Guilt in Trey Edward Schults’s “It Comes At Night”

The horror of It Comes At Night is that even the murder of a child can affect nothing and go without consequence, a truth the universe validates with indifference. The movie opens, however, with the murder of an old man, one who is suffering, and clearly dying, from a disease that a lesser movie would turn into its hook, and whose novelty it would diminish by insisting on causes, symptoms, rules, a cure, blunting the thrust of the film with tropes and exposition. But director Trey Edward Shults has no time for that, so the old man is murdered, presumably to save him from whatever this apocalyptic plague would have done. This could be called euthanasia; “mercy killing”; a courtesy; something done for his own good, born of a moral decision. Paul (Joel Edgerton) might call it pragmatism, but the movie doesn’t shy from terrible truths: it’s murder, as the nonconsensual ending of another’s life always is, and the smoke of his burning corpse, dumped down a ditch and hastily drenched in gasoline, carries us into the movie proper.

It Comes At Night follows Paul, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a small family who have established a routine of survival in a post-apocalyptic world turned on its heads by a plague. They keep indoors as often as possible and purport never to venture out at night, although that self-imposed rule isn’t followed for a second of the film’s 91 minutes. In the middle of the night following the cremation of Sarah’s father (David Pendleton), a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) attempts to break into their home, but is subdued by Paul and his rifle. He’s lashed to a tree for two nights but insists to Paul that he has a wife and child, Kim (Riley Keough) and Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), that need his help. Paul’s house seemed abandoned, with its boarded windows, so he thought it would be safe to search for supplies. Will wins Paul’s trust, and upon concluding that both families have a better chance of surviving together, they unite under Paul’s roof. Things begin to go awry shortly thereafter, and then take an even sharper turn toward the worst.

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The Other in the Doorway.

“Oh God.”

He started awake. Her voice was an airless hiss. Too taken aback at her expression to speak, she cut him off before he could.

“He’s here. He’s here!

Her face was a map of terror. The muscles in his back cinched taut and cold. In the panicked topography of her expression, he saw a sketch of himself standing in the doorway even as he lay in bed, simultaneously inches from his wife and a few paces away. A cold presence clothed in his body.

“Don’t move. Please don’t move.”
“What do we do?”
“Stop talking, he’s looking.” Her voice a rubble of plosives.

Making the quivering shape of wh– with his lips, what, why, when, each question as important as the other, begging answers he shouldn’t know if he meant to retain his sanity. There was a cable in his spine, tightening. Threatening to rend him apart if he did not move. Threatening to rend him apart if he did. He could feel the eyes, his eyes, resting on the parentheses of Ginny’s body and his own, the covers bunched below the arch of his hip. The thinnest membrane between they and it. The cable looped slowly around his chest, hugging his side as it tracked toward his heart.

They had seen his signs–he saw that realization dawn under the black fog of Ginny’s terror, a dawn that darkened the shadows around it–they had seen his signs, the signs of this Other arriving to this terrible moment. They had seen them years in advance. In belongings he didn’t remember owning. In duplicates he’d never had of things he rarely used. In things that had gone missing, and in things that reappeared where he’d never left them. He saw that now. He saw the hand of this Other moving quietly through his life. Collecting him. Trying him on. The cable crept.

It had been in his head. He felt sick, he felt cold and hot. He had dreamed this moment from the doorway. He had dreamed of standing outside of himself, nightmares full of the silent howling terror of being pried out of his own body. Unstuck from it, like a burr from denim. A terror that sometimes woke him, gasping, into Ginny’s arms. Terror that sometimes followed him into the day and inked each night in a little more permanently. Sometimes he lay wondering if the night would end or if, finally, he was to be consigned to a more total Night, every one preceding only a fraction of the larger, and every fraction more complete than the last, more like the final Night, the terminus of a spiral winding down and down.

What is he doing? he mouthed, but Ginny couldn’t see his face well enough to know what he asked. She was staring too fixedly over and past him, to where the Other stood in the door. Doing what? Standing there, staring at them. With what expression?

With what expression?

Continue reading “The Other in the Doorway.”

