Book: After the People Lights Have Gone Off
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Type of Book: Fiction, horror, weird fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Ultimately this may not be an odd collection but this book creates the feeling that the reader is consuming something wholly new. Too often originality in content and voice in the horror genre are somewhat odd, sad to say.
Availability: Published by The Dark House Press in 2014, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I already know, writing the first sentence of my discussion for After the People Lights Have Gone Off, that I will be using the delete key quite a bit. I find it difficult to put into words why some stories in this collection were the literary equivalent of throwing a lead weight over the side of a ship and why some stories soared, excellent examples of literary horror at its best. Some of Jones’s stories were so perfect that I felt that familiar pull of envy that comes when I read something so wonderful that I wish I had thought of it first. But some of Jones’s stories were impenetrable for me, leaving me wondering if he missed the mark or if I was just too dense to understand what he was trying to convey. Ultimately I decided I just wasn’t the sort of reader to appreciate those stories, that taste was at issue and not talent.
The hell of it is, this has been a pretty dense year for me. Sort of muddy and brackish. I don’t feel as on the ball at the moment as I have in years past. But what made me decide that my divided reactions are righteous was analyzing why I am so divided about the stories in this collection. The answer is that while Jones has a distinct voice, he is also a malleable writer who is moving around within his chosen genre. The stories that have a familiar ring to them are written in a style that makes them seem fresh, but Jones also ventures out into new territory, with strange ideas and storytelling techniques that can be maddening when one is the sort of reader who needs the conclusions to be neater. Jones may luck out and find readers who love every bit of his work, as he twists the horror genre into new shapes, but chances are he’s going to end up with a substantial number of readers who love it when he’s wearing a particular storytelling hat but less so when he puts on another.
One hat that Jones kept on throughout this collection is the “weird” hat. Much of this collection could be considered weird fiction, which may be one of the reasons why some of the stories didn’t work for me. I like weird fiction, as a rule, but this horror subset lends itself well to muffled storytelling, mushy conclusions, entire story lines that can be up for interpretation. I’ve been clear in the past how I feel about such writing. That sort of remote remove in writing irritates me because it is too often a cop-out, a lazy attempt to force the burden of storytelling onto the reader. Jones, when his writing is up for interpretation doesn’t echo the laziness of others who write this way, and this entire collection is refreshingly devoid of irony, but even purposeful, earnest writing that employs this sort of post-modernist equivocation will likely always ring false to me.
For example, the story that gives this collection its title – “After the People Lights Have Gone Off”- made very little sense to me. A couple, who have had their dream home built, decide to spend the night in the loft of the unfinished home and the woman rolls off and goes crashing down into the story below, becoming a paraplegic. Though she is bound to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, they still move into the house, which is not particularly ideal for a wheelchair, and they do their best to make life work. The husband more or less lives and works on the second floor, the wife existing on the first, and they’re struggling emotionally. The husband becomes aware that his wife is sleep walking – sort of. She’s pulling herself through the house at night, dragging her useless legs behind her, sometimes sleep-crawling for so long that she leaves blood trails.
This is some creepy stuff right here. It’s atmospheric and heartbreaking. But even as I appreciate the style, I have no idea what the point of the story is or what the conclusion means. I sense this is a post-modern “haunted house” tale but I don’t know entirely. If so, what is haunting the house? Is it a paranormal visitation drawn to the misery the couple experience? Is it metaphorical in that the house is haunted by the possibilities ruined when the wife suffered her accident? Is she possessed at night by the memory of her vital, walking self? Exploring media that is open for interpretation is fun – demonstrated recently in my analysis of It Follows. But this story is over forty pages long and so descriptive and specific in places that the reader, or at least this reader, may feel that she missed something in the story, that there was something important that tied off the ends that was overlooked. I reread this story and was no more solid after the second read.
I had similar problems with “Thirteen.” A kid dies at a movie theater and becomes a sort of urban legend – if you follow a certain ritual, you can summon him. And this bare bones synopsis is really all I am prepared to discuss because again I really don’t understand what happens in this story well enough to analyze it. This is the story that made me feel really stupid, all the more unfortunate because it is the first story in the collection and was so unclear to me that I almost stopped reading entirely.
However, when Jones creates plots that are unlike anything I’ve read before, nearing into wholly-unique territory, his writing becomes more specific and even if the endings are not neatly concluded, I walked away from the stories either able to pull out what Jones was attempting or I was able to use details in the story to reach a definite conclusion. My favorite stories in this collection are notably similar in how they are either unlike anything else I’ve ever read or take a specific trope and use it in a way that revitalizes old plots.
“Second Chances” is my favorite story in the collection. Maddy works for a research lab that does testing for chemical substances. Specifically she is working on a project for a cosmetics company that requires her to subject forty generations of butterflies to a particular amino acid and record how it affects them. She has just returned to work after losing a child and her peers worry she has come back to work too soon but she insists on continuing her project. Setting up that Maddy is grieving causes the reader to question if what Maddy claims to see in her analysis of butterfly lifespans is really happening or if she is suffering from grief so profound that she is detached from reality and imagining all the strange and utterly unexpected results in her butterfly project. Eventually Jones shows us what is real and what isn’t but until that moment you do wonder if you are reading the visions of a woman so reduced by mourning that she has lost contact with reality.
