JUNE 23, 2016
I WENT THROUGH a big macabre phase when I was a little kid. Bats were my favorite animal, black was my favorite color. We couldn’t keep enough scary stories in the house to satisfy my appetite for the odd, creepy, and morbid; I tore through all the books of scary stories for kids in the library (Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark and its sequel, More Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark, were undoubtedly the best — the magnificent illustrations helped). I wouldn’t say I was a particularly observant reader, but even then it was impossible not to notice the overlapping tropes that populated (maybe even constituted) the genre. Most stories in these collections respected a pretty strict formula and contained many of the same decorative trappings — the story of the young bride whose head is only being held on by a red ribbon seemed to be in all of them. It’s not really hard to scare someone, especially a child, and these tales were always effective regardless of how similar they often were. The best were usually structured like urban legends, reading like something you’d hear a kid on the bus or a tipsy older relative say. Details were spare, motives muddy, the time period or location perhaps hinted at but never quite pinned down, events and actions strange and tautological. Suddenly, the story leapt out at you from behind its dreamlike veil and disappeared as quickly as it materialized. If it worked, you caught a glimpse of the uncanny — something familiar, but off — and you carried the impression forward with you that perhaps this sort of epiphany was also possible in life outside of tales like these.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Iain Reid’s hotly anticipated debut novel, is a reminder of how it felt to be scared as a child. It’s a deviously smart, suspenseful, intense, and truly haunting book with a fuse long and masterfully laid. Though slim, clocking in at just over 200 large-print pages, the atmosphere is so laden with strangeness and dread that the burn at whatever pace feels torturous. I found myself reading it at a frantic clip more to put the parade of disturbing imagery and attendant queasiness behind me than to unravel the mystery at its core. This is not to say that the mystery itself isn’t compelling — it is, at least to the extent that it provides a respectably solid narrative skeleton for its flesh-crawling horror — rather, that it’s what’s on the surface — and how Reid manages this surface — that’s the true star of the show.
The book’s jacket promises it will leave the reader scared but without knowing why, and a publisher’s note on the inside cover (shades of Criswell and William Castle) gravely echoes the sentiment. “You are about to begin one of the most unnerving, chilling, philosophical, and page-turning novels of the past decade. And yes, I stand by that claim,” boasts Scout Press Executive Editor Alison Callahan at the beginning of the warning that precedes the book. “What I will tell you is this: you will be terrified. But you will have absolutely no idea why …” I like the gesture, but I’m not sure I fully agree. I was scared — genuinely. About as scared as a person can be reading a book. But I knew why and it wasn’t that hard to figure out. You see, the things I was reading were scary. Reid marshals a myriad of horror tropes in this excellent book — mysterious phone calls coming from your own number, a drive through the middle of nowhere at night, a lugubrious too-tall man creeping around your bedroom window at night, a run-down farmhouse at night, a Dairy Queen in the middle of nowhere at night, a run-down high school at night, and most especially — a relationship between two ever so slightly off individuals on the brink of ending (or perhaps just beginning), also at night. The neural lanes leading to and from these eldritch gewgaws are by now so carved with creepiness that most of us are inured to the jolts they once caused. These things are scary because we’ve been taught to think they are scary and to associate them with the possibility of scary things in countless instances for countless years. What’s remarkable in I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t that Reid has forged ahead, inventing new, unknowable, unclassifiable scares — it’s that he’s found a way to make us feel old fears fresh again.
Things start off simply enough. The narrator, a woman who remains nameless throughout, and her newish boyfriend, Jake, are driving into the country to visit Jake’s farm-dwelling parents. Jake and the narrator have been dating just long enough for this sort of trip to feel slightly premature, if not exactly inappropriate. Jake and the narrator are close though, and possessed of the sort of bond that rules of relationship propriety can conceivably be bent for. “It feels like I’ve known Jake longer than I have. What has it been … a month? Six weeks, maybe seven? I should know exactly. I’ll say seven weeks. We have a real connection, a rare and intense attachment. I’ve never experienced anything like it.” Despite this attachment, the narrator’s also not quite sure about Jake. She’s not sure why exactly, given how compatible they seem to be, but she’s thinking about ending things. “I don’t think my parents will ever know about Jake, not now, not even retroactively. As we drive down a deserted country highway to his parents’ farm, this thought makes me sad.”
Then again, she thinks, maybe the compatibility thing is just it. Maybe she’s afraid of the intimacy — not the level so far, which seems reasonable, but the potential intimacy of later — the incipient intimacy, afraid she’s not ready for it, or he’s not. The narrator, we soon learn, spends a lot of time in her head. “I feel selfish, self-centered. I should tell Jake what I am thinking. It’s just very hard to talk about. Once I bring up these doubts, I can’t go back.”
There’s not a lot to see outside, apparently. It’s dark by the time the book starts and they’re in a remote part of the country on a country road, and we’re given to understand it’s not particularly scenic anyway. It’s quiet and there aren’t many other cars on the road, just “Sky. Trees. Fields. Fences. The road and its gravel shoulders.”
So, there’s nothing to do but talk. And think. We see that Jake is confident and has a scientific mind (he works in some kind of lab where they grow proteins, we learn). And his girlfriend, we see, has a curious, endearing nature. She asks questions, not only of herself (constantly) but also of Jake, always trying to draw him out a little, always a little charmed and a little bemused by his terseness, his confidence, his seeming lack of a nervous interiority like hers. We also quickly sense that something is off with her.
