Books: Do I Bother You at Night? by Troy Aaron Ratliff

I have to admit it was the title of this one that caught my attention; there was something vaguely ominous and mysterious about it. I will also admit that it took me a while to get through (not entirely because of the way it was written, as I did have the holidays and other work responsibilities going on that prevented me from giving much time to it, but that was partially the reason), and I’m going to make a statement right up front that if you’re not into “slow burn” horror, then this is probably not the book for you. It is one of the slowest slow burns I’ve ever read (and that’s not necessarily a criticism, but I’ll elaborate on that thought in a bit), and in fact reads more like a somber piece of literary fiction for almost the entire 460 pages until it goes full-on cosmic horror/sci-fi toward the end. Prior to that, it’s all buildup with a very limited set of characters that is eventually whittled down to our main protagonist. How you feel about that is up to you; I was actually intrigued enough by the languidly unfolding mystery and sympathetic enough with the main character that I stuck with it until the end, but other readers’ mileage may vary.

Author Troy Aaron Ratliff is an Ohio native who was evidently best known for his short stories prior to the release of Do I Bother You at Night? in 2013, which was his first full-length novel. In the notes at the end, the author states that he got the idea for the story when he was seventeen, growing up on his parents’ farm and seeing the eerie blue arc light from his neighbors’ barn as the teenagers across the way worked on their motorbikes. Ratliff’s prose is wordy, but quite evocative, and his descriptions of the settings and the characters really immersed me in the world of the book. Because of its rural, small-town vibe, it gave me more than a whiff of maybe Thomas Tryon, or a Midwestern version of Stephen King.

At the beginning of the story, there’s a brief prologue which seems to be the transcript of an interview between two military men discussing the absconding of a third person and a dangerous device that he may have in his possession. We then jump into the main narrative, which is set in 1986, but occasionally jumps back in time to the 1970s.

The story focuses on a farmer named Sylvester Petersen, who lives alone on acres of cornfields in a very rural part of Kansas. He’s in his late thirties and is something of a loner, especially since the horrific suicide of his beloved wife some time before. He gets up and does his routine every day, working on his farm, living very quietly, stoically grieving. He seems something of an introvert and a creature of habit, and this is established very thoroughly throughout the first segments of the book, which basically follows him throughout his days, delving into his thoughts and memories.

Pretty much the only social routine Sylvester enjoys is occasionally hosting his best friend Dustin, who comes over to drink beers and watch the Kansas City Royals on TV whenever they’re playing. Dustin is a bit older than Sylvester, and is really into horror movies and weird X-Files shit, but Sylvester is a pragmatic, no-nonsense dude right down to his toes. Despite their differences, though, the two men have a solid, if not all that deep, friendship.

The only other people Sylvester sees with any frequency are Willy, the kindly old man who owns the general store in town, and Ethan, who seems mostly okay until he does something really shitty that causes Sylvester to mostly cut ties with him. There’s also Reggie, a nice high school kid who helps out on the farm in the summers. All his friends are a little bit worried about Sylvester, as they believe he’s become a little reclusive since his wife died, and as the story goes on, they start to suspect that he might be slowly losing his marbles. But I’m getting ahead of myself a tad.

See, Sylvester lives pretty far out on the edge of a tiny-ass town, and his nearest neighbor is way across the cornfields. The guy who used to live “next door” was friends with Sylvester at one point, but the two men had a falling out over property lines and Sylvester just wrote him off, not even realizing that the guy moved away at some point.

Very gradually, though, it starts to become clear that someone else has moved into the farmhouse across the way from Sylvester’s. First he hears and sees a sleek, newer Cadillac periodically roaring down the rural road; he knows all the cars out in this neck of the woods, and this ain’t one of them.

