Books: Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is an author that comes up a great deal in horror circles, but I must admit that I hadn’t read any of his novels (though I’m fairly certain I’ve read some of his short stories in various anthologies at one time or another). Several people had recommended the 2020 novel The Only Good Indians, but I sort of wanted something a little bit shorter in order to dip my toes into the waters of his work, so I chose instead to read his 130-page novella that came out the same year, Night of the Mannequins. I’ve since heard that this novella isn’t necessarily in the same style as his longer works, so I suppose I’m going to end up reading one of his novels anyway pretty soon.

Night of the Mannequins was sort of billed as a humorous slasher-type story; when I read the synopsis, I was expecting something like the 1979 film Tourist Trap. But this novella is really nothing much like that. It does have elements of humor and elements of a slasher tale, but it’s really more of a psychological, unreliable narrator type story.

We’re following our main character, a teenage boy named Sawyer. The entire story is told in the first person, and one thing I will say is that the style is very much as if this was written by a teenage boy; it’s very casual and off the cuff, like a kid just talking extemporaneously on YouTube or something. If that sounds like it’s going to drive you up the wall, then maybe this isn’t the book for you. I admit it took me a few pages to get used to the narrative voice, but after a while I settled into the groove and it wasn’t annoying at all.

Sawyer is one of a group of friends who are spending their last summer together in the small town where they all grew up. It’s just after high school graduation, and they’re all going to be off to college or jobs in different cities or whatever, so it’s sort of like their last hurrah.

Now, one summer long before the events of the book, the friends all found this abandoned department store mannequin in the woods, and as kids do, they began to carry this mannequin around with them everywhere, naming it Manny and kinda making it their unofficial mascot. They would dress it up in different outfits, pull pranks with it, that kind of thing.

But as the kids got older, poor old Manny sort of got forgotten, and for the past couple years has been languishing in Sawyer’s dad’s garage. So, because this is the final summer, Sawyer gets the idea to bring Manny out of retirement for one last prank.

Said prank is sort of targeted toward their friend Shanna, who works at the local movie theater, but also at that theater’s manager, who kicked one of the friends out recently for sneaking in without paying. Sawyer and his friends cook up this elaborate scheme to sneak the mannequin into the theater fully dressed and place it in a seat near the front like a real person. Meanwhile the friends are going to sit in the back and watch hilarity ensue when Shanna or the manager comes around the theater looking for tickets.

The plan goes swimmingly at first; the friends are able to successfully bring Manny into the theater in pieces stowed in their backpacks, and are able to reassemble and dress him and place him in a seat without getting caught. They retreat to the back row to watch the fun.

Weirdly, though, when the manager comes by to check tickets, he doesn’t seem to notice anything strange about the mannequin, basically just treating it as though it was a normal human patron. The boys are unsettled by this and unsure how to react. And even more alarming, after the movie ends, Manny the Mannequin gets up and walks out of the theater, just like a regular person.

From this point forward, Sawyer becomes more and more convinced that Manny has come to life and is aiming to punish every single one of the friends for forgetting about him and leaving him to rot in the garage. This belief is seemingly reinforced when Shanna and her entire family are killed in a freak accident, and odd robberies start taking place around town, in which only people’s sheds are broken into an only fertilizer is stolen. Sawyer formulates a theory that Manny feeds on fertilizer and is steadily growing to kaiju size in order to pay back all the friends who abandoned him, as well as their families.

This was definitely an odd little book, and not at all what I was expecting; that said, I did end up enjoying it quite a bit. It’s darkly funny and strange, and although the first-person tone of the main character took me a few pages to get into, once I did, I got invested pretty quickly. The other characters are sketchily drawn, but this made sense, as we’re only seeing them through Sawyer’s possibly warped perception. The story leaves things ambiguous about what exactly is going on with the mannequin, but it’s fairly easy to figure out when read through an unreliable narrator lens. In that sense, it is something like a slasher, but don’t expect it to be structured like a traditional example of that genre, because it’s much more of a psychological journey through a fractured psyche.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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