Saturday, October 24, 2015

after: review/analysis (spoilers)

Sandy had made a shambles of conventional cause and effect. Strange synchronicities, unexpected conjunctions...sorrows that could only be suffered in silence. 

There are some stories you read; you enjoy them, have positive things to say about them, memorize certain passages, and you may even read them again somewhere down the road. Then there are stories you experience. These stories touch you so deeply, personally, and profoundly that, once you finish them, they are forever etched in your mind, and you are changed. Maybe your thinking on a certain matter has changed, or maybe your are more aware of current events; maybe your entire outlook on life has been altered. Either way, something about you is different, and it's because of that one story you read. One such story is after, a novella written by Scott Nicolay. 

Published by Dim Shores, after tells the story of Colleen, a woman living a stagnant, toxic life in Sourland Hills, New Jersey, with her abusive husband Derrick. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Colleen decides to travel via bus to Seaside Heights, at the Jersey Shore, so that she may assess the damage done to their summer home. When it's time to take the bus back home, however, Colleen suddenly decides she would rather stay behind, than go home. Violating curfew and dodging the police, along with having no power and running water, she holes up in their summer home, but soon discovers that she is not the only one seeking shelter there. Something very large, something unknown to man, is also staying there, and Colleen will soon have no choice but to confront not only it, but her own lonely existence. 

Aesthetically, the cover art by Michael Bukowski is not only beautiful, but both haunting and gripping. The summer home has one window lit by a flashlight; the sky is dark and somewhat cloudy; the moon is visible, and you see this bizarre, scary looking creature, named the "Creeper" by Colleen, partially inside the home. It instills an element of instant dread; it's pulse-pounding, inching you ever so closer to the edge of your seat. Your only source of security is a single room, a flashlight, and whatever else you may have, but is it enough? Do you even know the Creeper is there? The cover succeeds on every level in drawing you into the nightmare that awaits. Please, proceed with caution. 

Nicolay excels at slowly building up the suspense and dread in after. From the moment Colleen arrives at the Jersey Shore and steps off the bus, you immediately feel something brewing around you, a tension at first, and then it slowly forms into suspense; it burrows its way inside you, attaching itself to you, mind, body, and soul. Then, that suspense transforms into dread, your heart pounding, palms sweaty, hands shaking. By this point, Nicolay has you, in the sense that, you want to keep going, despite the terror and dread that is permeating everything you are. There is also a heaviness to the writing. Nicolay gives an in-depth exploration of Colleen, revealing every nook and cranny of her life. You begin to realize you are building a relationship with Colleen. You care about her, you are concerned about her horrible marriage with Derrick, her terror-filled nights with the Creeper, and her overall survival. The story becomes very personal. You feel the weight of Colleen's life heaped upon you, devastating and gnawing away at you. You are being hit from all directions, experiencing a variety of feelings to the point of mental lassitude. Born and raised in New Jersey, you can sense the level of emotion that Nicolay put into this story, it's personal for him, and you can feel it emanating from the pages. Nicolay always writes stories that are nothing short of phenomenal (Do yourself a favor: read Nicolay's debut collection, Ana Kai Tangata. You won't regret it, I promise!), but after is on a different level altogether. 

Colleen comes to Seaside Heights to assess the damage done to her and Derrick's summer home, bringing with her an empty to suitcase to pack up things that weren't damaged by Hurricane Sandy's wrath. Walking north on Boulevard, Colleen immediately takes notice of a couple things:

Right away, she noticed a couple things strange. First, no birds. There were never not gulls over Seaside, gulls and a few terns, the gulls ever ready to pounce on the least scrap of dropped food, not only on the beach but for several blocks inland.

Colleen also notices that Boulevard has no sand on it, when it normally has a thin coating of sand. Not even traces of sand in the cracks could be found, yet she sees sand coating the side streets.

Yet she saw sand coating the side streets despite the tracks of plows. Sand there rose up around road signs and heaped against house fronts in drifts like low snowbanks a foot deep or more. Why not Boulevard as well? Why was that one road so clear? Had Sandy done this, was there some pattern in her chaos, her fury?

