Task: Read a one-sitting book.
I knew what I was going to read for this task as soon as I saw it. I waited for a day when I went into work late and my daughter was at daycare, giving me a delicious stretch of time to eat ice cream and savor this one entirely at my leisure.
Full disclosure: I’m not particularly objective when it comes to this particular writer. Here’s why. In 2015 or so, I’d attended a free workshop at the Fayetteville Public Library by Toni Jensen, a professor in the University of Arkansas’ creative writing department. Her presentation was about mashing up genre and literary technique. It was a really good one, too.
A million years ago, I’d thought I was going to apply to this particular MFA program but had been put off by its crystal clear statement regarding genre – no, and get offa my lawn, I think was roughly what the department website said at the time. So I was pleasantly surprised by Toni Jensen’s approach, which didn’t assign any moral value to the terms “genre” and “literary.” Instead, she had a very practical explanation of what fell under each column and how and when it made sense to mix things up. She asked us all what we wrote, and I shyly copped to horror. She suggested I read Stephen Graham Jones.
I checked out After the People Lights Have Gone Off at work, which left me looking like that kid who gets blown off the electric fence in Jurassic Park.
I followed him on Twitter. He tweeted about a class he was teaching in the Stanley Hotel. I clicked through. There was nothing to stop a thirty-five-year-old Arkansas librarian mom from applying. So I did. Two months later I was on a plane to Colorado.
He was also the first person to tell me to submit one of my short stories. I did that too and it got published (seriously! you can buy it!). The class roster also included Eddie Generous from Unnerving, who published another story of mine in a chapbook shortly after the class (which you can also buy!). He also graciously invited me onto the Unnerving podcast to talk about writing courses earlier this month, marking the second time Unnerving has offered me some, er, generous (sorry) exposure in spite of my nearly blank writing resume. In other words, my nascent writing career owes major debts to the Stanley course (and y’all should all go take advantage of Unnerving’s $10 subscription fee, especially with the Stephen King issue coming out in November).
Anyway, the first time Stephen Graham Jones responded to a question from me during the two-week online component leading up to the workshop at the Stanley, I nearly threw up. But it quickly became clear that he is an incredibly approachable guy who loves teaching writing and talking about horror. He ran a very egalitarian workshop (it’s a tricky dynamic to get right), and met everybody in the class where they were at with their writing in a constructive but not destructive way (again, tricky). I still feel a little ridiculous about how massively intimidated I felt about being in Stephen’s presence going in.
But then I read his writing, and think, oh yeah, holy hell, this guy is scary AF.
It should come as no surprise that I loved Mapping the Interior. Stephen’s stories should be sure not to commit any crimes, because they’re instantly identifiable in a line up. No one writes like him. He’s about the biggest horror geek I’ve ever met, but just because he cherishes the genre’s tropes doesn’t mean they’re recognizable in his writing. This is not a ghost story you’ve read before.
An unnamed twelve-year-old protagonist wakes up after sleepwalking to see his dead father wearing full fancy dancer regalia in his modular home’s utility room one night after sleepwalking. From there, a deeply unsettling story unfolds. There’s so much sparkling humanity on display, which makes the darkness that much more disturbing.
Stephen Graham Jones shines when he hits father/son territory, and that’s the third rail Mapping the Interior barrels along. I don’t want to give many details, because this is a novella. It took me about an hour or so to read, and it’s twisty, surprising, and shocking, and I don’t want to take any of that away from you. I will say that you should also read his superlative short story “Father, Son, and Holy Rabbit” along with this one, since it’s sort of an inverse narrative and I think you’ll enjoy comparing and contrasting. I mean, you’ll also be really upset. But in a good way!
As a bonus (for me), there’s also a fantastic mom character. Like any story with a young hero worth its salt, the good stuff happens when she’s away, but the woman’s still occasionally on hand to make sloppy joes to eat on the porch while admiring the pirate flag her children have made out of her last few dish towels or to beat the tar out of anyone stupid enough to hurt her kids. And there’s this – “you never tell your mom anything that might worry her. Moms have enough to worry about already” (63).
Another thing that hit me too close to home was the narrator’s desperate attempts to impose order on a reality so far out of his control. There’s so much perfectly rational kid logic in here being applied to heartbreaking situations. If the dead can walk, he reasons, maybe he can step into another spiritual plane by putting both of his feet to sleep. He systematically searches his home, foot by foot, for evidence of his father’s ghost (giving the book its title). Finally, toward the end, he states the ultimate horror of late childhood, at least for me: “There are rules, I know. Not knowing them doesn’t mean they don’t apply to you” (95).
I give this one five out of five bloodthirsty neighbor dogs.