Excerpt #5 of “The Secret Knock, Part I: The Candlemaker”

The rain came and went. It was the first rain in a long time. It reminded Evan of the grave he had filled, the thwack and rattle that would come easier and messier later tonight, with the rain kneading the earth. The thwack would become a splat, and there would be no rattle, but the hiss of water on coffin-wood. He wondered if the rain would dampen the smell of the violated coffin. He wondered what sound the rain would make when it got inside, and then stole downstairs for a glass of water from the same faucet he had drunk the night before, swallowing the water for the dumb physicality of it, the flex of tongue, the convulsions of throat, the gurgle of digestion. He drank four glasses and pissed it out an hour later.

* * *

Midnight came. He made no effort to conceal the sound of his feet on the stairs, as if to let Nick, behind the locked door of his room, know he was leaving, and for what. As if he wanted his mother to hear and open the door, shoot him a quizzical look, and ask what he was doing fully-clothed at the top of the steps in the middle of the night. To ask where he was going.

Evan made it outside without a hitch. When he turned to look back, there were no lights on in his mother’s room or Nick’s, no furtive movement in the windows. He hoisted his bag.

Rody was already at Edwin’s when he arrived. His car was parked on the opposite street of the fork so Evan didn’t notice the car until he was standing in the gravel lot of the corner store. Its lights activated, and the terrible memory of his own death flashed through Evan’s mind. He fell off of his bike. He got back to his feet, knowing Rody had laughed at the slapstick of his fall, suspecting that Rody knew exactly how the headlights would affect him, that he had turned on his headlights to elicit this precise reaction.

Through the window, Rody instructed him to leave the bike against the building, in the dark. No one would see it there, and they would be back to retrieve it long before morning. He had just leaned it against the steps when he heard a sound it took him a second to recognize as the snapping of fingers.

“What the fuck is that?” Rody said when Evan turned around. He pointed until Evan put his hand on the strap of his backpack. “Dump it the fuck out. Now. Dump it.”

Evan held onto it for a moment longer than Rody liked, and he heard the fourfold snick of the car unlocking, and then feet on the gravel. Evan hurried to take the backpack off, but Rody was fast. He snatched the bag out of his hand, unzipped it, and shook it out. A hammer, a spiral notebook, a roll of duct tape, a tape measure, a pair of pliers, a pen, and a Sharpie marker thunked and clattered to the ground. Rody singled out the worktools, kicking them away from the rest. He hurled the backpack to the ground and backhanded Evan hard enough to send him reeling, clutching his cheek. It burned as if it he’d been pressed to an iron.

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Excerpt #4 of “The Secret Knock, Part I: The Candlemaker”

He regained the feeling in his legs before his arms. Rody watched him rotate his ankles for a while before he was able to bend his elbows, although it was a while more before he was able to prop himself up and examine his prison, and his watchman. The sight of the candles, so many of them quietly burning in pools of their own wax, instilled a chill he would never shake. Rody’s red hair and long face were as Evan had imagined, but what he hadn’t noticed before was the way his rubbery mouth seemed to always be smiling, or on the verge of smiling. It wasn’t a mirthful smile, and like the Candlemaker, his gaze was innately condescending. Evan wanted to believe the two were related, but their ability to exude loathsome superiority was, unfortunately, learned.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Evan jerked his leg over the edge of the table. It dangled, but he did his best to keep it straight as he swung the other over, moving slowly although he felt mobile. Rody watched as Evan planted his feet. Not without some apprehension, he noted the switchblade clipped to Rody’s belt as he uncrossed his arms and stood up.

“Let’s go.”

Evan braced, pushed himself off the table, and was relieved when he didn’t immediately take a spill. He hazarded a step toward the jar, let go of the table he had been leaning on for support and took another step, not so much as a wobble in the knees. Rody offered cursory applause, but Evan didn’t miss how quick he was to position himself between the jar and Evan.

“Sit back down for a sec.”

“Where’s my brother?”

“Zach took him back. Sit down and try on this nice hat.”

Evan didn’t understand until he took another look at Rody. He was thumbing a black wool mask in one hand. Rody saw him look and his perpetual smile livened up.

“Top-secret shit, you know? It’s for a second. I’ll take it off when we’re on your street. Are your parents divorced?”

“No,” Evan said, taken aback.

“So you’re on Cherryhock.”

“Yeah.”

“Come on, put it on.” Rody tossed the mask onto the table. “Put it on or you’re not leaving the fuckin’ room,” Rody said when Evan hesitated. “No one’s trying to kill you or we would’ve left you under the fuckin’ car.”

