Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones
Genre: Horror, Fantasy, Short Fiction
Publisher: Tor.com on June 20, 2017
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
Walking through his own house at night, a fifteen-year-old thinks he sees another person stepping through a doorway. View Spoiler »Instead of the people who could be there, his mother or his brother, the figure reminds him of his long-gone father, who died mysteriously before his family left the reservation. When he follows it he discovers his house is bigger and deeper than he knew.
The house is the kind of wrong place where you can lose yourself and find things you’d rather not have. Over the course of a few nights, the boy tries to map out his house in an effort that puts his little brother in the worst danger, and puts him in the position to save them . . . at terrible cost. « Hide Spoiler
Stephen Graham Jones’ novella MAPPING THE INTERIOR is an extremely unsettling story about a young boy haunted by the ghosts of his family, both literally and figuratively. Compelling, searing, and very well written, this is work of short fiction will be on my mind for quite some time; however, I can’t entirely say that I enjoyed the experience of reading it.
After his father’s death, Junior’s mom moves him and his little brother Dino off the reservation for a new start. Years later, the family lives in a similarly impoverished community, but it’s home to far fewer Native people and slightly more high school graduates. Three guesses which one really impacts Junior and Dino’s lives more. The two brothers are almost completely socially isolated; Dino has an unnamed developmental disorder and doesn’t function at the same cognitive level as his peers, and Junior spends most of his time trying to protect him from bullies. By all appearances, neither one has any friends aside from each other. Things aren’t great at home but they’re not terrible either. At least, they’re not until Junior’s sleepwalking takes a disturbing turn when he sees his father slinking about their trailer in the dead of night. Why has he come back, and how? Has Junior seen a ghost…or is something more sinister afoot?
Stephen Graham Jones is an incredible writer, and his talent is showcased to the fullest in MAPPING THE INTERIOR. The style won’t be for everyone – choppy, non-linear sentences with a borderline stream of consciousness feel to them – but I thought it worked perfectly for this story. Junior has no clue what’s going on with his father’s reappearance in his life, and his simultaneous excitement and apprehension are conveyed perfectly through the writing. This is also an incredibly quotable novella, with a number of absolutely gut-wrenching observations on what it’s like to be a Native American kid, what it’s like to be an outsider, and what it’s like to grieve a parent. As creepy as the traditional horror elements like ghosts are, I actually found the psychological and emotional turmoil that Junior experiences to be the most disturbing part of this story. Love it or hate it, you’d have to be made of stone to be emotionally unaffected by Junior’s voice.
A real sense of imminent danger lingers throughout the entirety of MAPPING THE INTERIOR, particularly as Junior starts to sleepwalk more and Dino begins to deteriorate. There’s clearly a connection between these two things and the fact that Junior’s dad has reappeared, growing stronger with each passing day. Scientifically minded Junior decides to approach the mystery in a logical fashion, mapping the interior of their home to trace his father’s footsteps in hopes of finding the source of his power. What’s allowing him to interact with the human world after his passing? Is it because Junior so desperately longs for him to be alive again? I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say that I wasn’t surprised by the big reveal…but I was horrified by it.
The only thing stopping me from really loving this novella was how completely and utterly bleak it was. I can deal with dark stories – in fact, I usually love them – but I need at least a glimmer of hope. The level of horror and sadness in this one was honestly just too much for me. Your mileage may vary though, and if you’re a horror fan I think you’ll be quite impressed. MAPPING THE INTERIOR is a masterfully executed story about a young boy grappling with grief, what it means to be an outsider, and the sins of the past. Ultimately it was just a little too depressing for me, but I’m glad I read it because Stephen Graham Jones is now firmly on my radar.