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Review time! with ‘The Crossroads at Midnight’

“Standing calmly at the crossroads, no desire to run”

The Crossroads at Midnight does not feature a crossroads, nor do any of the stories take place specifically at midnight. Oh dear, what a pickle. Abby Howard, the writer/artist, brings us five horror tales, and they’re very much horrific. You’ve been warned! Iron Circus, the publishing concern of the indomitable Spike Trotman (who is quite awesome, by the way), has put this out, and you should get it if you like to upsetting horror. Everyone loves upsetting horror, right?

There’s a lot in that title, as a crossroads is a liminal space, and in popular culture, crossroads are associated with everything from Robert Frost (not really a crossroads in “The Road Not Taken,” but close enough) to ABBA (whose best song, “When All Is Said and Done,” references a crossroads) to the ur-example, Robert Johnson selling his soul. That’s where the “midnight” part of it comes in, as midnight is a liminal time, and it’s when conditions are optimal to call up the devil. So despite the lack of crossroads or midnight in this book, each story is about a choice a character makes, usually a bad one, and how that completely changes their lives. Why do they make these choices? Well, if you head to a crossroads at midnight, the implication is that you’re not terribly happy with your station in life. These characters make choices because their lives are at inflection points, and they’re unsure what to do. And so they make choices. The choices are not always very good.

Howard eases us into the book with the first story, “The Girl in the Fields.” Frankie, a teenager coming to terms with her sexuality (her given name is Francine, which she steadfastly refuses to use), lives out in the country with her parents, separated from her friends or any support structure. Her mother is angry at her all the time due to her sexuality, while her father seems more sympathetic but isn’t an ally, either. Frankie “meets” the girl from the next farm over, who peeks at her through a hole in the fence (note the cover of the book, which is die-cut like a Wolverine comic from the Nineties). Clara is her friend, but Frankie suspects she has serious issues with the farmer who lives there, something Clara doesn’t want to discuss. Of course, Frankie eventually climbs over the fence and finds out things are worse than she even suspected, and the farmer is far more evil than she could have expected. Frankie does survive, but I won’t tell you how or what happens, just to say that’s how Howard eases us into the book – Frankie does survive. Some of the other protagonists aren’t quite so fortunate.

“Mattress, Used” is about a student, Christina, studying for finals who finds a mattress on the street and drags it back to her apartment. She hasn’t been sleeping well because she can’t afford a mattress and has been sleeping on a pile of blankets. Her roommate thinks bringing the mattress into the apartment is a terrible idea, but like most horror stories, no one listens to the sensible one. In the night, something visits Christina and does something to her that causes her to sicken. She ends up in the hospital, but of course it doesn’t end there! “The Boy From the Sea” is about just that – a young girl playing on the beach befriends a boy who appears from the ocean one day, which – shockingly – turns out is a horrible idea. The girl thinks her older sister is being a jerk, leaving her to make new friends, but the sister recognizes that the boy is malevolent and tries to protect her sister. It doesn’t quite turn out the way you might think, but it’s still pretty nasty. The next story is “Our Lake Monster,” which is about a family living by a lake in which is a monster. Mary-Anne, one of the kids, thinks of the monster as a pet, so the fact that her parents have decided to get rid of the monster, which has grown too large, upsets her. She tries to save the monster, but, I mean, it’s a monster. Things go south quickly, naturally! The final story, “Kindred Spirits,” is about an old lady who gets a visit one night by an animated corpse, but the dead woman seems kind, so the old woman – Norah – simply talks to her. She meets two more corpses, and tries to figure out what their deal is. She does figure it out, but she doesn’t do with this information what we expect.

