Written by: James Keen
“I guess the big problem is that I’m not always sure about whether anything is accurate.” – ‘I Wake Up’. Dan Chaon.
There’s a quote by the best-selling author Stephen King that goes, ‘Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once.” It’s a summation of a rewarding reading experience that certainly holds true in regards to this collection of fitfully brilliant tales by Dan Chaon, an anthology that holds up against and rewards repeated scrutiny. This reviewer had the hardcover edition of this particular book gifted to him by a trusted friend earlier this year, having been told in no uncertain terms that this is something he really owed it to myself to take the time out to delve into.
However, this can prove to be something of a ‘double-bind’ if you happen to develop a reputation amongst your friends and family that you have a predilection for indulging in horror fiction, what Robert R. McCammon once declared as the ‘fundamental fiction’ of our times, you develop an understandable wariness when every book you’re recommended is based upon the supposition that, “you like weird stuff- you should check this out.” It’s a strange assumption that people apply to anyone who enjoys a particular brand of entertainment, with the result that you’re almost constantly presented with books that are, frankly, simply a baser sort of entertainment, novels that have blood-splattered covers replete with sensational summations from other purveyors of the genre, notably horror-genre peers who have been paid to provide suitably gruesome sound-bites designed in order to appeal to the genre-loving consumer which often prove to be disappointing, not least because of their obvious pandering shallow content. The bulk of these books are obviously written to appeal to those readers content with simply passing their time, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, this reviewer contends that the best efforts in the horror-genre are those that offer challenges for the reader, that encourage a reappraisal of their own beliefs and attitudes.
Don Chaon’s ‘Stay Awake’ is a case in point. This a collection of apparently disconnected stories that, as the reader fends their way through will discover that there is a subtle master-plan behind the seemingly disparate arrangement of stories here. The author, in many of the tales leaves the reader with a sense of understandable perplexity as to the ‘point’ of each tale. ‘Stay Awake’ is a cumulative literary experience; it’s only as you approach the middle section of stories that you begin to recognize themes and literary motifs are part of a much grander design. These are stories with an eerie and unnerving feel, tales that touch upon a supernatural ennui in a way that are, in some manner, agreeably disturbing.
Linked by initially tenuous thematic threads of disconnection, dislocation and the strangely capricious nature of memory that we use to define life-experience, Chaon artfully arrives at an oddly novelistic conclusion to his anthology of subtly creepy stories with a kind of denouement that is richly satisfying and leaves the reader with an experience that is perhaps less concerned with delivering horrific thrills than it is in inviting an internal debate with what constitutes the nature of storytelling. This is fiction that lingers in the mind long after finishing; stories that challenge and ultimately, encourage a healthy response to how we view our perception of life…and death.
And I owe that ‘cursed’ referrer a beer, at the very least.