Understated, refined horror with flickers of evil here and there; brooding psychological undercurrents that acknowledge humanity as miniscule, uncertain, mortal, weak and powerless. These are writing elements used by Dan Chaon that make his book an eclectic, inscrutable, deeply disturbing experience and truly a read to remember --- much like the great works of timeless horror masters Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock.
"Chaon’s prose is somewhat casual, yet not a single word feels out of place or unnecessary. This is an intense, merciless and exciting read."
A dozen short stories are told here relating somehow to death and its gloomy aftermath, each disturbing demise beginning innocently enough with a rotten seed that breaks open, animated somewhere deep in the mind by the merest suggestion of evil. The subjects of the stories sense an outside sinister presence just beyond the plane of their own human understanding, igniting an inner monstrosity that feeds on fear and despair.
As a fully realized writer, Chaon has the power to make humanity into a dim, probing communal experience. Readers will relate to his characters eagerly and question what anyone could do in their situation, how a simple human being could handle these intense feelings of inescapability and guilt, how anyone could possibly comprehend the complicated tragedies that engulf them. Chaon’s stories represent a diverse collection that portrays humanity as the epitome of psychological mystery.
As a sample, take Chaon’s first tale, “The Bees,”a story thatcenters on an otherwise happy child who has a very common condition: night terrors. Frankie’s dreams haunt his parents and occupy their minds more than they do his own, sending the family to his pediatrician repeatedly only for the child to be given a clean bill of health. Having no recollection of his own dreams or the confusing omens he voices after, Frankie is connected through his subconscious to a presence that reminds him of buzzing bees. Watching the boy shake and scream every night as he sleeps, his father is duly alarmed and senses the same things his son speaks of; alone or in the wee hours, he feels he cannot escape premonitions that something hunts them.
Second is a grocery store clerk who can’t get his act together following his parents’ double suicide. Since their planned deaths within the master bedroom of Brandon’s childhood home, he’s lived alone in the house, a 20-something slacker who’s only slightly motivated to pick himself up and get a “real job” and a life that has other people in it. Brandon plans to fix it up and sell it, but can’t seem to just start working. His sister Jodee (who lives in Chicago) talks to him frequently and encourages him to move on. Truthfully, Jodee is a tad embarrassed by her underachieving younger brother but seems absolutely correct in her assessment. Deep down, Brandon knows what he needs to do, but is hiding from his subconscious. His parents’ bedroom is one he will no longer enter, and over time, he has secluded himself to certain corners and open places where he feels safe. He has taken to sleeping on the couch at night, watching TV, and using the subconscious stream of video games in the darkest hours to distract his mind and keep paranoia at bay.
A third, twisted story centers on a “parasitic baby” and the cute couple who were restlessly happy until they became pregnant. Facing the very unfortunate situation of caring for a disfigured newborn, the couple decides not to name “the second head,” their beautiful girl being born with “craniopagus parasiticus.” The doctors have approached the child’s situation grimly as she isn’t expected to survive. Taking the example of these callous doctors who care for their child with detached scientific precision, the parents learn to approach the infant (or infants) in an equally detached and alarmed way. They begin looking at their own daughter as doomed for the parasitic piece of anatomy attached that must be removed and never openly acknowledged. Yet always in the deepest recesses of their minds is the question of whether there is another presence, whether this “other head” is viciously, consciously feeding off the host child.
Nine equally profound and disturbing stories follow. Chaon’s tales begin with a relaxed, steady pace that gathers speed gradually until readers feel an inevitable pull in the momentum, spiraling toward an uncertain end. Chaon’s prose is somewhat casual, yet not a single word feels out of place or unnecessary. This is an intense, merciless and exciting read. I am very confident in saying that STAY AWAKE is bound to get a lot of attention in the near future within the literary world.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on March 8, 2012