Title: Mapping the Interior
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Genre: Horror Novella
Number of Pages: 112
Even though Mapping the Interior is a supernatural horror novella, it packed a big emotional punch for me. It’s about the disintegration of a family for whom there are few options and no safety net to rely on, but the family drama doesn’t dilute the unsettling imagery and the genuine sense of unease it creates. In fact, it makes it stronger and the way it toes the line between childhood trauma and unexplainable otherworldly events is nothing less than masterful.
The protagonist of the story is Junior, a bright Native American boy who has a pretty miserable life. His mom loves him and his brother fiercely, but she has to work all the time and is always exhausted when she comes home. His younger brother Dino is mentally handicapped and suffers from violent seizures, which are frequent and end in piles of medical bills although the doctors can do nothing but do damage control and then send him home.
Dino is sadistically bullied by his peers and can’t stand up for himself, and Junior has to supervise him in social situations constantly to keep the other kids from hurting him. Everything changes one night when Junior sees the ghost of his father, a deadbeat and wannabe Fancy dancer who was murdered years ago. His dad appears in full Fancy dancer regalia, and Junior is desperate to communicate with his spirit. As a string of horrific events tear apart Junior’s life, it becomes increasingly clear to him that his father didn’t return for the grave out of familial love, and he needs to be the one to stop him from destroying what little they have left.
Mapping the Interior starts out with an opening line so compelling that it’s hard to put it down from the first page. It’s like watching a train wreck because you begin to care about the characters and you know things won’t end well but you still hope they will. The characters feel authentic and it’s great to see a impoverished single mother character who isn’t an irresponsible (or outright negligent) parent and/or an emotionally absent screw-up.
The supernatural element feels fresh and there are a handful of fucked-up scenes laden with nightmare fuel imagery (on a separate but related note, does Stephen Graham Jones hate dogs?) My only criticism is that things started to get confusing near the end, especially when the time travel element was introduced. The ending also made me really sad, though that hardly counts as a criticism.