The room went black as he pulled the mask down. A little candleglow leaked through the weaving. Rody’s hands fell on Evan’s shoulders and steered him through the door. The glow faded. Their footsteps fell flat and cramped as Rody took him down a hall and gave him a sudden whirl. He did this twice more, confounding Evan’s sense of direction, but he knew for certain they climbed three sets of stairs–twice up, once down, although he was so dizzy by the third that he couldn’t be certain they hadn’t used the same set of stairs twice.

The night was cold when they stepped outside. He no longer had his hoodie and shivered, as Rody pressed him into the back of a car and belted him in like a child. Evan hugged himself to keep from shuddering as Rody took his time fiddling with the keys, and then turned on the heat and the radio. Most channels were static at this hour, but he happened on a station playing something faint and staticky. He left it there.

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Excerpt #3 of “The Secret Knock, Part I: The Candlemaker”

There was no measure by which to gauge how dead Evan spent the next few hours.

The pain he felt just prior to the time he lost in the cemetery followed him the way music will sometimes follow one into a dream, shaping it and how one experiences it; so, too, did those last sounds and sights (the cracking, the shout, the light) craft the memory. He came to believe that he was not immediately killed by the bullet he took to the chest, or even the groundskeeper’s car. How, if he was aware of a commotion of voices after he was extricated from the wheels of the vehicle? How, if he was aware of being transported away from them? What troubled him was that there was no substance to these awarenesses beyond the bare gist. After he was killed, there were voices. After he was killed, he was moved.

After that, Evan woke up in a strange place.

Waking from a troubled sleep is sometimes portrayed as a sort of rising, as if one swims toward consciousness like a diver from a great depth. This waking was like an inexorable slipping, as if he had been lying on a tilting plate, one that had eventually, by slow increments, tipped him out into a mold or an outline of himself. He did not fit quite like before. The first thing he registered was a warm, low glow, which resolved into candlelight a few minutes later. The surface on which he lay was firm, but not uncomfortable. Evan spent a while reacquainting himself with sensations he had nearly lost forever, although it might be more accurate to say that spent this time re-acquainting himself with sensation itself. But he was not aware yet of how permanent the loss had nearly been, so he lay wrapped in warm amnesia, and soon cracked his eyes to peer at the ceiling.

There was a man in the way. His face was not unkind, but it was not welcoming. Ultimately, Evan couldn’t read its expression. His eyes were flinty and small, and Evan’s impression was that the thoughts flitting around behind them were enormously complicated, and that although the eyes seemed to register Evan as well as he registered them, he knew he didn’t amount to much, if at all, in their secret calculations. He felt inconvenient. One of the man’s hands was resting on his arm; not gripping it, not caressing it, but the touch was unwanted, and Evan grew increasingly uneasy as the moments passed.

“Do you want me to call them in?” said the man presently, and withdrew his hand. The relief overpowered his confusion, and it was another long moment before Evan finally asked,

“What?”

“Zach and Rody brought you in. Your brother is waiting with them down the hall.”

“Rody?”

“Would you like to see them?”

Evan’s mouth was heavy. The two words he had spoken had  passed like boulders and left him drained. The man straightened up, and Evan realized that his other hand–the one that was no longer touching him–was holding something, although he couldn’t see what. The effort of turning his head exhausted him, so he remained still and silent while the man waited on an answer, his patience infinite.

“What happened?”

Continue reading “Excerpt #3 of “The Secret Knock, Part I: The Candlemaker””

A Snowy Place in the Mountains.

His mistake was believing it was the house and not Pieces for God.

That the van broke down in the cornfields of Iowa (what Marquis called Slipknot country) put the thought in him first that perhaps this was all for naught, a bad joke writing itself about five men with bills and families absconding to cold upstate Montana to recapture a passion for music that had, in all likelihood, burned out a long time ago. Corey had plenty of time to think in the hot van about the house he’d seen only in low-resolution thumbnails on Paul’s computer, too skittish about traveling such a monstrous distance to have a better look when he’d had the time. That he had spent trying to remember his away around a guitar, with nothing to show for it. These things put the fear of failure in him as they crammed together, coddling the bottled waters Paul had had the foresight to bring.

