“You’re a lucky woman,” says Duchess County Sheriff Mike Butler.
I ride a wave of displacement. Lucky? I don’t feel lucky. I feel like I want to unzip my skin and wriggle out of my body and into another. By what metric is he measuring my luck? I suppose he means that I’m luckier than a woman whose attack has resulted in her murder. I want to tell him: lucky is what you are when you win the lottery.
a home invasion gone weird disrupts a recovering addict’s life even further by its aftermath, dragging the reader along on an oftentimes very confusing ride.
i’m a rounder-upper by nature (and probably also by nurture), so while there are some frustrating things about this one, mostly centered in the author’s dislocating structural choices and my own personal inability to get with the lovecraftian tradition of half-unseen horror slithering on the periphery, the parts that i did like were strong enough to boost this into four-
star cat territory.
its horror is mainly psychological in nature, but there’s plenty of graphic body horror to bloody the pot, with a cherry of hubristic science fiction on top.
plotstuff: the titular sydney burgess is a former addict nine years sober who has struggled to turn her life around and finally seems to have achieved the suburban american dream: a steady career, a stable boyfriend who dotes on her and her eleven-year-old son, and a beautiful house where the three of them live in unremarkable placid safety.
this all changes when sydney is attacked by a masked intruder in her home while matt and danny are away camping. she manages to escape with serious but survivable injuries, but the incident leaves her with profound psychological scarring, especially when she learns that the intruder has been found emphatically dead in her home, stabbed twenty-eight times, presumably by her own self-defensive overkill.
blackouts and memory gaps are not unfamiliar territory for the ghost of sydney past, but violent mutilation is a pretty significant thing to forget, and the encounter shatters her sense of calm, creating psychological fissures that allow her past behavior and memories to crawl closer to the surface of her hard-won new life.
more specifically, it unleashes ‘the swimmer;’ an inchoate dark force that manifests, causing dreamlike hallucinatory experiences—visions and voices and impulses; weakening the seam between time and reality and some other ineffable realm, altering her with a slippery indefinable “offness” in her physical appearance; perceptible to others in a startling can’t-put-my-finger-on-it way, and causing some erratic behavioral changes.
everything gets a bit murky from this point on, but while there were some “wait, HUH?” moments, there were also some high points shining through the confusion. he really shines at writing about addiction. and yeah, trigger, trigger, chicken dinners all around. i don’t have any personal experience with addiction, but he writes sydney’s predicament so viscerally—the lure of addiction crooking its finger, inviting her to backslide; her acute psychological distress and head trauma weakening her resolve—even as she refuses the painkillers her doctors prescribe. the temporal and reality shifts of the narrative pull the reader along into sydney’s turmoil, enhancing the sense of being caught in a spiral with her, where her willpower clashes up against the hunger, the wanting, the ritual, and the promise of release that drugs once provided.
it can be read, up to a point, as an extended metaphor of addiction as demonic possession; addiction externalized into an entity, always lurking, set giddily free by a violent experience. it frequently reminded me of the psychic unraveling in sara gran’s excellently taut demonic possession novel Come Closer; the narrative becoming increasingly fragmented as something else supersedes sydney’s will and she begins losing control of her life.
the idea of compartmentalizing one’s dark urges into a whole ‘nother entity is not new—dexter’s dark passenger, dr. jeckyll’s mr. hyde, etc, but this one eventually takes the conceit one step further into unexpected—debatably implausible—territory, and that ending is a pretty solid gutpunch.
i appreciated the author’s extra credit wrinkle to the possession angle; a deft little pivot exploring sydney’s growing sense that she is herself an invasive species; a performative parasite in this shiny happy suburban life she was maybe only adopting as protective camouflage.
