Stephen Graham Jones makes it all look so easy. Using a simple first-person narrative voice, he tells the story of a preteen Blackfeet Indian boy trapped in an eerie predicament, one that threatens the fate of his younger brother.
Check out this beginning:
I was twelve the first time I saw my dead father cross from the kitchen doorway to the hall that led back to the utility room.
What a great opening! Stephen Graham Jones really knows how to get things started. I was under his spell from that first sentence.
A dead father slowly coming back to life. Is it a ghost story? A zombie story? Nope, neither. It’s much more than that. But it’s definitely a horror story. It’s a cross between Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.
Junior, the narrator of Mapping the Interior, is only twelve at the start of the book. He lives in a modular house (twenty feet by sixty feet, about), off the reservation. His father drowned when he was only four and his younger brother Dino was only one. Dino is intellectually disabled and seizure-prone. School kids bully him on the bus, but Junior protects him, gets him home safe, cares for him. The boys’ mother works two shifts, is rarely home, so Junior is the man of the house.
The boys’ father has returned as a ghostly fancy dancer, elaborately costumed in full Native American regalia, entering Dino’s bedroom at night for a mysterious reason. The father is not quite dead, but not yet fully alive again, slowly becoming corporeal by feeding off the bodies of animals–both dead and alive.
After Junior witnesses the specter of his father, he attempts to map the house and its hidden spaces, finally discovering a single bead, proving that his father’s visits are real. Naturally, Junior assumes that his father has come back to help his troubled brother. But Junior learns that his father has evil intentions.
There’s plenty of conflict in this novella, and several vivid moments of violence and horror (including two great scenes with vicious dogs). Jones could have easily padded the book to novel length. Instead, he kept the story lean and uncluttered. It’s a densely-packed, perfectly controlled horror story, fraught with tension, atmosphere, tenderness, and emotion. Novellas like this should be read in one two-hour sitting. If you’re like me, when you finish you’ll go back to the start to marvel at Jones’s storytelling genius.
Last year I read two of Jones’s story collections, After the People Lights Have Gone Off and The Ones that Got Away. His prose is sharp, conversational, and spare, perfect for the short story form, but it also works here in this longer novella. This is not a fluid book that you can skim. Every sentence has weight. The gritty narrative voice authentically captures the desperation of both the young Junior as a preteen, and later as a man in his forties, dealing with sudden loss and a fateful, heartbreaking decision.
Mapping the Interior is an authentic look at a Native American family, outsiders struggling to make sense of a cruel world in which the past and present are strangely– and tragically–interconnected.
Kudos to Tor.com for their excellent series of novellas, celebrated works by Nnedi Okorafor, Kelly Robson, Seanan McGuire, and Victor LaValle. Keep ’em coming.
And check out that cover by artist Greg Ruth and designer Christine Foltzer. Stunning! Easily one of the best covers of 2017.
Mapping the Interior
Stephen Graham Jones