by Nick Antosca
How our living selves affect the afterlife has been, and will continue to be, a matter of debate. In literature alone, countless stories have explored the stages of death, of grieving, and that of otherworldly retribution. In Midnight Picnic, Nick Antosca leaves religion out of the discussion and instead explores feelings of abandonment, anger and regret.
After a long evening in his rural West Virginian town, Bram discovers the bones of a child. Unsure of their origin or what to do about them, he takes them home. He hasn’t been feeling well, misses his father stationed in Iraq, and the depression of his roommate, Marian, weighs on him. Suddenly, the child himself appears in his room. “My name is Adam Dovey,” he says. “Help me get Jacob Bunny.”
Convinced by the child to kill his murderer, Bram begins a strange journey into the afterlife, where day and night bleed into one everlasting twilight, and the lonely living intermingle unknowingly with the dead. Full of tension and mystery, it’s a fantastic, quick-paced novel.
Antosca has a way with spectral imagery straight from the beginning. Even without the back cover summary, one knows the environment into which they’ve stumbled:
Lightning bleaches the sky. For an instant, the woods turn a cadaverous white-grey, like cauliflower or brains.
Even in flashback, the narrative remains in present tense, a reminder of the flexibility of time and perception. The inner panic of each character stays constant and real — understandable, even in terms of murder.
There is no escape. Shame and nightmares. The horror of other people, having to function amongst them when you are broken and unfixable.
There is no escape.
There’s a lot to absorb. Trying to make sense of what happens to Bram and what actions signify other things can make for a bit of a mind-bend when tired before bed. I took a long time pondering the quick ending and attempted to piece together clues to form the larger picture of what had happened. In that way, the book will probably benefit from a second read. However, it’s not confusing in a frustrating way — I want to clear up some of the ambiguity, rather than just put the book down, think “That was strange,” and move on. Antosca uses a lot of subtle tricks that don’t quite work their magic until the final pages. One has to trust, moving through the pages, that they will serve a purpose. In that sense, the book succeeds in disorienting the reader as much as its characters.
This is no great story of redemption, nor is it one of God and ghosts. If anything, it’s about making peace with the living self before everything is gone:
“I think that when you die you lose parts of yourself, you erode. Pieces slough off and go somewhere else, into other things. You can feel it happening. I think there is no ... immortal ‘soul.’ Just something that lasts for awhile as it falls apart ... as it decomposes like everything does, to feed other things.”
With Autumn and Halloween approaching, Midnight Picnic might just be the essential book to usher in the season. It’s certainly worth a look.
Full disclosure: This book was sent to me along with two others for review purposes from Word Riot Press. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.
This review also appeared on The Rumpus, October 6, 2010.