In recent years, David Searcy has become known for his essays, with excerpts from his nonfiction book Shame and Wonder being included in The Paris Review and Best American Essays. But he got his start as a novelist, and his debut, Ordinary Horror, was described by Publishers Weekly as “audaciously original.” Variously described as “quiet horror,” “literary horror,” and “psychological horror,” the book follows retired teacher and widower Frank Delabano. Frank’s pride and joy are his rosebushes, so he’s dismayed when he observes signs of gophers digging around them. He sends away for a plant called gopherbane that should get rid of the critters without harming anything else. Imagine his surprise when the supposedly non-flowering gopherbane plants bloom! But that’s not the strangest thing that happens, although Frank is hard-pressed to explain exactly what is strange.
This book is all about atmosphere. Searcy imbues ordinary objects and actions with sinister meaning. Looking out his window at night, Frank finds that the pool of light under a streetlamp makes him uncomfortable because something hidden by the darkness might step into the light, thereby making itself known. He has no particular reason to think anything is lurking in the dark, but if there is, he’d prefer it to remain unseen. On another occasion, he finds that children at a local playground have made a giant saurian footprint. Normally, this would be cute, but because Frank’s field of vision is limited, he can’t be sure that there really is only one footprint. What if he were to find more of them, proof that this one is part of a full set of tracks and decidedly not made by local kids?
Searcy masterfully creates a sense of dislocation. Part of this is due to the reinterpretation of ordinary situations, but there’s more to it than that. Present-tense narration is often maligned when used in long-form works, but here it makes the reader feel caught up in the mystery alongside Delabano. We’re not afforded the comfort of knowing that the story is safely over. Searcy also employs long, complex sentences and paragraphs, which increase the feeling of being swept up in a current. We’re also presented with a number of ambiguous scenes. Is a neighbor’s behavior ominous or merely eccentric? Is the dark shape that just ran around a corner a stray dog or something weirder? All of this adds up to a persistent feeling that everything is just a little off-kilter.
The ambiguity of the story and the poetic writing style won’t be for everyone. While I typically enjoy quiet horror, I found Ordinary Horror a little too obscure at times. But I did appreciate Searcy’s skill and the unique concept behind the plot (if I’m understanding the climax correctly). I think devoted fans of quiet horror will find this a rewarding read.