Maddy is sure that those around her will think she has become unhinged so she keeps a separate, private log detailing the results of the experiment.
In the private log she wagered that every planet produces one animal that contains every form of life. A genetic chimera. For purposes of repopulation following some global calamity.
This had probably happened before.
Just, never in a lab.
And though Maddy knew what the calamity in this case had been – Chang could have guessed as well, she would wager – she didn’t write her son’s name in the log even once.
Eventually the others in the lab become aware of what is happening, and I am trying my best not to spoil this story because you need to read it, and they set up a sort of viewing party to review what they consider a sort of Tree of Life that accidentally sprouted up in this lab. However, only Maddy is present when the experiment reaches its final form and it’s staggering to me what she does. I had to read it a second time to make sure that Jones ended it the way he did. This story is a revelation – mired in the wonder of life and creation yet written without sentimentality.
And the ending… Jesus, suddenly the reader has no idea who or what Maddy is, is she a devastated mother or is she a calculating monster. This story permits the reader to interpret the story herself but the story itself is stark and clear as it gives you the bones of what happens. The story is like life. Every event we see has so much that went on behind the scenes, events we think we know the details about, but we don’t. We just trust that people follow certain scripts in their lives and that those are the same scripts we follow. If this experiment really was a second chance for Maddy, as the title implies, the decision she makes becomes chilling and terrible and complete off-script.
This really is a wonderful story. It’s something I really wish I had thought of and it makes me envy Jones’s talent.
“Solve for X” is another story that left me feeling strange and full of awe after reading it. A woman has been kidnapped and is being held captive and is tortured by her kidnapper. This is a story wherein Jones flips the script, taking a tired plot trope – mentally unhinged attacker carving up a captive woman – and creating something that the reader cannot predict. The fiend has selected this woman as the audience to a lesson he needs to teach and it isn’t until her wounds are infected and fear has driven her mad that she begins to understand the language he wants her to learn, the equation he needs her to solve.
The man’s interactions with his captive were completely unexpected for me. This is a story about clarity after the ordeal. What would have been torture porn in the hands of a more basic horror writer becomes an esoteric look at how the mind can eventually be broken in such a way that the person broken appreciates the abuse because transcendence becomes possible. There is an equity of suffering in this story – what happens to the victim happens to the captor because he needs her to learn, to understand what it is he knows and experiences. What he does to her and how she reaches the point that she breaks and rebuilds is nothing I am going to spoil but in this story Jones shows the audience that while some stories prove there is nothing new under the sun, there is always room to create old stories into new ones if you have the vision to do so.
Because of the way Jones set this story up, I can reproduce the last two paragraphs without spoiling it for you and that’s good because I loved these two paragraphs so much I want to share them, to show you an example of Jones’s style.
She draws like this through the night, or what she thinks must be the night, and when sleep starts to insist upon itself, she pulls one eyelid out as tight as it will go, reminds him about the utility knife, and at the precise moment of incision she remembers her daughter’s name, her beautiful, beautiful name, and has to suck her breath in through her teeth.
“Again,” she says, guiding his wrist, “deeper, please,” and she’s in the right room after all, it turns out. She was the right person all along.
And this is another story where you will be required to do some work to reach a conclusion. My conclusion may well be different from any you might reach. But that’s how it has to be. Jones’s monsters may not be yours, nor may mine. The story is no less a revelation because of personal interpretations because however you interpret the kidnapper’s intent and however you parse out what is happening in the victim’s mind, the concrete facts of the story remain the same. They’re still in that dark basement and there is still blood flowing freely. This blood on the ground is similar to the blood on the floor on “After the People Lights Have Gone Off,” but this story worked better for my sort of brain because even if I can interpret what the ending really means, I also know exactly what happened in the story. I know what caused the blood to flow. I have no idea what was behind the paraplegic woman pulling herself along ground in a sort of fugue state. I don’t know what it was that was stalking the couple in that house. I know exactly what was behind the woman being bound in the dark. I find it easier to interpret when facts are black and white but intentions are up for grabs.
It’s strange to encounter a collection like this, wherein at least a quarter of the stories meant nothing to me yet I find the book enthralling anyway. That is going to happen when an author takes risks and creates something new with each story he writes. Had Jones remained true to the style that hooked me on “Solve for X” and “Second Chances” it may seem like this collection would have been more to my tastes but ultimately I respect the way Jones approaches each story as a entity unto itself and not a new example of a static talent. People who write this way will always produce a few stories per collection that stump or annoy their readers but that’s a far more exciting way to write, I think. It forces me to analyze whether or not the story fails due to poor writing or if it fails because I am not the reader the story needs. I like that sort of introspection when I am reading.
I will be reading more of Jones, even though I know there’s a good chance Demon Theory will be written more like “Thirteen” than “Solve for X.” That thrum of knowing an author may not approach his subjects the same every single time, that he may risk writing a book that no one expects, makes reading exciting. Even though fully a quarter of the stories in this collection fell flat for me, I still recommend this book, and I recommend it even for those who may not be fans of the horror genre because that damnably undefinable yet amazing quality to Jones’s writing shows up in every tale. Good writing allows it to step outside of genre. If you decide to read this book, be sure to come back and let me know what you think of it. Did the whole thing work for you? Which stories sank and which stories soared? I’d love to hear your opinions.