I didn’t think writers like Stephen Graham Jones existed. The first time I was introduced to his work, I was studying creative writing at my local community college, writing horror stories for my assignments while my classmates wrote literary pieces. My amazing professor never batted an eye, even encouraging me to keep writing––to make a career out of words. I looked at her, full of skepticism that both literary fiction and horror could co-exist in the same piece. Then she asked, “Have you ever heard of Stephen Graham Jones?”
She told me all about this native-Texan, Blackfeet-Indian, writing-professor horror writer. She told me that this man, this fellow person of color, was writing horror that was literary and entertaining.
He even wrote about my greatest literary weakness: werewolves.
So, naturally, I went to the library and checked out the only book of his I could find on the shelves: After the People Lights Have Gone Off.
I didn’t think I’d ever read something even better than that collection from Stephen Graham Jones. I enjoyed his other work–Mapping the Interior, Mongrels–but that collection of short stories remained my favorite.
Until I read Night of the Mannequins.
In this novella, high school upperclassman, Sawyer, and his friends devise a huge, hopefully unforgettable, prank to take place at one of the friends, Shanna’s, workplace–the local movie theater. A few summers before, the friends found an abandoned mannequin, and in this, the mannequin’s grand finale, they’d purchase a ticket and have him sit in the theater like any other paying movie-goer. But things go wrong when Manny the mannequin exits the theater under his own power at the end of the movie, like a live human being. And when a diesel truck barrels through Shanna’s home a few days later, leaving nothing but unrecognizable chunks of meat, Sawyer is convinced that Manny, who eats fertilizer and is growing to Godzilla-sized proportions, is coming after them all as revenge for ignoring the mannequin that was such a huge part of their lives a few hot East Texas summers ago.
But as members of the friend group begin to fall victim to murder, the remaining kids have to watch their backs lest they succumb to the wrath that blooms from that final prank. Sawyer, determined to save as many lives as he possibly can, begins to struggle with deep philosophical questions about friendship and mortality, leading us readers down a twisted and bloody path with a shocking conclusion that leaves us wondering what the hell just happened, but in a good way.
Part creature feature, part slasher, and part coming-of-age story, Night of the Mannequins is a novella that embodies everything we love about Stephen Graham Jones: his ability to help us see the logic of a dark and twisted mind, while leaving a trail of blood and death in his wake. Are we reading a tale of the supernatural? Or one of psychological horror? Are we reading slasher fic? Jones manages to blend each of these subgenres seamlessly, giving us a tale that keeps us guessing, keeps us flipping those pages, while doing the thing that horror is so good at: making us ponder those deeper existential questions that are uncomfortable to examine too closely.
The novella is told in first person, so our protagonist, Sawyer, is also our narrator. The voice he lends to the story makes it all the more frightening and exhibits Jones’ ability to create believable characters, while making us question whether or not we should believe the characters themselves. Jones gives readers a peek into a mind that is at once deeply flawed, terrifyingly sane, and full of teenage logic, as Sawyer constantly works to convince himself that his choices are the right ones and that the problem is a simple, black-and-white issue that has an obvious solution. As we go on this journey with Sawyer, we find ourselves nodding along, though we’re simultaneously horrified by his decisions. We’re conflicted––do we root for our protagonist as he solves the problem? Or do we condemn him for making the problem worse? As the reader, we’re never quite sure whether Sawyer is successful at stopping Manny, or if he’s only succeeded in upping the body count. And that’s the real horror of this story: who is the real monster in all of this?
But it’s not just the twists that make this book unputdownable––it’s the way Jones feeds us information, just a little at a time. This story is a master class in pacing and foreshadowing, pulling the reader along with just enough detail to make them salivate for more. From the very first paragraph, we’re told that Sawyer’s friends are mostly dead. We know before we even learn about Manny that this novella is going to have the high body count we’d expect from slasher horror. But the little nuggets Jones drops along the way are what keep us guessing and wondering. Just when we think we know where the story is going, bam!, we’re hit with one simple little sentence that shows us how very wrong we were. What starts off as a creature feature ends as something far more profound, while maintaining the thrill and gore of a slasher––the perfect blend of genre fiction and literary fiction that Jones does so well. It’s a story that stays with you long after you’ve read that final word, forcing you to contemplate questions of morality and mortality, in the way that literary fiction pushes us to do, while entertaining you and scaring you as any great work of horror should.
Yet, despite the twists that leave us feeling untethered, the novella is a cohesive story. While we may not always know where we’re going, one constant remains: will Sawyer stop Manny? That one question keeps us in the story, even when a literal tornado blows through and destroys everything we thought we knew.
Night of the Mannequins is not the story I thought I was going to read. It was an uncanny and unsettling ride far better than I ever could have imagined. With a stunning (though controversial) ending that’s left to the reader to interpret as they see fit, this creepy, keep-you-on-your-toes novella is the perfect read for a chilly October night.
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