Review: After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones

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I’ve been meaning to read Jones for a while now and I’m glad I finally did. Short stories collections are a great way to dip your toes into an author’s pool and see if you like the water and, to belabor the metaphor, I found myself splashing about and doing cannonballs pretty much instantly with this collection.

Jones delivers fifteen weird horror stories that stick to your skull like a peanut butter pop song. The hooks are big, irresistible and obvious but only after the fact. Not that I’d call this bubblegum horror, each story despite the supernatural and bizarre trappings, revolves around real human emotion and the private fears and joys that make people what they are.

And according to Jones here, sometimes what people really are is monstrous.

Not that there is a hard lined nihilist edge running through this work, more like what makes us great as a species; our limitless imagination, is also why we’re so often doomed to tragedy. Basically, the shit we come up with. As a species and as individuals. Many of the characters in this collection can’t help themselves. They pick at scabs, they poke at sleeping dogs, and they obsess about things which are beyond their control. Because the realization that they have no control is the scariest conclusion of all.

One of my favorite yarns in here is called “The Spider Box” and it’s all about losing something important and finding something else that you think can give you back what you lost. Only it’s wild and you only got it to work once on accident but you know, just know, that if you can figure it out you can get back everything you’ve lost. Even what this new obsession has stolen from you…

Little vague for you? Well, I don’t want to spoil the fun. And there is fun throughout this book. Morbid humor, plain silliness, clever turns of phrases, all there to relieve you from the shadows and maybe to let you enjoy how big and spooky the echo of your laughter sounds bouncing back off the walls of the abyss.

A lot of the ideas infecting these stories are something like that last, unexpected, uninvited and unsettling thought that grips you just as you’ve gotten cozy in your bed, fluffed your pillow to the preferred position and prepared to drift off to a comfortable sleep. Those eerie, taffy stretched thoughts when you’re too tired to rationalize them away. This is book is full of them, only you have a writer like Stephen Graham Jones to articulate them into steely sharp focus. It’s like having him transcribe your nightmare back to you only he’s punched up the dialogue and fixed all those nagging plot holes.

What I really enjoyed here was watching Jones masterfully know when to give us explanations and when to leave it weird. Sometimes when authors are fashioning surreal or dreamlike stories they can rely too heavily on, it doesn’t have to make sense because it’s all so fucking crazy. Sometimes that’s great, but often it just seems like, again, someone telling you their really whackadoo dream which is cool I suppose but not a compelling story. In this collection there is plenty of mystery and unnatural events but none of them seem like they’re at all carelessly presented. When the scene calls for high weirdness, Jones delivers.  Likewise, when it calls for an inkling of a reason behind the madness or even a full on explanation Jones comes through again.  “Doc’s Story”a gutpunch in the middle of the book and another favorite of mine – tells you right from the first sentence that it’s about werewolves. And half the charm of it is it explains various part of werewolf lore in really inventive and convincing ways.

I’m also a sucker for working class horror because it’s just easier for me to relate to. Many of the characters here either didn’t go to college or didn’t get far after and I enjoy seeing their stories handled in varied, nuanced ways. Well-written fiction, what people think of as literary- more often than not centers on people who can afford to go on vacations to other countries to take their minds off of their existential woes. Which is great, do it if you can, read about if you like it (sometimes I do too) but I also like seeing stories about people who work in warehouses or at Circle K’s who are living paycheck to paycheck while also worrying about life itself and their place in it.

Which comes back to the notion of control and what After the People Lights Have Gone Off seems to obsess about itself. Take my favorite story here, “The Black Sleeve of Destiny,” it’s about a teenage kid working a shit job who gets a black hoodie at a thrift store. I know, already scary right, but it’s no ordinary hoodie, one of the sleeves is longer than the other. Complete terror, how I did muster the courage to finish it? It’s as if the story started out a refugee from Goosebumps, then it graduated to Fear Street and now it’s a resident of Pissed Myself with Abject Horror-Ville. But, trust me, stories aren’t just the setups, they’re the follow-throughs. See, the sleeve grants the main character a little bit of power – something crazy you’d never think of so stop trying to guess – but of course with these types of stories it’s power but at a price. But this main character, he can see where this is headed, can tell he’s out of his league, that he actually has no real control, but he likes the feeling of power the sleeve grants him. The illusion of control is that comforting even when it’s a known quantity. Maybe that’s the “Destiny” in the title? If we know we can’t have control is the best runner up the agreed upon lie that we do?

The title of the book, after all is After the People Light Have Gone Off.  A lyrical, brilliantly childlike or even inhuman sort of title; and above all,  a title which hints at the apocalyptic. A post human world to be inherited by things that need no illusion of control.

You can purchase the book here.