Sawyer Grimes’s friends are dead. Or most of them, anyway.
Stephen Graham Jones’s newest novella Night of the Mannequins follows his phenomenal novel of revenge and the horrors of American society The Only Good Indians, which released this summer to widespread acclaim. With a multitude of novels, several hundred short stories, and accolades from prestigious horror awards – including the Bram Stoker Award – under his belt, Jones is a modern master of terrifying tales. Night of the Mannequins upholds that reputation.
In a contemporary small Texas town, Sawyer has a tightly knit group of friends – the kind of friendship that dominates a lifetime and goes back summers and rollicking summers. The friends’ inevitable separation looms heavily over Sawyer from the start: “Maybe this is how it happens after high school, right? Or even on the ramp up to high school being over […] Never mind that they know you better than any other human in the world […] Never mind a thousand things.” Shanna works at the movie theatre. Danielle has a cruddy boyfriend. The group is slipping apart. It’s under the strain of this long goodbye that the group devises a prank with the help of Manny, a mannequin and once-cherished member of their group. Fished out of a pond, for a summer the group enrolled Manny as their starring prankster until they forgot about him and stowed him away in a garage. When Manny stands up and walks out of the movie theatre during their prank, Sawyer knows he’s out for revenge.
In his threading of the plot, Jones gradually unspools Sawyer’s psychology. The introspective nature of the novella invites his readers to anticipate the next move, a trick that heightens the pleasurable dread of reading Mannequins. Jones never falls into the trap of shock value; rather, his careful writing saturates such moments in something far more disturbing than shock. Much of the tension in the novel comes through Sawyer’s role as narrator, whose language is an artful combination of adolescent indifference and passion. His depiction as a teenager prone to justifications of evils as he navigates Manny’s revenge treads reader disdain for his character, a risk Jones aptly mitigates through Sawyer’s own acknowledgement of his tendency to draw patterns and motivations where there are none. Sawyer’s rationalizing process augments both the novella’s horror and the reader’s ability to empathize with him. Throughout Mannequins, reader affection for Sawyer is guiltily shoved under the rug and ready to reemerge at the bloodiest of times. In-between the gore and the trauma, Jones presents a paranoid narrator whose earnest love for his friends ultimately renders him an engrossing – if not entirely likable – narrator.
As with his previous work, Jones’s horror is neither puerile nor indicative of stereotypes thrown at the genre. Though the heartbreaking splintering of friendship remains the backdrop against which Mannequins progresses, Jones allows for further nuance within a seemingly straightforward plot of a prank gone wrong. Despite Sawyer’ hypocritical contempt for the artifice of superhero films – a motif drawn meticulously from the prank at the theatre through the end – Sawyer figures himself as heroic. His complex identification with Manny in light of the group’s impending rupture manifests concurrently as sympathy and fear, which we feel in troves. Likewise, the conflation of the mannequin’s “Band-Aid-colored face” with violence offers further depth to the novella in its implicit critique of whiteness and the masks we put on.
Thrillingly difficult to put down, Night of the Mannequins is a psychologically driven novella whose rich introspective analysis of friendship, paranoia, and heroism is cloaked in a delightfully frightful premise.
Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones is published by Tor.com.
Buy the book: bookshop.org (US).