Two things you should know about Stephen Graham Jones and his work: he is prolific, and his work covers a lot of ground. His debut novel, The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, was a surreal road novel like no other, and it also gave the best sense of what you could expect in one of Jones’s books: literally anything. Night of the Mannequins is Jones’ second book to be published this year; it follows the excellent The Only Good Indians, a tale of supernatural vengeance that haunts a group of Blackfeet men.
Taken together with Jones’s earlier novella Mapping the Interior, these works suggest that Jones has found an unsettling register for a kind of North American folk horror. How does one follows those up? Well, if you search a little further back in in Jones’s bibliography, you’ll find the memorably-titled The Last Final Girl. Jones is an acutely talented practitioner of horror fiction, but he’s also a student of its tropes, its formations, and its endless variations. And while there are certain things about Night of the Mannequins that are best left unspoiled, the title makes one thing pretty clear: this one’s tapping into a strain of horror direct from the grindhouse.
At its core, Night of the Mannequins has an archetypal plot: a group of high school students plan a prank that goes wrong, and something horrific rises as a result. Jones makes this clear from the novel’s opening sentence: “So Shanna got a new job at the movie theater, we thought we’d play a fun prank on her, and now most of us are dead, and I’m really starting to feel kind of guilty about it all.”
As openings go, that’s a pretty good one—and that allusion to feeling “kind of guilty” is especially intriguing. Sawyer, the novel’s narrator, and his friends are high school sophomores living in Texas. Their prank involves sneaking an old mannequin—dubbed “Manny”—they’d played with as kids into the movie theater. The prank, then, involves notifying the theater staff of someone having snuck into the theater, then prompting someone there (Shanna, presumably) to discover Manny and be startled.
The ingredients here are the basic elements of coming-of-age stories: a group of close-knit friends at the point in their lives when they might begin drifting apart; a relic of their childhoods; a penchant for watching blockbuster movies any chance they get. But where Jones takes the narrative is much less expected. While Sawyer and his friends wait for the theater staff to arrive, he experiences a bizarre sensation while watching the film:
It was weird, kind of made me feel like my whole seat was floating away with me, that all of the seats had let go, and we were drifting up wherever now, were going to probably slam down when the lights came on.
Or maybe it was just me and my heart. I don’t know.
The sense of wrongness continues from there, as the theater’s staff comes in and checks ticket stubs—but don’t notice anything out of sorts with Manny. And something goes wrong with Sawyer as a result: “Everything was cut loose and falling just wherever, it didn’t matter because rules didn’t count anymore.”
Things accelerate quickly from there. Shanna dies when a Mack truck hits her house. And Sawyer catches glimpses of Manny hiding in the woods, lurking on the fringes of the suburbs in a way that could be read as mournful or menacing. Soon enough, Sawyer discovers that a bag of Miracle-Gro in his family’s garage has been emptied out. Is Manny consuming it? Is Manny growing? “He was a kaiju, pretty much,” Sawyer thinks. “The mannequin version of Godzilla.”
If Sawyer’s obsession with Manny grows even more intense over time. He becomes convinced that Manny is somehow re-enacting the night of the prank, albeit with a more fatal outcome in mind—and that Manny caused the accident that killed Shanna and her family. All of which leads Sawyer to a very particular conclusion about what he needs to do to protect the larger community, albeit at the expense of his friends.
Jones does a particularly good job of illustrating Sawyer’s increasingly tenuous grasp of reality, and of the leaps in logic that allow him to justify the a series of unsettling actions. And while the image of a mannequin turned feral could seem absurd, Sawyer’s reflections on Manny add a great deal of both pathos and menace to the proceedings.
This is, of course, assuming you choose to read Jones’s novel as a tale of obsession and psychological horror; there is the matter of the missing Miracle-Gro, which offers some credence to the notion that Sawyer is essentially the Renfield to Manny’s Dracula. And that’s certainly a terrifying notion all its own.
But at its core, Night of the Mannequins is about being at an age when the connections you used to take for granted begin to fray, and you get an inkling that the people you thought would be your friends for life might not actually be in it for the long haul. Night of the Mannequins has its over-the-top moments, but it’s firmly in the tradition of horror rooted in a very real, very relatable anxiety.
Night of the Mannequins is available from Tordotcom Publishing.