After the People LightsHave Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
Publisher: Dark House Press
Released: September 2014
Guest review by Melanie Page
Stephen Graham Jones is at again, writing faster than fans can read and publishers would like. This time, SGJ gives us a collection of 16 stories coming from various scary persuasions: ghosts, vampires, werewolves, haunted houses, and even some aliens. The title alone creeped me out; “people lights” imply something looking at your house, something that isn’t “people.” The cover image, too, is frightening--we see a person through a broken window, so the image creates a fore-, middle-, and background. Ingenious for a book cover, really, as the perspective makes readers wonder who’s looking at whom.
Before I started People Lights, my most recent SGJ experience was this summer when I picked up Growing Up Dead in Texas (MP Publishing, 2012), a nonfiction work that read like fiction: things too weird to be true, people who are larger than life. I didn’t finish SGJ’s memoir, though, because it seemed like he forgot someone was reading. Settings I couldn’t picture, people I couldn’t remember, farming terms I didn’t know, and perspectives that were missing. Occasionally, SGJ appears to write for an audience of one.
Although fiction, the first few stories in After the People Lights Have Gone Off read in the same confusing manner. SGJ provides a feedback at the end of the collection where readers can see what inspired each story. The first story, “Thirteen,” based on the author’s childhood, is about “some bad stuff that happened in the bathroom of the Big Chief movie theater in Midland, Texas, bad stuff that made us all so scared to go there that it finally just shut down.” In the Big Chief theater in the story, what exactly characters are afraid of is unclear. It has something to do with holding their breath during certain parts of movies and possibly disappearing. I don’t know what happened in Midland, but the story doesn’t capture the fear that SGJ felt (and, admittedly, still feels).
The second story, “Brushdogs,” was also confusing. It’s unclear whether the father’s son disappears or is actually the real son. There is a disappearing/reappearing glove. All readers know is that the father and son find a carion pile and weird things happen that make the father feel uncertain. Again, the story is based on a real experience, but SGJ fails to provide the pegs on which we hang meaning. At this point, I was disappointed that I bought the book.
Almost as soon as I thought the negatives, my faith was restored: the majority of the collection was brilliant, inventive, and truly scary. Boyfriends Jonathan and Lucas try to make it work in a time warp that sends them around one another in “This is Love.” Grandpa’s secret murderous past as a werewolf--and a human--comes home to roost in “Doc’s Story.” A husband cares for his wife after an accident in their new home leaves her paralyzed, but something haunted interferes with their lives in the title story. In “Uncle” the narrator admits, “There wasn’t even a muted scream from down the hall. Just the sound of forever. In it, I aimed the [handheld laser infrared thermometer] gun into my mouth, pulled the trigger. The readout said I was still alive, still human. As far as it knew, anyway.”
SGJ’s stories aren’t easy; in most cases the end isn’t clear, and readers are left to infer what happened. The challenge is one I want to meet, but putting the most abstract stories in the front nearly put me off the collection. Overall, After the People Lights Have Gone Off is a satisfying, terrifying read.
Melanie Page is a MFA graduate, adjunct instructor, and recent founder of Grab the Lapels, a site that only reviews books written by women (www.grabthelapels.weebly.com).
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