Not everything is at it seems and sometimes those we think we know are not as we thought them to be. Miskowski’s short but powerful and unsettling novel is about deception and guilt. It is also about bad choices and the extent to which they impact on our lives. It begins with a child’s confusion and ends, with a father’s realisation of his own helplessness, on a note of quiet devastation.
Two fourteen year old girls are drawn to one another after meeting at middle school in the small Washington town of Skillute. Both are outsiders, Briar Gamel in the literal sense, having recently movedto the town to live in a trailer park with her mum, Evelyn, and the latter’s wastrel boyfriend Ray Kenny. It’s their fourth home in little more than two years. Tasha Davis, in contrast, has lived in Skillute since the age of four, after her parents had left Seattle, supposedly for the greater comfort and security of a life in a small town. And yet she feels just as much an outsider as her new friend, having little in common with the “waxed and spray-tanned girls” who are her peers. When Tasha rescues the new girl from being bullied by Tyler Blanchard, an older boy, the girls’ friendship is forged. Miskowski wastes no time in these first few pages, quickly introducing us to two of the central characters, sketching in their encounter with Tyler, and giving us a few crucial details about their backgrounds. She writes with economy, her punchy, matter-of-fact sentences conveying seemingly mundane information. The effect is to lull the reader into a false sense of security, such that one might miss the subtle hints of something askew even before the explicit introduction of the supernatural. We’re only half a dozen pages in and Briar is asking: “Do you get the feeling that something bad happened here?”
That something bad is happening in Skillute has already been alluded to—Tyler’s bullying of Briar has a menacing sexual element; after fleeing the school, they wander through a street of abandoned homes, part of a “neighbourhood plan that never took off”, and we learn that the byways of Skillute are riddled with other forsaken and forgotten developments. We wonder why these residential projects were never completed, why these houses were abandoned, particularly when Tasha leads Briar to her secret place, theweed-strewn garden of an empty cottage filled with broken birdhouses and paint-peeled windmills. Briar imagines that a witch might once have lived there and a couple of paragraphs later, with minimum fuss, Miskowski introduces two ghosts, a boy and a girl, silently observing the girls as if “they were examining a work of art for the first time.” By the end of the chapter, Briar is telling Tasha how she might defend herself with a pocket knife against a future attack by Tyler. A little later on when Briar gets home and we’re introduced to Ray Kenny, we quickly understand her wariness of adults. Ray sits around the trailer in his underwear with his legs spread wide. Lately he’s taken to touching her when Evelyn’s not home, and tries to intrude on her privacy in the bathroom. Everything about Ray—his drinking, his idleness, his exploitative nature—stinks, and Briar, unlike her mother, sees him for what he is.
Although the focus of the narrative appears, at least initially, to be on the relationship between Tasha and Briar, much of the story is filtered through the perspective of Tasha’s mother, Kim. She and husband Charles don’t seem to fit in, appearing to keep to themselves and indulging in such extravagances as hiring a gardener rather than doing the work themselves. Their reasons for relocating to what they had assumed to be a “pastoral oasis” are somewhat hazy. We learn what Kim told their friends back in Seattle about relocating to Skillute for Tasha’s sake, but this feels like an evasion and suggests other, more profound reasons for the move. Their liberal politics also mark them as outsiders, as husband Charles realises after a casual remark in favour of Hilary Clinton in the lead up to the 2016 election, elicits the following response from the “nice lady” in the local store: “If that whore wins the election, I don’t know what I might do.” Kim has tried and failed to fit in with the townswomen, but appalled at their disguised racism and intolerance of those they deem not to share their ‘values’, she becomes more socially isolated. And yet she continues to worry about how her family is perceived by others, fearful of deleting one particular supermom from her friends list on Facebook in case the woman starts gossiping about them. She imagines the townfolk see them as over-educated, over-privileged and too sophisticated for their own good. She and Charles experience a “newly awakened wariness of the unknown” that prompts them to questions their own ideals. Miskowski suggests a causal link between Trump’s election as President and the stirring up of “fearful assumptions that had long ago settled into the ash and soil of places like Skillute,” as though some ancient and malign force had been waiting for such a man to come along and give it legitimacy. The point isn’t laboured, but serves to reinforce an unsettling sense of isolation.