My heart quickens. Just for a moment—a passing flash—a sharp wave of disgust washes over me. Not at the sheriff and his fealty to the unrest in this room, but at the sheer blandness of the things I’ve surrounded myself with. The proof that I have embraced with all my heart and soul the proper aspects of being a mother, a partner, a fucking commuter. All the time and energy spent scratching and clawing just to put myself in the position to scratch and claw some more, at upward mobility, like a normal person. I recall the reckless misdirected rages and euphoric highs of the wreck I used to be and once again the craving hits—to slip into that younger skin for a moment, to sidestep the notion that the straight world has anything to offer me. To stay the fucked-up course.
I haven’t felt the pull of these impulses in a long time.
when it’s on, it’s ON, but it’s a not-for-everyone kind of book, for a number of reasons. my personal reason is that i have always balked at the blurry phrasings of cosmic horror—the “impossible geometries,” and “thicket[s] of vagueness,” and “the angular alphabet of some incomprehensible language.” stuff like that makes my brain itch, and there’s a lot of it here. it’s a genre convention of a genre i don’t dig, so that’s on me, but it especially rankles here, when he’s so damn good at the detail work when it’s grounded in the real. the whole opening, describing the attack, is so finely-wrought that i’m powerless to resist typing most of it out here and you can read it or not.
It happened so fast, say people who have lived through sudden bursts of violence—but for me, time’s a slow drip and I can see everything at once. Black sneakers on our reclaimed tiles, old appliance manuals in the junk drawer, the RSVP to the wedding of my boyfriend’s cousin, a small lace-trimmed envelope waiting to be mailed. The man’s eyes are framed by the slit in his balaclava, a word I know from the tattered paperbacks I tore through in the rehab center’s shabby library.
I take one step back, jam my hand into my shoulder bag, and rummage wildly for the pepper spray. But I’ve never used it before, and it’s buried under travel Kleenex packs and lip balm and generic ibuprofen and noise-canceling headphones and laptop and charger and moleskin notebook and tampons.
His hand closes around the Jesus candle my boyfriend bought from the bodega by the train station. Señor de los Milagros de Buga, $3.99 plus tax. It’s the size of a relay runner’s baton, glass as thick as a casserole dish and filled to the brim with solid wax.
My fingers brush the pepper spray canister. There’s a little rim of plastic that acts as a safety—I just have to flick it to the side. Too slow, Sydney. The candle comes at me in a fluid sideways arc.
Half ducking, half flinching, I twist away. His side-arm swing smashes the candle into my left ear. There’s an unbelievable volcanic thud inside my head, a searing, blinding flash, and time’s not a slow drip anymore, it’s a film reel with missing frames.
I am holding myself up, clinging to the door.
I will stay on my feet.
There’s an electric current buzzing through my teeth. The front hall is full of bad angles, a nonsense corridor in a dream. The coats are swaying on their hooks. I raise the pepper spray, but my arm can only aim it in the direction of the baseboard, the off-white trim that doesn’t quite touch the tile, a haven for crumbs and lost earrings. In the gilt-framed mirror next to the closet door, I see a gloved hand holding the candle up in the air. The man is very tall, and the tip of the candle hits the ceiling before it comes down.
The walls are tinted red and the whole house roars like the ocean. There’s a hot-penny tang I can taste in the back of my throat, a cocaine drip that fills my mouth and overflows. Tissue packs and hair clips are scattered across the tiles, coming up fast.
I shouldn’t be here. These words can’t really form because the darkness is thick enough to stifle thought. It’s more like a sharp sense of injustice wrapped in the fear that throbs somewhere in the void. An impression that I have been cheated by circumstance.
I shouldn’t be here.
now that’s how you open a book, yeah? it’s so immersive and real—the splintery convoluted thought-chains of panic, desperately grasping at the familiar, clinging to the smallest, most inconsequential details, caught in the slow realization of the moment, danger making everything stand out in sharp relief because this could be where you end. anyone who’s had a near-death experience is bound to relate to this and it is powerfully effective. which is why i was so frowny when it slid into that ‘unutterable horror’ track that does nothing for me.
still, there’s a lot to applaud here, so i’m rounding up and no one can stop me. not even some eldritch swimmer.
tl;dr: DO YOU LOVE ME?