not all that are haunted in this benighted, creepy place; houses are, too. Lives are blighted, but so, as in a fairy tale, is the garden:

And he’d once actually fled out the back door … with his flashlight and sleeping bag … and tried to sleep on the lawn under the old apple tree. But even that—the beloved apple tree of their childhood … behaved strangely. Its leaves would get a white powdery substance on them and then they curled up and fell off, and the apples themselves were tiny and wrinkled and deformed in a way that made them look like little ugly heads ...

While feelings, images, and recollections rise up, sputter, and go out, so too does the previously dependable grid—power outages darken more than a few nights in Stay Awake (allowing Chaon the playful nod to more venerable ghost stories: “She had a brass candlestick that one of her ancestors had brought across the ocean … and now Mrs. Dowty went paddling barefoot through the kitchen, holding her light aloft …”). Even the earth at our feet brings forth monsters: “On the sidewalk are dozens upon dozens of earthworms. Most of them are dead, but some are still alive, writhing weakly … the sidewalk is thick with them, and she can barely put a foot down. … she feels the soft, slick mass of a night crawler …” And the skies above hold worse than portents: “On the Weather Channel it said: ‘A large swath of dead clouds covered many areas of the Tennessee Valley to the Northeast yesterday.’”

In turning to more or less explicit horror stories, Chaon has nimbly outdone the masters of the genre, including his professed “betters,” Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, who jam up their narratives with thick sentiment and thicker prose. By contrast, these scary stories are enlivened by flashes of understated, wry wit—“He is the type of person who will always be your friend, for as long as you can stand to keep disappointing him”—and gorgeous, precise sentences. For example: “The baby was not crying, though for a minute she could almost hear it, vague, distant, melting away into other sounds—a plane’s metallic yawning overhead, the soft breath of her pulse in her ears, the assorted implacable clicks and hums of the house settling.”        

Skip the zombies and the vampires. If literary writing is the A-side and genre is the B-side (a contentious “if” these days), then Chaon’s walk on the B-side is every bit as bracing as his earlier outings. Accompany him, if you dare.

Alec Solomita is a fiction writer and critic based in the Boston area.