Tuesday, July 31, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #85: A review of "The Night People" by Michael Reaves


In a way, this story is a roller coaster ride. It starts off very cool, then takes a mysterious turn, then becomes an incredible letdown, and completely redeems itself in the very last sentence. That’s quite the feat.

Our unnamed narrator is a painter who has just moved back to the city where he grew up, where he tries to forget his memories of a girlfriend who drove him crazy. He can’t shake her, though, and he finds himself breaking his usual routines just to get away from it all. Usually, he’s an early riser. He goes through a rigorous workout session, and then he paints for about 10 hours, taking breaks only to eat. Now, he does a lot of the same stuff, but he tends to stay out until four in the morning, exploring the city and its clubs and museums.

Then, during a late night tour of local, historical artists, he sees something odd in a display of one of his favorite painters. What he initially thinks is a statue of a model actually stands up and runs away when he notices her. This completely fucks with him, because she looks very familiar. He’s wracking his brain, trying to figure out who she is while still trying to exorcise his girlfriend from his mind.

He keeps going back to one of the things she said to him: “The trouble with your art is that you’re too sane. You need to set free your dark side.” She is an artist, too, a writer, so he thinks on this a lot and starts wondering if that’s what’s happening here, that he’s starting to lose it.

SPOILER ALERT: He sneaks back to the exhibit the next night, and he sees the model again. This time, she doesn’t move. Disappointed, he leans his head up against the glass and closes his eyes in despair. When he opens them, he sees that the model is gone. Driven by his overwhelming curiosity, he breaks the glass and climbs into the display.

In the back, he finds a room full of mannequins, and he decides that if she’s back there, she will probably blend in. When he steps back out to the display, everything is different. The glass isn’t broken anymore, and he sees a bunch of people milling around outside. Here’s where Reaves fucks up a little, in much the same way Schow did. Reaves gives in to his fanboy nature. Among those the narrator sees are Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, getting all chummy with each other, even though Poe was dead when Bierce was a kid. He sees other famous faces in this little bit of fanboy masturbation.

Thankfully, this is short lived. The model comes to the readers’ rescue by emerging from behind the display. When he sees her face, he freaks out and flees (but not before stealing the artist’s paints). Upon reaching home, he feverishly toils at what he believes will be his masterpiece, completed only by moonlight. As he does this, he remembers something else about his old girlfriend: their arguments were so bad that they recognized the madness in themselves, their dark sides, if you will. Once they knew this, they started to encourage it. They started going after each other to perfect their art.

Finally, the cops track him down, wanting the paints back for the museum, only when they see what he’s been painting, they’re all aghast. Why? Well, here’s where the story really pays off. It’s a painting of his girlfriend. Dead. Because that’s where he’d recognized the model from. Reaves never comes out and says it, but he heavily suggests that our narrator has killed his girlfriend and has repressed that memory until now. END OF SPOILERS.

Holy shit. What an amazing idea, and Reaves has the know-how to pull it all off. Despite the moment where it falters so bad it almost ruins the story, Reaves has written a masterpiece that does more than earn its place here.

[This story first appeared in ROD SERLING'S THE TWILIGHT ZONE MAGAZINE and cannot be read online at this time.]

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