Additionally, there are no other animals of any kind, no wildlife, no cars; the town is completely silent. Seaside Heights is completely different now. It's a place that is out of the ordinary; it's separated from the rest of the world, quarantined. Colleen is in a place where nothing makes sense. Hurricane Sandy turned the town inside out, and upside down; there is no logic, it exists outside rational thought, and strange, unnatural things now take place. Seaside Heights is now home to the unknown. And while the unknown can be fascinating, drawing you in, it's also dangerous, and Colleen will soon discover just how dangerous. 

Colleen and a number of other people are sitting on a curb, waiting for the bus to arrive and take them home. Meanwhile, Red Cross volunteers are handing out takeout boxes of food. Chunks of canned pineapple, cubes of unrecognizable meat, some kind of dark orange paste, and the bottom half of a burger bun. Something about this scene, this moment, makes Colleen decide to stay. She couldn't be "one of these people, couldn't eat their food or get on their bus." It's almost as if Colleen feels like someone living in a shelter, maybe for abused women. Maybe she feels like a special needs case. It's like she is receiving pity, or feels like a charity case, someone who cannot help herself. She does not like how the whole thing makes her feel. 

Rather than getting back on the bus with everyone to go home, Colleen decides to stay. Why on earth would anyone want to stay in such a dangerous, desolate place? Police are out on patrol; there is a curfew, and violating it leads to being arrested; there's no power, no running water; all businesses are closed. Why does Colleen stay behind? For all of its risks and dangers, Seaside Heights is a better option than going back to an abusive husband; it's better than going back to a life that cannot even be *called* a life. 

Colleen's decision to stay in Seaside Heights greatly reveals the nature of her life at home with Derrick. Basically, she knows nothing else. Derrick made her quit her teaching job, which pretty much left her at home all the time. She spent nights wondering if Derrick was going to lash out at her, physically or verbally. She tried to create some sort of schedule that could help her predict when Derrick might become violent, whether from drinking, or even just being sober. Her life consists of tip-toeing, wearing drab clothes, not talking, and accepting the rut she is in. Now, in Seaside Heights, Colleen is on her own, basically; in a sense, starting over. She knows she doesn't have much in the way of food and drink at the summer home, so she must resort to looting other homes if she is going to stay there for the foreseeable future. She has a maglite, and a hammer that she works through her belt, thinking of it as a utility belt, and herself as Batman or Batgirl. This playful nature puts an emphasis on just how little she knows about surviving on her own; this is all new to her, and somewhat exciting. 

More emphasis is put on Colleen's child-like nature through the various memories she has of her and her father, and all the things they did when she was a child. Thinking back to all those times is also a clear indicator, that her childhood was the best time of her life, and are the only memories worth remembering. After that, what else is there? Meeting Derrick, marriage, and all the horrible things that ensued throughout, that's what. Those childhood memories of spending time with her father are all she has to fall back on. Well, those and her memories of Paul, a man who rented out the basement apartment for two summers. It wasn't uncommon for Colleen to visit Paul in the basement apartment while Derrick was upstairs, passed out from a day of heavy drinking. Paul filled the void inside Colleen, and she did the same for him (his wife died of cancer). "They lived in the moment as the old phrase went. But those were the moments the lights came back on inside," never making plans to run away and be together. Paul made Colleen feel alive and secure; he made her feel like she mattered, that she was something other than the walking dead, and Derrick's punching bag.

Not only did Hurricane Sandy destroy the place that held her childhood memories, she took Paul from her, too. You can imagine the pain Colleen felt, when she found out Paul died, crushed by a tree while attempting to save a husband and wife trapped inside their car. Paul was a first responder, killed in the line of duty. He's a true hero, and Nicolay reveals the all too painful reality of first responders, like Paul, being nothing more than a statistic added to the death toll, unworthy of news headlines that are reserved for crappy and insulting television shows like The Jersey Shore, which Nicolay is not afraid to address, weaving in the uncaring and backwards nature of the media.

The Creeper itself is a long, monstrous being, around thirty feet in length At first glance, Colleen thinks she is looking at a fence, but quickly realizes just how mistaken she is.

But as the fence rippled and she watched, she realized it wasn't either a fence--nor was it anything she recognized in form. Neither men nor fence slats but rows of bowed staves or spears or...spines, all shifting and bristling in suspect motion.

Colleen tries to process what she is seeing, thinking that it's some kind of new, innovative security system,  even telling herself that it's an oarfish, but she knows it's neither of those things.

Jointless, squat and thick, the maybe legs still appeared to support the horizontal central trunk. It was all one creature. It was nothing she knew. And she knew right then it was nothing known.

