-Book Review by Diana Mumford–
Stephen Graham Jones has encountered the creatures that go “bump in the night” and he’s telling their stories in his most recent short fiction collection, After the People Lights Have Gone Off. This book is akin to the cult childhood classic, Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark, but written for a mature audience. The traditional elements of vampires, werewolves, zombies, and ghosts all make appearances in After the People Lights Have Gone Off. Jones, however, masterfully manipulates these horror tropes, creating plots that reach beyond the genre’s traditional mythos.
His stories also explore the horror in mundane activities, immersing the reader in tales where anything can happen. In Thirteen, a trip to the movies results in an irreversible and deadly curse. In The Black Sleeve of Destiny, an expedition to the thrift shop prompts in the purchase of a sweatshirt that transports objects through space and time. In The Spindly Man, a book club meeting turns into a terrifying journey in which the narrator discovers the demons lurking within himself.
Even though his stories are not full on gore-fests, they still give the reader a visceral reaction. In the story, Solve for X, a general feeling of unease gives way to queasiness when a woman is slowly mutilated by her captor. Her torturer, meanwhile, demands answers to mathematically unsolvable questions. “You don’t have to guess… you already know. You just don’t know it yet,” he remarks. Likewise, the descriptions of a woman’s skin being slowly peeled away are both intriguing and nauseating. “The next time he pulls a strip of tape from her arm, the triangle of skin comes up with it, dangling by a gummy thread.” Readers won’t be able to put this story down until the bitter end.
The titular story, After the People Lights Have Gone Off, is, arguably, the best piece in the collection. A husband and wife, Mark and Kelly, decide to stay the night in their unfinished home. In true haunted house style, there is a mysterious accident in the middle of the night that leaves Kelly paralyzed. The story explores Mark’s difficulty coping with his wife’s accident and, his gradual realization that they are not alone in their new home. This story’s depiction of a supernatural presence is so well-drawn, readers will swear that Jones isn’t writing fiction.
These extraordinary tales would not be believable without Jones’ dimensional characters. His narrators are flawed and relatable. Even faced with elements of the supernatural, Jones’ characters also allow readers to stay grounded in a realistic environment. In After the People Lights Have Gone Off, for example, Mark’s love for his wife and his guilt for her condition understandably motivate him to seek an explanation for the tragedy they have endured. When asked by Kelly’s father why they had climbed the stairs that lead to Kelly’s accident, Mark’s inner monologue reveals his affections for his wife and his poetic nature. “Because it was cool, Stan. And because we were hot. And because our love buoyed us up to the dizzy heights.” Mark is likable, which makes his response to discovering the presence in his home all the more horrific.
After revealing supernatural elements, Jones’ dark, nuanced tales deserve a second read. The author takes the tedium and predictability out of horror writing, riddling his stories with dramatic and successful plot twists. This element of surprise will make the reader wonder where Jones gets his inspiration. Fortunately for the curious, the author’s note at the end of the book explores his inspiration and creative process. Regarding his story, The Spider Box, Jones says, “I just sat down one afternoon, knew I had two or three hours for writing that I wasn’t going to waste, so I put this title up-top, to see what would happen.” With all of these inclinations, it’s no wonder Jones has such a devout fan following. And, for those who are unfamiliar with his work, this collection is the perfect introduction.
In need of a Halloween thriller to justify all the spooky decorations on your porch and in your windows? After the People Lights Have Gone Off is the perfect haunted house coffee table companion. Leave it on your nightstand, however, and you’ll never get to sleep. Your ears will prick up, and your heart will pound at every little noise…
Available now from Curbside Splendor.
Post Photo Courtesy of Curbside Splendor