Then, on the rare occasions that he ventures into town for supplies, the other residents are asking about the new, mysterious neighbor he has. Sylvester hasn’t seen him, but apparently a lot of other folks have, although all they can really tell him is that the man looks like he’s “from the city,” smells like sulfur, and sometimes buys strange electronic gadgets from Willy’s store. At some stage, the townsfolk learn that the guy’s name is Calvin, but so far, Sylvester has yet to see him, even though he’s the one who lives closest to the guy. Eventually Sylvester starts getting a little bit irritated that all the residents seem to ask him about Calvin every time he comes into town, and they’re all incredulous that he still hasn’t seen the man.

Sylvester doesn’t have time for all of this gossipy bullshit, wanting to just keep his head down and get on with his simple, if somewhat empty, life. but then even he has to admit that he’s starting to get curious as to what Calvin might be up to over there. Sylvester notices a blue glow emanating from the guy’s barn from time to time, and even more alarmingly, he sometimes sees…something…moving around in his cornfield. There are also the strange, perfectly round depressions in the earth that sometimes manifest at random spots among the rows, the infrequent but bone-chilling screeches that blare out of the corn every so often, and the thin, raggedy-looking golden retriever who wanders into the rows from time to time and seems to be getting fatter and fatter every time Sylvester sees him.

At one stage, Sylvester actually meets Calvin at Willy’s store in town, and while the man isn’t overtly bizarre or anything, he is a mite odd, and is definitely not from around there. After this encounter, Sylvester grows more and more preoccupied with the man, and vows to find out what exactly the dude is doing at that remote farmhouse over there. But is the guy really up to some nefarious shit, or is Sylvester just succumbing to paranoia and having a mental breakdown?

As I mentioned, Do I Bother You At Night? is an exceptionally leisurely-paced story, very much mirroring the laconic, unhurried existence of its protagonist. For the bulk of the novel, we’re simply going along with Sylvester as he putters around his house, works around his farm, hangs out with Dustin, or makes grudging journeys into town to stock up. As the intrigue surrounding Calvin deepens little by little, we’re immersed even more into Sylvester’s head, as his life grows increasingly isolated and obsessive, and all of his former contacts fall by the wayside. In many ways, it’s a very intimate, inner-directed tale, and it’s actually a good thing that Sylvester is such a likeable, sympathetic character, because I don’t think the structure of this novel would have worked otherwise.

Though there are occasional flashbacks to Sylvester’s happy former life with his now-deceased wife, most of the present-day narrative is seen through Sylvester’s limited point of view, watching the sequence of events unspool, mostly from afar until the very end. I was actually quite enchanted with Sylvester’s character and the enigma that was developing across the way, but I can also see how some readers might just find the whole thing really boring, because it does actually take quite a long time for anything big to happen. The buildup is very, very subtle, starting out with seemingly insignificant though odd little details, and then those details are very, very slowly repeated and/or expanded upon, and then the story just goes balls to the wall in the last fifty pages or so. I didn’t mind this too much, although I would have liked for the handful of other characters—particularly Dustin and Willy, both of whom I also really liked—to have factored more into the final act. As it was, all the other characters simply dissolved from the story as Sylvester closed himself away in his own house, watching his neighbor night and day. Although this framework did match the mental state of the protagonist, I think I would have liked maybe a short epilogue detailing the aftermath of the monumental incident at the end; in other words, I would have liked to see how the rest of the characters were affected by what happened at Calvin’s remote farmhouse.

Ratliff’s writing really does paint a picture in your mind; I could actually see those waving, lonely rows of corn under that big dome of star-studded sky, and could totally understand the creepiness of that placidity being disrupted by inexplicable doings just across the field. In that sense, the story really drew me in, in spite of its languorous pace. There were a smattering of grammatical errors, but barely enough to mention; on the whole, this was very well-written, although as I said, it reads more like very descriptive literary fiction, internal but still fairly straightforward and not obtuse. If literary fiction isn’t your bag and you just want something fast-paced and exciting, then this book isn’t it. On the other hand, if you like a more understated, insidious horror that lures you in with an appealing character and then slowly amps up the weirdness over the course of a few hundred pages until an explosion of what-the-fuckery at the end, then you might just dig this. It did take me a while to get through, but I’m actually glad I stuck it out, because I ended up really enjoying it.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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