Night of the Mannequins might be full of shaky anxiety, but its authorial voice is always sturdy.
to be vague in my synopsis, because part of the fun in Night of the Mannequins
is experiencing a specific shift in the story. The novel follows Sawyer – a teenage
boy – and his friends. The group discover a mannequin in a creek, and take it
as their plaything, developing a comical kinship with it, almost treating it
like it’s part of their team. After they use the mannequin for a prank in a
movie theatre, it walks right out of the theatre, somehow gaining
the ability of mobility. That sight gnaws at Sawyer and devolves him into a
spiral of desperation, weeping, and the desire to go to overreaching lengths to
minimize the damage he fears the mannequin will cause. Then, a slasher-esque
story with psychological undertones ensues.
illness is covered in horror, authors sometimes find it easy to label those
with stigmatized ailments as categorically evil. Thankfully, Night of the
Mannequins doesn’t do that. All the horrors propelled by mental illness are
done from characters with the intense compulsion to be utilitarian and as
humane as possible. It humanizes mental illness by delving deep into the
thought process of how someone could spiral down into a belief that causes
harm, through a rationalization of charitableness.
rationalization is underscored by the novel’s strong narratorial voice. The
tone can pinball from humorous, to heartbreaking, to poetic, to horrific,
without jarring tonal shifts. Despite the jumble of contrasting thoughts that
twist and overlap like a coiled chain, the story never loses focus and barely
stretches out into barren patches of inactivity. When the plot does halt at a
standstill, it’s to illustrate the racing, repetitive thoughts from a certain
character, which is easily apparent, and doesn’t justify making the reader go
through the same line of thought again. The character’s recursive, swirly
thoughts are established early on, and would be better if they weren’t hammered
characters are aptly established for a novella-sized length, but because of the
skewed perspective of the story, I never really got a sense of who they were. I
can’t fault that too much because it’s a side effect of the premise, but I
think there are still ways to showcase and protrude their personality forward
under an otherworldly lens.
Fiction is often an exercise in having a real author extract kernels of truth from unreality. The more kernels extracted, the more hard-hitting and real those stories become. And if the story is done right, for a little while we almost forget that what we’re reading or watching isn’t real. Night of the Mannequins takes that all-encompassing delusion that we all have forward and shows a perspective that is completely mired in unreality. But just like how most people cheer on the heroes of a book or movie, this character is moved to do what they think is the right thing and cheer on the seemingly right side. Night of the Mannequins could easily be a vapid slasher novella that keeps you entertained but fades from your memory immediately after reading. But Stephen Graham Jones adds nuance to create a pleasing simulacrum of slasher tropes and makes his story all the better for it.
Bonuses: +1 For a clever meshing of B-movie and “arthouse”
Negatives: -1 For a mixed bag of character development.
-1 For a slightly drawn out midsection.
POSTED BY: Sean
Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod
his head and say, "Neat!"
Reference: Jones, Stephen Graham. Night of the Mannequins [Tor.com, 2020]