No explanation as to where the Creeper came from is ever given. It's just there. Colleen speculates on a number of possibilities, but none of them are ever substantiated. It also just so happens to spend its nights in the basement apartment of Colleen's home. When she first sees it in its full form, it begins moving in her direction. She runs and runs, dodging and ducking, until she returns to her summer home, only to have the Creeper return there, as well. She could not tell if it was after her, or if it just went there to sleep. Rather than leave Seaside Heights, Colleen remains there, knowing full well that a thirty foot monster is in her basement, wheezing away. Why does she stay? I would have gotten the hell out of dodge. Why not alert anyone to the presence of this monster? On the surface, Colleen makes all these justifications in her head. No one will believe her; she'll get arrested; even so far as to think the police will taser her and dump her body somewhere. She doesn't leave, and she doesn't tell anyone. Instead, Colleen chooses to work around the monster's patterns. What? Is she crazy? Well, it's because that is all she knows. She falls into a routine with the Creeper that mirrors exactly what she does with Derrick.

During the day, Colleen is out and about, but at night, when the Creeper returns to the basement, Colleen secures herself in the upstairs bathroom, sleeping in the bathtub, which is reminiscent of her sleeping in her kids' room, barricading herself from a drunk, pissed off Derrick. Even the wheezing of the Creeper can viewed as Derrick in a drunken slumber. Everything about the Creeper reflects Colleen's life at home. It's a manifestation of sorts, her horrible life, her monstrous marriage made tangible, into this gargantuan monster, and she's married to a monster. Colleen does achieve a level of comfortability with the Creeper, though. She knows the Creeper's schedule, much more predictable than Derrick's erratic behavior. That eventually changes, though, and Colleen is now faced with unpredictability. Again, why stay? Concerning Colleen's marriage, she pretty much accepts that she is in a rut; it's been that way for so long, she's used to it. Sure, she comes up with all these reasons as to why she stays, but she's just stuck in this rut, in this routine, and Colleen even acknowledges that she no longer loves Derrick, possessing no feelings of any kind for him. Below the surface, though, there is another reason: fear. It's not just fear of Derrick and his abusiveness, but it's the fear of leaving, of what happens next. If Colleen left Derrick, where would she go? What would she do? Would he find her? If he did, would he kill her? If she went to the police, would they be able to arrest Derrick and convict him? Would the case fall through? There are too many 'ifs' for Colleen, and she's just too afraid to make any kind of change that would improve her life, or even save her. Making the decision to stay in Seaside Heights is the first major change for Colleen, even though it doesn't last long.

At one point in the story, Derrick's friend Jordan, who owns a house in Seaside Heights, comes to the summer home, under the guise of checking on her. He knows she's there because he saw her leave the line of people waiting for the bus to take them back to their homes. Colleen knows better, though. Jordan is there for other, more terrible reasons. Armed with butane and hairspray, Colleen decides enough is enough, and is finally, for a change, going to fight back. The Creeper takes care of Jordan, however, making short work of him. The Creeper then turns its attention to the bathroom Colleen is in, and slides a tongue, or appendage of some sort, under the door. Colleen doesn't hesitate, spraying a flame at the creature, sizzling it, resulting in its retreat. Colleen never sees it again, after that. Now, at this point, it seems that Colleen did what she needed to do all along: she fought back. She needed this experience to face her monster of a husband, to show him that she will not take his abuse anymore; however, when Derrick finally shows up to get Colleen and bring her back home, rather than showing any kind of resistance, she says, "Okay. Let's go." She acquiesces and goes home with him. It's angering to read, but it's another painful reality that Nicolay addresses. Sadly, this is an outcome that happens all too often with women in abusive relationships.

In after, Nicolay explores the harsh reality of abuse, using Weird Fiction as a backdrop, and painfully making the reader aware of that reality. He also reveals the negativity of the media, and the ridiculous subjects that pass for headlines. The important issues are cast aside for television shows, and which celebrity was seen at an ATM. Nicolay explores the tragedy of Seaside Heights in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. All the memories that were destroyed, the lives lost, the first responders no one will ever know about, the people with childhood ties to the town, and to certain attractions it once had. after is a memorable piece of fiction, powerful and resonating. Heartfelt, painful, sad, and intense...Nicolay reached a whole new plateau with this one, and it deserves the highest praise.