Ghosts have long served an important role in our literature — not only as terrifiers, the role they’re probably most comfortable playing, but also as fuddy-duddy moralizers (think “A Christmas Carol”); Victorian-era stand-ins for repressed sexual abuse (“The Turn of the Screw”); or inducers of guilt (Macbeth’s Banquo). They’re as abundant in the horror genre, obviously, as creaky old attics and full moons. But writers of literary fiction usually feel compelled to tread lightly in the graveyard. For all their spookiness, ghosts can be something of a cheap fix: spectral shorthand for the idea that a character is “haunted” by some weighty matter left unresolved.
Ghosts are everywhere, though, in “Stay Awake,” the powerful and disturbing new collection of short stories by Dan Chaon. This is horror fiction, but of an entirely different sort from what we’re accustomed to. The menacing spirits in these dozen tales don’t rattle chains or send teacups flying. They do, however, live up to the title of “apparition,” in that they’re likely to appear suddenly and without warning, and to send hearts racing. They emerge unbidden from the characters’ troubled pasts: They are the shades of missing children, parents and lovers whose absence is felt — keenly and often frighteningly — as a chilling presence.
The book’s title is more than a reference to a favorite lullaby: It’s a warning. Bad things happen to the folks who fall asleep in Chaon’s lean, terse stories, which can evoke Raymond Carver in their ability to wreak strange poetry from plain-spoken language, and Sherwood Anderson, the author’s fellow Ohioan, in their sympathy for the lonely and the left behind. These characters close their eyes and crash their cars; or their houses burn down with family members trapped inside; or their mentally disturbed fathers reach the ends of their tattered emotional ropes, which are tied to the handles of guns. And that’s just what happens to them when they literally fall asleep. As victims of trauma, they’re living in a kind of half-sleep, caught between the sad, groggy lives they lead and the happy, productive lives they had perhaps imagined for themselves before tragedy struck.
It’s enough to drive some of them mad, and it does. “It was as if he were a long-dormant radio that had begun to receive signals — tuned in, abruptly, to all the crazy note-writers of the world,” Chaon writes about one of these forlorn souls in “To Psychic Underworld: .” He’s an underemployed electrician and widower whose crippling grief is beginning to look a lot like the onset of schizophrenia. Lately, messages have been appearing everywhere: in discarded notes on the ground, inserted between the pages of waiting-room magazines, in the scritch-scratched tracks made by pigeon feet. They’re pushing him toward a startling realization about himself: “You are still you, but changing fast.”
He’s in only slightly better shape than the solitary young man in “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” who might very well be slipping into psychosis as he trudges back and forth from the grocery store, where he stocks shelves, to his childhood home — the site of his parents’ joint suicide and the site, too, of the prison cell he has constructed for himself from everyday items: his TV, his PlayStation console, his computer, his dresser. They’re all “cluttered in a kind of fort around the sofa bed. He hadn’t been upstairs to his bedroom in probably a long time.” In his loneliness and dull despair he, too, is beginning to sense a dark force, “something large and omnipotent hovering over not just himself and his house” but over the entire planet.
Throughout “Stay Awake,” the motifs pile up like automobiles in a 20-car pileup. Horrible vehicular accidents are so plentiful that when one character says his friend didn’t die in a car crash, Chaon seems to be indulging an extraordinarily dark, dry sense of humor. But the most harrowing image — the one that the writer obviously can’t shake, the demon image that he seems desperate to exorcise — is that of a hard-to-make-out face, leaning in over your bed as you sleep and waking you up. It could be the face of a parent, loving or menacing. It could be the face of a child you abandoned years earlier, or the emergency-room nurse on whose mercies your life suddenly depends.
Or it could be the face of a missing lover. Chaon’s wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz, died in 2008 from cancer, and there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that the shock of her death is still working its way out of his system and into his writing. The shocks in this collection are many, and they’re as frightening and reverberant as the shock of seeing a ghostly face in your bedroom at night.
Turrentine is a Brooklyn-based writer and critic.
By Dan Chaon
Ballantine. 254 pp. $25