As they drive on, her conversation with Jake becomes interspersed with increasingly odd personal details and reflections that build with menace. We learn for example that on certain days she avoids mirrors and that she’s been having a lot of trouble sleeping lately. In an especially bizarre meta-moment, while musing on what it is precisely that makes something menacing, the narrator recalls how somewhere in her past (just how far back we never learn), she woke up, or thought she woke up, looked out her window and saw the torso of a long bodied man there. “I couldn’t see his face. It was beyond the window frame. I could see his torso, just half of it. He was swaying slightly. His hands were moving, rubbing each other from time to time, as if he was trying to warm them.” She watched him for a while, scared, but also intrigued. What did it mean? Then, the man waved — a quick thing, but unmistakable, apparently directed at her. She was transfixed with fear, but then, she fell asleep. Maybe she had been sleeping all along? She doesn’t know and she hasn’t told Jake, though given the vagueness of the story in terms of when it occurred in her life, this is sort of plausible — for all we know it might’ve happened when she was a little girl. Another thing she hasn’t told him about are the strange calls she’s been getting (these are recent), calls coming from her own phone number, followed always by the same cryptic message: “There’s only one question to resolve. I’m scared. I feel a little crazy. I’m not lucid. The assumptions are right. I can feel my fear growing. Now is the time for the answer. Just one question. One question to answer.”
It’s a risk to call attention to the fact that something ought to be menacing or scary, but the fact that Reid leaves these matters as open questions in the mind of the narrator I think triggers something in the reader — a sympathetic fear — a fear on behalf of someone who’s perhaps too much in the thick of whatever they’re going through to recognize how fucked up it all actually is. The man at the window is a menacing image and the message on the phone is a scary message, unequivocally. These things dilate together in the ambient strangeness of the narrator’s by turns tender and unconcerned demeanor as the story stays stubbornly stuck in the car. The drive is taking a long time — much longer than the narrator thought it would.
The book doesn’t stay in the car, but it feels as though it might. It’s a scary feeling and once you’re in its grip, it doesn’t let go. Reid ratchets tension from narrative stagnation to the brink of existential plight, then dials it back slightly before repeating the trick. We stay with these two in the car past all expectations of how a thriller ought to be paced until we are certain Jake is either going to murder his girlfriend or they are both already dead, doomed souls wandering in some obscure and mild, maddening private hell. Then we get to the farm and for a moment it seems perhaps we never left reality at all — until things begin to slow down again, creaking back to Reid’s surreally plodding pacing. Jake’s parents are upstairs, Jake says, and the narrator can hear them, or someone at least, moving around up there — “I hear a door close somewhere upstairs. I look at Jake to see if he registers it, but he’s lost in his own mind, looking straight ahead, intently, though seemingly at nothing” — but they don’t say anything and they don’t seem intent on coming down anytime soon. Instead of a welcome, we are left with the narrator as she takes stock of Jake’s parents’ old, dusty house, scanning the walls for pictures of a past Jake is unwilling or unable to give her more than the most cursory account of. The fact that it must all inevitably come to no good looms like the figure outside the narrator’s window in her not-quite nightmare, whispering like the voice leaving cryptic messages on her phone.
As the book proceeds, we are guided as though through a series of stations, each more fraught with dread than the last until, finally, in a sort of mercy, we are given an explanation for it all. If there is one flaw in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, it is, somewhat ironically, the ending itself. In a certain way, I was grateful for it. The book became, at times, frightening to the point of provocation. It’s an amazing thing, to feel this from a book as an adult. It is not that I’m not used to feeling afraid, because there’s plenty to be afraid of, of course. But adult fears are usually different. If we are growth-minded, we convince ourselves that we can overcome them, or that we can distract ourselves enough so that they won’t become crippling. Reading this, I felt the same sort of fear I remembered feeling as a child — fear borne not necessarily of the unknown, but of the clear, blazing conviction that some things will simply always be scary, no matter what we try to do about it. The scariest story of my early exposures from those anthologies was one I remember simply being called “Teeth.” In this story, the unnamed narrator encounters a succession of odd individuals on his way home from some unknown assignation in the middle of the night. One after another, these individuals smile at the narrator as he passes and, one after the other, the narrator notes, increasingly panicked, how the mouths of these individuals are full of increasingly large and disgusting teeth. After encountering a man with teeth as large and yellow as a beaver’s, the narrator breaks into a run. The end. Whether he escapes, or was even under threat in the first place, the story never bothers to explain. It still terrifies me.
So as for the novel’s tagline, “You will be scared. But you won’t know why …”: Perhaps. I think we can know exactly why we’re scared without that fact compromising the experience. Teeth and darkness, madness and the middle of nowhere: all scary, always will be. The problem with the ending of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is that it tries at the last moment, to give us an explanation, a way out. There are some hints throughout about the truth underneath all the uncanny menace, some subtle, others less so. But while I read, it didn’t matter. All I felt was fear and I never wanted it to let up. Maybe there wasn’t a way to pull it off and still get published, but I wish it hadn’t given us a way out. I wish it had ended like “Teeth,” running scared from the truth into an uncanny eternity.