A warning to all fairweather readers out there, those who like creepy, pins-and-needles fiction, but only so long as it sweeps all of its ugliness back under the rug and restores a sense of calm and balance and peace of mind to the world by the time you turn the last page: Amelia Gray is onto you.
To be sure, Threats, the Los Angeles resident’s aggressive and riotously messy debut novel, leads the reader down a dark road—namely, the increasingly frayed psyche of a man whose wife has just died, though he can’t remember how or why (or if he’s responsible). But just at the point when you expect the car to turn back around and take you home, Gray shoves you out the passenger door and abandons you there on the filthy pavement, scrapes and all.
The man in question is named David. His wife is Franny. She was quite a large woman, but now she’s dead; her cremated remains sit in a delivery package atop their old coffee table. Those are the few pieces of information we’re given before reality gets permanently kicked a few degrees askew. By the time the basic details about Franny’s death are presented to the reader, we also have to deal with David’s free-floating fantasy that he and the information-presenting firefighter on the scene have swapped roles—so now he’s saying out loud the things he’s also hearing for the first time. It’s all a bit fuzzy, and only gets fuzzier.
Pretty soon he’s interpreting every spoken statement he overhears as the title of a book (“‘Everything Is Dead, but It’s Still Kind of Nice,’ said a woman observing the frozen house plants on the porch”), or having guarded conversations with a new neighbour who looks exactly like him, right down to the rumples in his clothes.
Now, there’s certainly no shortage of novels out there about one person’s descent into madness. But Threats works because of how deftly Gray smudges the border surrounding mental health, and how she then re-imagines the entire town accordingly. The detective on the case is, himself, far from a pillar of rationality. A therapist sets up shop in David’s garage—swarms of wasps be damned. And several people besides David report seeing Franny wandering the streets, alive and well. It’s like Our Town directed by David Lynch.
Gray knows her way around eerie imagery, too. Visions of worms, dental malpractice (David lost his license years earlier), and the ominous rumble of washing machines seep into every scene.
As for the titular threats, which David starts to find all around his house, plastered beneath old wallpaper and stuffed into spaghetti boxes? They may be terse, and often vague, but the general mood is hard to miss. For instance:
CURL UP ON MY LAP. LET ME BRUSH YOUR HAIR WITH MY FINGERS. I AM SINGING YOU A LULLABY. I AM TESTING FOR STRUCTURAL WEAKNESS IN YOUR SKULL.
(By the way, sweet dreams tonight.)
Maybe my favourite parts of the book, though, are those moments when Gray toys with her audience’s need for closure, and our thirst for hard answers.
Near the end of the book, she appears to provide just such a consolation. “You’re a reasonable man,” one of Franny’s old co-workers tells David. “You understand that things are never precisely as they seem. It’s a trouble with people. We get one idea of an outcome in our heads and we can really run with it into the sunset.”
Whew! People are strange. Okay. Got it. Let’s move on.
But Gray is smarter than that. Better still, it turns out she was baiting us all along—getting our hopes up just to dash them. In Threats, such a platitude cannot stand. Chaos always makes a comeback.
Because, naturally, David then asks the woman: “Who is doing this?”
“Probably it’s whoever you least expect,” she replies. “Or most suspect. I forget how that goes.”
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272 pp, $15.50, paperback
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, May 10, 2012)