MIDNIGHT PICNIC

STATS: BOOK / NICK ANTOSCA / 188pp. / 2009

midnight

A sad and elegant story about spreading the dead and the living out across a shared plane of misty, drippy American highways and late-nite fast food, putt-putt courses, strip malls, mostly shuttered amusement parks, ghost trains, mouth-birth dogs with human voices, and submerged or outer-spaced versions of Atlantic City and New Orleans. At one of these all-night venues, a Roy Rogers, our hapless not-quite-dead-but-straying-pretty-far-from-the-living protagonist muses on the mostly insensate people stuffing their faces in the booths around him:

“They must be living people, moored to nothing, who drift into and out of fast food places in the dead of night. It doesn’t matter to them if they have wandered into the long shadow of the afterlife.”

Basically what happened to get us here was that a guy ran over a dog. Going off for a gun to put it out of its misery, he, in classic horror-movie style, comes back to find that it’s wandered off into the woods, very much not yet dead. Somehow the disappearance of the dog results in the appearance, into his room, of the bones of a small boy. These then reconstitute themselves into the embodied ghost of that boy (whose touch makes us very, very sleepy). Next, the embodied ghost claims to have been partially reincarnated into the current living guise of the guy who ran over the dog … and demands help seeking revenge on the woods-dweller who, in 1983, fed him the Midnight Picnic and then stood on him underwater in a lake in the moonlight until such time as he was dead.

And they’re off.

What starts as a vengeance quest turns into something very different, or else expands the nature of what a vengeance quest is into something far beyond what it usually seems like it couldn’t be more than. The novella, which deservedly won the Shirley Jackson Award, has got some good country noir to it, with William-Gay-worthy malfeasance brewing deep in the West Virginia backwoods, but it’s tinged throughout with a melancholy, ruminative mood that pushes it a long way down another, less traveled road. Antosca nails horror so well that he can afford to basically ignore it. The sense of a shared mission between the depressive young man and the rage-fueled ghost-boy waxes and wanes, from obsession to distant tangent, in a way that feels right for the spaced-out netherworld it’s increasingly coming to take place in, a place where you feel like you’re floating because the mind, to paraphrase a cool passage, often forgets to recreate the feeling of feet making contact with the ground.

Reading, maybe like dying, you lose track of where you end and the world, and all those within it, begin: “I think that when you die you lose parts of yourself, you erode. Pieces slough off and go somewhere else, into other things. You can feel it happening … there is no … immortal ‘soul.’ Just something that lasts for a while as it falls apart … as it decomposes like everything does, to feed other things.”

This is one of those rare books that feels in retrospect much longer than it was, in the good and not the bad way. It achieves the sense of the epic, of the journey unfolding across profound and tremendous space, in a very compressed, almost anecdotal manner. It’s chilly and murky and hits all the woodsy horror chopper notes, but then leaves all this behind to soar gracefully into another ring of the eternal circus of death, night, empathy, getting lost and getting revenge … again and again and again. When the young man asks his increasingly petulant, funny-scary boy-ward what their gameplan here is, now that they’ve already burned the target of their vengeance alive but still seem to be dogging him across infinity, the boy responds, in my favorite line, “So what? That was there. This is here. Every place you go you should get punished again!”

Space — both the metaphysical space that divides the living from the dead, and the waking from the dreaming, as well as geographical, noir-American space, that divides one dump or graveyard from the next — feels both super-drawn-out, like you could drive across “miles of farmland trod by the long dead” forever and never see anything more than a bit of a fence and a wall of trees, and super-compressed, like you almost don’t have to go anywhere or do anything to be in all places at once. This has to do with a deliberately imperfect system of worlds-behind-or-within-worlds, wherein there are always other orders and schemes lurking behind whichever ones you manage to get into and see, but they appear in weird ways, or seem at one moment to be nested inside one another and then, in another moment, to be spread out laterally like different counties on a big map, or like bits of bone jutting up to skin level from the depths of a puncture. Here, for example, some back-world juts into the front:

“On the road he stands alone, breathing. Almost imperceptibly at first, the darkness and space around him seem to pull back, outward like a tide, and in their absence he senses a presence that used to be hidden. He can hear the sound of its pulse, its breathing. It is everywhere.”

antosca

“I’ve been wandering through the afterlife with a guide who isn’t very good.”

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