The Oblivion Room: Stories of Violation
Evil Jester Press, June 2013
Trade paperback, $14.95
I discovered the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe quite early in my teens and read them voraciously. I’ve re-read most many times over the course of the intervening fifty years or so, but I still vividly remember my essentially visceral reaction to my first encounter with several of them: the fantastic gorgeousness of “The Masque of the Red Death,” which I recently cribbed from (only slightly) for a Lovecraftian novella; the calm, rational madness of “The Black Cat” and “The Cask of Amontillado”; and—perhaps most dramatically of all—the smothering darkness and ultimate meaninglessness, as it seemed to me, of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Over the years I have not encountered a story that touched me, that horrified me, in quite the same way as that one did.
Until I was asked to review Christopher Conlon’s impressive collection, The Oblivion Room: Stories of Violation.
As is my wont with a new book, I took it with me a nearby fast-food restaurant, where I could enjoy it in the relative silence (mostly silence from my internal noises). And, as is completely understandable, I began with the first story, the eponymous “The Oblivion Room.”
And suddenly, it seemed as if I were in the world of “The Pit and the Pendulum” again…for the first time. Even though the stories are, on the surface, different.
Conlon’s character—and indeed, one could almost say that there is only one character in the story—is a woman, a wife and a mother. She is an average person in all respects, except that she is imprisoned in an utterly lightless cell, circular, with no perceivable openings. She receives food, of a sort, but only when she is asleep. She is naked. She has no matrix by which to judge time. All she can do is remember…and structure her memories into a mental journal—the story—so that whatever happens, she will never forget who she is and what is happening to her.
Then, incredibly, she discovers a single flaw in her cell: a barely discernible crack, only inches long and scarcely deeper than her smallest fingernail.
Not much, but it gives her life and hope.
To tell more would be to lessen the shock and surprise that Conlon so adroitly builds over the twenty-plus pages of the story. He so orchestrates her memories and her struggles to maintain them that the simple act of recall becomes both heroic and manic…rather as it would be with one of Poe’s characters.
The second story, On Tuesday the Stars All Fell From the Sky,” is in its own way entirely unlike the first…and identical to it.
Another bit of reminiscence.
As a graduate student, I worked with Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time. Most of the stories I have (unfortunately) forgotten, but one remains, vivid in atmosphere, tone, and extraordinary control. The main character of “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick Adams, embarks on a fishing trip. That is the entire plot. The story is composed of Adam’s meticulous attention to every detail around him, with several paragraphs devoted to the mundane act of making coffee over a campfire. Toward the end, he stands on a bridge of the Big Two-Heart River and watches several fish swimming against the current, making no progress but not getting swept backward either.
Shell-shocked, returning from the horrors of World War I, Adams is himself struggling to maintain. His ritualized descriptions and painstakingly controlled actions are the only recourse he has to a world that is insane…and deadly. Like the fish, he makes no headway, but neither does he dissolve into madness.
Conlon’s story gave me the same sense of overt restraint over underlying madness, but here, we know precisely how mad Terrence Stillwater actually is (ah! If I were still in graduate school, I would make much of the symbolism of his last name!). When he awakens one morning, he knows, without knowing how or why, that there is a thing to so.
He does it.
And goes through the day alternatively half-remembering it and half-denying, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, that it happened.
As with Hemingway’s story, Conlon’s draws its strength—and its horror—from juxtaposing two sides of Stillwater’s personality and his attempts to create a “normal” life, even though he ultimately knows that any pretense at normality is merely that…a pretense.
The next three stories each deserve full discussion, but for the sake of conciseness, I can only suggest their power and effectiveness. In “Skating the Shattered Glass Sea,” a twin visits his sister for the first time in half a century…in her cramped, dark room in a mental institution; only there can the old man he has become truly comprehend the tragedy of what her instability and their separation has cost them both. “The Long Light of Sunday Afternoon” (a bit of a Hemingwayesque title) is a gentle ghost story, in which an old man—a recurring theme in several of the stories—is given a choice…or perhaps only a vision. “Grace” is an eerie tale of an empty house, about to be torn down in the wake of new construction, that contains a terrible secret for Abby Winter, as well as the possibility of restoration if she has the courage to open the closet door.
Each is memorable in its own right, told with clarity and directness that nonetheless combine to create a moment of horror.
The capstone and highlight of the collection, however, is the novella, “Welcome Jeanne Krupa, World’s Greatest Girl Drummer!” Set in the midst of World War II, it tells of a jazz ensemble, the Skye High Five, through the eyes of a young man fresh from the plains of Nebraska (and from a town perfectly named ‘Lonestone’). The first pages concentrate on background, particularly his, and depicting a world in which the only young men are “4-Fers” rejected by the military, and the old men—including three of the ensemble—are decades older. Into the closed world of the Five comes something new and fresh: Jeanette Crupiti, a phenomenal autodidact on the drums, lying about her age and secretive about her backgrounds but capable of playing at the level of the great Gene Krupa himself.
The story unwinds at what seems a leisurely pace as the band works, improves, and steadily moves toward greatness.
Then, enter the villain, Jeanette’s cousin, Boone Branson. There is no secret about his villainy; Conlon makes that clear on the first page. But there are other secrets that gradually, inexorably emerge, and in doing so threaten Jeanette, the narrator, and the band.
Underlying the story, however, are two consistent themes. The first is spoken by Jeanette when she asks “Who do you think people love each other?” Once asked, the question reverberates through what we know of her life, and what we learn of the narrator’s. The second comes from the narrator, Lester:
I took a walk down to the ocean—we were playing a club on the beach, our hotel was attached to it—and I breathed the heady salt air for a while, trying to clear my head. Understand, no one used words like stalker or dysfunctional or codependent back them. I’d never heard of such things.
But it doesn’t require words for a thing to exist—look at the terrors faced by the nameless woman in “The Oblivion Room”, or the dreadful sense of things unnamable and unforgivable going out of control in “On Tuesday the Stars All Fell From the Sky”; or the soul-killing loss in “Skating the Shattered Glass Sea.” And even without the words, even intuiting what is to come, readers are invited into Lester’s world to understand the irrevocable mark one person can make…for good or for evil.
The Oblivion Room: Stories of Violation is a perfect title for the collection. Throughout there is violation: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. The stories provide little ground for hope; at best, perhaps, there is only endurance and remembrance. They might seem rather cold, impersonal, dispassionate, almost dissociated, as if the horror implicit in the story-telling were too much for the narrators. Readers eager for “slash-and-burn” horror might be disappointed in them—not for their lack of blood and violence, which occur, but for Conlon’s detachment and refusal to glory in them for their own sake. Suffering happens; and we must struggle to endure. But those seeking the deeper realms of fear and terror, found primarily in suggestion and indirection and obliqueness, The Oblivion Room is a must.