In her debut novel, Threats, Amelia Gray is coy about plot in deference to the beauty and urgency of people’s thoughts.
Reading Threats, Amelia Gray’s debut novel, I felt an excitement that didn’t come with her short stories. It’s not that AM/PM and Museum of the Weird weren’t exciting. Gray’s voice is challenging and funny, the sort to make you seek out more from the author after you’re done. One of many examples is her story “Babies,” in which a woman gives birth over and over, one baby per day, and there is no call for alarm beyond the brief hesitation of the girl’s father; in fact, the whole situation is joyful. Gray’s short fiction juxtaposes potential trouble with a wild-eyed delight. “Ask yourself,” entreats the beginning of one of AM/PM’s shorts, “if you were sitting on a girl’s couch, and you realized the couch smelled like urine, would your first impulse be to wonder if you were the one who created the urine?” Expertly, AM/PM and Museum of the Weird keep dread at the same level as romance and humor. But, perhaps out of demand from a longer form, Threats tips the scales. Threats gives you mysteries, potential sleuths, and victims, and it dares you to laugh at joggers holding hands over an icy pathway, a woman washing clothes over and over in a Lynchian loop, and chatty salon workers cutting a grieving man’s neglected hair. It tells the story of a husband (David) whose wife’s (Franny’s) mysterious death (or disappearance—not all is as it seems) causes him to break down completely, leave his house to rot, and cover himself in her coat and ashes.
How did Franny die? Why did she die? Why does David keep finding scraps of paper with threats like these seemingly addressed to him:
CURL UP ON MY LAP. LET ME BRUSH YOUR HAIR WITH MY FINGERS. I AM SINGING YOU A LULLABY. I AM TESTING FOR STRUCTURAL WEAKNESSES IN YOUR SKULL.
Who is sending these? Will it ever stop? Franny’s best friend sees someone on the bus that looks like Franny, and desperately pounds on her windshield to get the apparition’s attention—is it her? Pages earlier, David imagines Franny standing blood-stained, arms lifted, in the Laundromat with him—is it a clue? Answering questions is very much the domain of most mysteries, particularly ones rooted in realism. Literary realism, this is not. The mystery of Franny’s death is the MacGuffin of the book, the tool for examining greater dramas of grief and the uncanny. It’s a bold move to have central plot points—titular plot points, even—go unresolved, and that audacity is thrillingly mixed with moving scenes of grief and horror. Coyness about plot in deference to the beauty and urgency of people’s thoughts is exactly what excites about Amelia Gray’s fiction. With Threats, she’s found a way to use suspense and do what she wants with it.
Of course, shirking relief is a risk. Alfred Hitchcock talked once about a negative reaction he’d received for a scene in The Woman Alone that showed a little boy getting on a bus with a bomb. After great suspense via constant cuts to show the clock ticking, the bomb explodes, killing the boy with it.
At the London press preview, a sophisticated reviewer from The Observer rushed up to me with clenched fists held in the air, and she said, “How dare you do a thing like that? I’ve got a five year old boy at home.” Well, of course, I had committed the cardinal sin, and that was that after putting the audience through the ringer with anxiety, I had not relieved it.
This is one problem with being offbeat: some people just don’t want to be put through the ringer. Can you imagine North by Northwest without Cary Grant coming out okay in the end? How about Psycho without Anthony Perkins in solitary confinement? Perhaps those would be torturous films; perhaps they’re just storyboards for threads in a David Lynch film. Threats wonderfully reveals that literature can break that rule too. There are definitely explosions, but some bombs go off without reasons, and Gray certainly knows how to deploy one.