Where the Dead Can't Bury their Dead
Most authors won’t kill a kid in their stories, and those who do will do it lightly, reaping all the pathos without having to deliver the scene. In the years since The World According to Garp‘s release, countless readers feel deceived by John Irving’s offing Garp’s son, Walt, even if the author cuts the car crash scene short for his readers’ sake. More recently, however, in The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold pulled off the near impossible by immersing her narrative in the mind of a murdered girl, after delivering the brutal scene (likely why the author has attracted the most ambitious of filmmakers, Peter Jackson, to film the story).
But young novelist Nick Antosca, who can let inspiration fly like an improv artist, would call Irving’s method restrained. The dead kid in his new novel, Midnight Picnic—a hybrid of southern gothic and speculative fiction—is doomed once he encounters Jacob Bunny in the woods. Antosca leads us through a slow, fatalistic scene that we know will climax in murder, and the knowing would be enough. But not here. Antosca fixes a weight upon the reader’s chest when the six-year-old Adam Dovey, still “feeling dimly that he might rise through the blackness,” gets pinned to the bottom of a lake by two boot heels. The water above the boy is as heavy as the demented killer upon him.
Yes, here we have what may be one of the most disturbing murder scenes ever conceived. Yet, it’s more than a gutsy stunt. The tone of this moment becomes organic to the tale, since Adam’s ghost channels the memory to the living when he reaches out to them, as he does to Bram. A 20-something without any focus, Bram comes across the boy’s bones and, thus, inherits the charge to bring about justice. The dead coming back for revenge is a worn device—used in this form since Richard Matheson’s 1958 novel, Stir of Echoes, and feeling dried out by the time Kevin Bacon starred in the 1999 film version. Here it feels routine until Adam gives Bram a peek into how he was killed. And now we know this ain’t no by-the-numbers revenge thriller.
Bram’s life is routine squalor, in his one-room apartment above a bar. His neighbor down the hall, the young Marian, already appears like a ghost by the first scene. (She find herself a noose soon enough.) Early on, Bram discovers her in his bed one night, but there’s nothing growing there. As desperate as she is, he’s hardly ready for a mature relationship. He is like the uneducated cousin of Jon Danfield in Fires, Antosca’s first novel, in which a protagonist leaves a campus wasteland in New Haven to find a metaphorical forest blaze at home in Maryland. Jon’s relationship with Ruth develops faster than his maturity and security can keep up; with Bram, such maturity has yet to be awakened; for now, he’s destined to serve as a vehicle for Adam’s vengeance.
Justice comes rather quickly, and unlike Adam’s drowning, it is spared for viewers. Picnic seems hardly concerned with this retribution, since the more important one awaits. The soul of young Adam needs to rest, which means he and Bram must hunt down Bunny’s ghost—a bend in logic we accept, since we are already playing by this narrative’s own rules. Picnic itches to abandon the mundane of West Virginia for a speculative netherworld, a not-quite-afterlife (and calling it purgatory wouldn’t be appropriate, either). Antosca used a similar approach in his short story “Amphibian”, which reflects on our curiosity about metamorphosis with something beyond magic realism.
Adam leads Bram into a beyond that has a distinctly cool tone, like a ripe midnight of silvery light (even if the moon’s nowhere to be found). When they first approach, they see “soft small crowns of illuminations on the night, so far away, just where the sky meets the earth. Glow of distant cities. Their breath on the darkness.” Ray Bradbury, master of far metaphor who Bram just so happens to read, would smile, proud to see an apprentice crafting language into visual poetry. Bram and Adam have entered a wasteland of the living and the material, where vague cultural memories of gas-stops and shopping malls sit under orbs of light.
Bram even finds the soul of Marian, who feels as if she’s “‘floating through warm water in a black ocean ... with things you used to know floating past you, and all the things are fine but a little sad, and sometimes you think you can hear the water itself try to whisper to you, saying things like, “Shhh” and “It’s okay.” It’s like being told that it’s all going to be fine by a person who is permanently depressed.’” When touching her, Bram finds the roots of her sorrow, just as the dread of Adam’s murder can overtake the living. Telling readers of it would be rote, an expected device; Antosca shows us the feeling, and we submit to it.