Publish Date: February 11, 2015
Pages: 150 pages
Synopsis: Will keeps all the lights on in his house. Every closet, lamp, bedroom, and stove light stays on, regardless of the time of day. Bad things happen in the darkness. She hides in the shadows.
But as the stress of writer’s block sets in, and the paranoia that his wife is cheating on him eats at his thoughts, Will finally turns to the darkness for help. (Source: product description on Amazon.com)
Short version: Intense, dark, superbly written tale of addiction and mental illness.
A book about mundaneness would kill people with mundaneness.
So says our anti-hero, writer William Godfree, and he’s only right up until a point. Too Dark to See is a case in point. It’s set on a small stage, focused on Will’s mental landscape and almost never moving physically from the confines of his home. A guy lying on his sofa with all the lights on. Sounds mundane, right? Nope.
Will’s mind is a frightening place, but never a mundane one. The narrative never goes into too much detail about what is actually wrong with him beyond an alcohol problem, but it’s obviously… quite a lot. He vacillates between pathetic self-pity and frightening bursts of irrational rage at Maya, his wife. The effect is absolutely riveting, because Will is the one telling this story, and we have no idea which of his perceptions to believe and which to write off. Is he just being paranoid about Maya cheating on him, or is this going to be one of those “all because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” scenarios? The dissonance between Will’s compliance, sometimes affection toward Maya, and the violent rage in his head is genuinely frightening, as in this exchange with his wife:
“Are you? Really? Do you have any idea what you put me through sometimes?”
WHY DON’T YOU ENLIGHTEN ME YOU FUCKING WHORE!
Stephen King, and probably many other writers, have put forward the idea that true horror hits you in some secret psychological place. The Amityville Horror isn’t about a haunted house, it’s about being trapped in a mortgage you can’t afford. Poltergeist is about children growing up and developing independent mental worlds their parents can’t enter. B-movies of the 1950s such as Them! aren’t so much about giant ants/blobs/spiders etc; they’re about the very real Cold War fear of nuclear war. We find these things terrifying because they’re plausible; sometimes they happen, and to ordinary people like us. And here, the terror is: when my mentally ill/addicted loved one smiles and tells me he’s fine, is he mentally screaming at me that I’m a fucking whore, and planning to violently kill me?
How would you know or not, right? Until it was too late?
Will’s breakdown is shown in awful detail, from his struggle to keep a grip on who and what is real or not (at one point he fails to recognise his wife’s car), to his losing battle with drinking, to his slowly dismantling his own writing career. This last one in particular felt painfully real to me. It will probably ring true with any reader who’s suffered a severe bout of depression, the kind that makes you know you’re going to get fired if you don’t go to work, but not be able to care enough to actually get up and go. As time goes on he begins writing a self-insert, a protagonist named Will who has a wife named Shay. He is convinced she is cheating on him, and forms plans to murder her. As the book goes on, it’s difficult for the reader to tell the “real” Will from his character Will. And the really scary thing is, the “real” Will is having the same problem.
All this in beautiful, vivid, almost stream-of-consciousness prose. It’s actually a little frustrating in itself that a man whose narrative has so much spice in it could possibly be suffering from writers’ block:
My voice falls flat to the ground inches from my feet. An abortion. I try again. Another failure. I dare not move. The darkness is too strange to me. I fear it.
Will is a fascinating protagonist, but not a wholly sympathetic one. In some passages he can be witty, charming and even funny (I got a genuine giggle out of his pondering leaving his body behind: “Bye-bye sonofabitch! I’m off to the formless!”) But beyond his dark, violent tendencies, he’s also hopelessly self-centred. On one occasion, just a paragraph after discovering his wife has hocked her wedding ring to pay for him to stay home and write, he moans, “why is it always me who has to change?” I wanted to lunge through my Kindle and strangle him.
Any criticisms I have about this book really are of the petty variety. The cover, and the by-line “A psycho thriller”, don’t capture the “essence” of the book’s content for me and may mislead readers as to what kind of book they’re about to read, and the sophistication of the contents. They seem more appropriate to pulp-fiction gore than this sophisticated, psychological foray.
I did find the sex scenes a little awkward, mainly because they seemed to contain almost every euphemism for sex and the sexual organs imaginable. Is Will the kind of guy to refer to his wife’s “womanhood” and then just call it a “pussy”? It’s possible I missed the nuances of Will’s emotion there, but I found it a bit distracting (I also think “pussy” has to be one of the unsexiest words in the English language, however in-character it might be for Will to use it!)
I think we have established I am about as qualified to judge the quality of literary sex scenes as your average novice in a convent.
The supporting characters, including Maya, are minimised, but it feels right that someone like Will would minimise them in trying to explain his self-centred, unstable view of the world. One character besides Will who will leave you with a strong impression is Anima. I won’t spoil who Anima is, or how this story turns out, but the ending is brilliant.
I’m glad to have read this one.