The interesting thing about the stories is that Howard doesn’t rely on the hoary tropes of horror, or when she does, she twists them in interesting ways. The most clichéd part of the book is the “Christian” farmer, who speaks of scripture as he’s menacing Frankie. Other than that, there aren’t really evil people doing evil things, and even the evil … things in the book don’t feel as horrific as some antagonists in these kinds of stories, as Howard makes them either something trying to survive (in “Mattress, Used”) or something acting according to its nature (in “Our Lake Monster”) or even something that just wants company (in “Kindred Spirits”). Even the boy from the sea seems like he’s acting on some survival impulse, and despite being evil, he doesn’t seem like something that goes out of his way to terrorize people. Therefore, the horror is more insidious, because it comes from almost a benign place, and that’s why the book works so well. If we get back to the title, every character in this book occupies a liminal space, and they make choices that, if they work out, will move them closer to a place they want to be. Unfortunately, their desire to move toward a more conventional place is where the horror comes from. Frankie wants a friend, and her desire for one almost gets her killed. Christina wants to sleep, and she makes a poor decision due to that (even if she couldn’t anticipate what happens to her, her roommate rightfully points out that getting a mattress from the street is a bad idea). Nia, the girl on the beach, wants a friend, like Frankie does, and she makes an even worse choice than Frankie does about that. Mary-Anne wants her “pet” to remain one, but that’s not in the cards. Norah is lonely and likes to talk, so the corpses – who don’t speak – are perfect companions for her. All the protagonists in the book are in places in their lives where their desires might override their good sense, and Howard exploits that. Frankie has just started to come to terms with her sexuality, and her parents are less than supportive, so she makes a somewhat reckless choice to see what’s going on with Clara. Christina is going through a stressful time due to finals, and she is desperate for sleep. Nia sees her sister growing up and becoming more distant from her, so she wants a friend. In an epilogue to “The Boy From the Sea,” Howard takes the natural idea of siblings growing apart and makes it more literal and far more tragic. Mary-Anne is growing up and doesn’t like it, as she sees the hard choices adults have to make with regard to things in their lives, so she tries to retreat back into childhood and finds nothing is the same. Norah is nearer to the end of her life than the beginning, and she never married and has no children, so she’s just desperate for someone to talk to. The saddest part of the story is not what she learns about the animated corpses, but when she tries to make a friend and fails. So these are people who seem ripe to make bad decisions, and Howard shows us what can happen when we are driven to these kinds of places. It also helps that the characters aren’t completely sympathetic. Frankie’s parents aren’t supportive, it’s true, but Frankie doesn’t give them anything to help them. Christina ignores her roommate’s advice. Nia is just a child, and her father doesn’t understand her, but her sister obviously loves her and wants to protect her, but Nia wants to defy her anyway. Mary-Anne thinks she knows better than her parents, and that leads to tragedy. And Norah is kindly, but she also obviously loves an audience, which some people might not appreciate. It’s clever of Howard to make the characters not paragons, so that the horror we feel as a reader is that maybe, deep down, we think these people deserve a little bit of what comes to them. That compounds the horror in the book, and it’s skillfully done.

Howard’s art has a Terry Moore quality to it – it’s slightly cartoonish, with a high attention to detail, terrific hatching, and beautiful feathery inking. Her art style is particularly effective in a book like this, as most of the time with horror, an artist uses blurry techniques and murky lighting to make the scene scarier. Those things have their place, but because Howard is trying to find horror in more mundane things, her art works very well with the stories. A good deal of the book takes place during the day, so there’s no need for a lot of black, and even at night, Howard keeps the lighting to make sure we can see everything. Her precision hatching lends weight to the landscape (I can’t imagine how long it took to pencil the few double-page spreads of the ocean, as they’re very detailed), as the characters in the book are part of wherever they happen to be, and the landscape is important in most of the stories (only “Mattress, Used” really doesn’t need a landscape too much, as it takes place in generic rooms). The lines she uses means she doesn’t have to shade, and that keeps things crisp as well, and in some contexts, simple hatching turns characters a bit more evil than shading does. She does some nifty things with the art, too. In “The Girl in the Fields,” she puts a hat on the farmer (which is logical), which allows her to shade his face and also to hide it more, making him less a person and more a malevolent force. She never shows the entire monster in “Our Lake Monster,” implying it’s too big to fit on the page. She uses slightly more hatching on Norah’s face in “Kindred Spirits” to indicate that she might be a bit closer to the corpses than she’d like to think. These little touches are a nice way to create mood and imply things without being too obvious about them, and Howard does it well throughout.

The Crossroads at Midnight is the best kind of horror – a horror book that is thoughtful about the terrifying things in it, giving us more than just a monster that stalks people indiscriminately. Horror is a superb vehicle for all sorts of themes, because we make monsters out of so many things in our lives and good creators exploit that. Howard knows that monsters can exist everywhere, that not every strange thing is a monster, and that occasionally we might even root for the monster. The idea of taking flawed people who are at a figurative crossroads in their lives and introducing catalysts that will push them a certain way is a good one, and Howard does nice work with it. So give this a look – it’s good and creepy!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

2 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    Burgas: Is it my imagination or does it seem like the monster pictured at the top of the blog has an anus for a head?

    Also, for some oddly weird reason, the title of the novel reminds me of a chapter (or a book) title:
    Downtown Saturday Night in the Twentieth Century

    Dunno why.

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