Further chapters shed more light on Kim’s relationship with her daughter, her tendency to smother and overprotect. She’s wary of Tasha’s friendship with Briar, and though we sense her own fear of being displaced by the latter in her daughter’s affections, we also sense guilt and get the feeling there’s something else going on, something that will, in time, be revealed. The narrative is seeded with subtle allusions to bad things to come—apart from witches (Mrs Van Devere, a neighbour of Briar’s, is one such, although of the benevolent variety) and ghosts (Gretchen and Orton, the two who watch Tasha and Briar)—we catch glimpses of a disturbing history of murder and madness tied to specific locales in the town, the abandoned cottage, and Hope Haven, the shelter where Briar ends up after a sudden, and appalling tragedy. This event is the second shocking moment in the book and both involve Briar. The first, which remains a secret between the two girls, while strengthening their bond, also serves to awaken something evil. Without giving too much away, one can probably guess that the damage that’s already been done to Briar through her itinerant upbringing and parental neglect, would make her more vulnerable to influence from the malevolent forces that haunt Skillute. Indeed Mrs Van Devere as well as Gretchen and Orton, sense a susceptibility, or perhaps a potential—the ambivalence seems deliberate—for evil in Briar.
Subsequent events unfold quickly. We learn more about Charles and Kim’s history, and particularly about Kim’s insecurities and her lack of maternal instinct. Despite Charles’s assurances after the birth of their baby that she’s a great mother, “a natural”, we’re told of her indifference, her sense of inadequacy. There’s an air of resentment too, in her attitude to the child, as when she reflects on the sacrifices she’s had to make—giving up her painter’s studio, the breastfeeding, the weight gain—that makes her emotional suffocation of Tasha all the more perplexing. When Briar moves in with them after—at Tasha’s insistence—they agree to temporarily foster her, Kim is wary, barely able to keep a lid on her paranoia, as though she senses a ‘wrongness’ about her daughter’s friend. But her contradictory emotions evoke a similar sense of transgressive behaviour in her own past, and though we are forewarned, the reasons behind Kim’s guilt and anxiety, when finally revealed to us, still come as a powerful shock, undermining everything we thought we’d come to know about this ‘perfect’ couple.
The sense of foreboding that pervades the book is skilfully portrayed, and Miskowski is equally adept at depicting convincing characters, nowhere more so than in Kim, a complex, contradictory and frequently unsympathetic creation whose fate nonetheless garners our sympathy. She and Charles, along with Evelyn, are defined by the choices they make, most of them bad, and all three have to face unforeseen consequences. But their fates are also a matter of circumstance, and in particular of their coming together in Skillute at a specific moment in time, when the bigotry, racism, xenophobia and irrationality that have lain dormant in the town’s soil, are surfacing and creeping into the general discourse.
The book is not without flaws. Some characters are underdeveloped—Mrs Van Devere, Evelyn—while Ray Kenny and Tyler remain little more than what Stephen King once referred to as ‘Shreddies’. Although we learn how Gretchen and Orton came to be murdered, we learn little else about their past, a surprising omission given their prominence in the tale. What’s also surprising, if not downright implausible, is Tasha’s “taste for stories by Thomas Ligotti and films by David Lynch, old masters of the psychological macabre.” In attributing such left field and, one assumes, personal tastes, to a fourteen year old in an attempt to give credence to her ‘outsider’ status, Miskowski strikes a false note.
The ending feels a little rushed and there’s a risk of the reader sharing Charles’s sense of bewilderment when he tells Kim “the whole story … it doesn’t make sense. What happened at that cottage doesn’t make sense. All of it, it’s crazy.” But just when we might feel as though the author is getting her defence in first, Kim’s response—“Yes … my god, you’re right”—pulls the rug from under our feet and though the irony is lost on Charles, it’s not lost on us. It is a story, Kim knows, but it’s a real one. The understated ending, despite the horror of what has gone before, intimates that the worst is indeed yet to come.
This review originally appeared in Black Static # 68, January 2019.