Marquis was talking about his son and the list of colleges he hoped to attend, and Corey had looked into his face by the light of enough cheap diners across the southern U.S. to know that he was struggling with a future where he broke it to his son that his dreams and his parents’ finances would never match up. Corey felt for him, because in just a few years’ time he would be wearing the same false smile, confessing the same fears with no more than his eyes. This trip would do them no favors. That was clear now. But when Leigh called, the first time any of them had heard his voice in years, it had sounded like the right thing to do. Leigh wasn’t the only one with things to say, but he was the one who said them well.

Leigh set off on foot to the gas station they had passed, taking his phone with him in hope of a signal. He returned after dusk riding shotgun in a tow truck. They were back on the road by the next evening after a battery of phone calls to their families, filling the motel rooms with a clamor of family-talk that put a stone in Corey’s stomach.

Was it still Hannah on the other end of Leigh’s call? No, he didn’t talk to Hannah that way. He was speaking to his brother, the younger Bordeaux, back from a successful string of dates on the coast with his own band. They had garnered an enthusiastic turnout and had dates lined up on the other coast already. Leigh congratulated him, not warmly.

Who was Normie phoning? He was pacing the room, a belly pooching over his waistband, his arms peeling with sunburn acquired from the construction work he did now. The effete boy in the snapshot Corey carried in his mind (the real one lost years ago) was not the rougher, wearier person who paced the room, mumbling through his fingers into the phone.

Paul, with whom Corey exchanged a look when Normie stepped out to continue his troubling conversation in the hallway, had lost enough weight to verge on lanky. When his phone started ringing, the hand he dug into his pocket was thin and faintly liverspotted. It was like the crow’s feet around Marquis’s eyes. It trembled when he repocketed the phone. The hair above his ears had thinned.

What did Corey Mercier look like to them?

The night after Iowa, dozing in the last motel bed before they arrived at the house, he watched Leigh chain-smoke in the backlot through the cheap curtains, the light of the “Vacancy” sign in his coiffed hair. Later, he dreamed of the house as he had seen it in the photos. In the dream, there was a light in the window, but it was not particularly welcoming.

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Excerpt #2 of “The Secret Knock, Part I: The Candlemaker”

A rain would have made the work easier, but it had been a dry summer. The dirt was parched and stubborn. Most of it was heaped to one side of the grave, but Danny, Nick, and Zach had been in a hurry, so there were smaller piles strewn around that Zach and Evan had to divert back into the hole. But first, and more difficult still, was moving Danny’s body. The mere thought of touching him drove a frozen rod down into his bowels, stirred what was there. Zach rolled him toward the grave on his own, but stopped to wipe his hands on his thighs.

“Get some dirt in there,” he said. “We have to cushion his fall so he doesn’t break the lid.”

Evan did so, glad to put distance between himself and the corpse, and Zach pushed the corpse in with a final grunt. But there was an unmistakable crack, and there followed a stench so sudden and potent it sent Evan into a fit of gagging. He knocked his shovel aside in the rush to vomit away from the graveside, and it would have fallen right in if Zach hadn’t caught it and thrust it back into Evan’s hands. Evan held onto his dinner and took the shovel, but weakly. He had never heard himself make such noises.

“I hope to God no one heard that,” Zach said, scrambling to chuck load after load of dirt into the hole. They landed with a thwack and a rattle, interspersed with huffs of exertion. “You gonna help or what?”

Evan swallowed. The stench was still in the air, the rod still in his guts. But he pushed the shovel into the dirt and lifted. Turned it over. Watched the dirt fall, thwack-and-rattle, into the hole. Zach watched him for a moment and then rejoined him. It seemed to take hours anyway, but there was no change in the night sky, and no groundskeeper in sight, by the time they finished.

No sound from Nick, either. It dawned on Evan that in the midst of their shoveling, which was loud and focused work, Nick could have snuck away. But Zach seemed totally unconcerned. Whatever Evan had thought of Zach previously, whoever he had thought he was, no longer mattered, and the same went now for his brother; twin realizations that struck him with winding force. At the same time, if this person Zach had become (or had always been) wasn’t concerned with Nick’s loyalty, then perhaps he shouldn’t be, either.

The frozen rod gave a twist.

He shoveled. Thwack and rattle.

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