While earning a degree in elementary education, I worked days as a substitute teacher at a school near my university. I found one of the pre-k teachers quite attractive. Sometimes we would flirt. It was exciting, but it never went anywhere. One day in the hallway, however, as she was walking her class to library and I was walking my class to art, she whispered in passing that she was sorry again that she couldn’t make dinner.
“Dinner?” I said.
“Maybe another time,” she said.
I had no idea what she was talking about. I told her this at lunch. She gave me a funny look and said we had spoken last night.
“You called me,” she said. “You said, ‘This is Nick.’ You invited me to dinner. Are you messing with me?”
I wasn’t messing with her. I hadn’t called her. Yet she was adamant that I had. We had talked for a while, she said. It was definitely me. It was my voice. She was sure—so sure that I started second-guessing myself. Had I called her? Was sleep-calling a thing? I asked her for the number that had called her. Back home that night, I sat on my bed and punched the digits into my phone. Was another phone I had never seen about to ring in my sock drawer? Was I losing my mind? I dialed the number. I placed the call.
This kind of liminal space between fear and self-doubt is the sweet spot in some of the spookiest psychological-suspense literature, from The Turn of the Screw and the novels of Jeff VanderMeer to films like The Sixth Sense and The Shining. As the narrators in these stories begin to notice cracks in their realities, we start to question the narrators, and—when things get really interesting—tiny cracks begin to appear in our own versions of what is real and what is not. It’s a dueling ride for reader and narrator alike, leaving us pleasantly unsettled if not outright spooked. Joanna Pearson announced herself as a new voice in this form in 2019 with Every Human Love, her delightfully eerie debut story collection. This fall she is out with her second collection, Now You Know It All, which has won the 2021 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and placed her as a master of uncanny literary fiction.
Now You Know It All can be read as a sequel in style and structure, building on the strengths of Pearson’s debut collection. As with her first book, Now You Know It All features stories that follow a similar arc: a seemingly “upstanding” member of society (a college student, a social worker, a journalist, a suburban mom) finds herself in a setting of rural squalor where she has a run-in with the “grotesque”—a deformed man, perhaps, or a young child with a leering, ancient face. The narrator then returns to normal life, only to discover that life may never be normal again.
Readers familiar with gothic literature will recognize many of the classic ingredients in Pearson’s work: the rural, dilapidated settings, the appearance of the grotesque, the air of mystery, a seasoning of what could be mental instability or possibly the supernatural. The collection’s first story, “Rome,” is a natural opening that puts these elements into play with a well-executed plot twist.
“Rome” follows Lindsay, an American college student on a summer research fellowship with a male friend. After weeks of travel they land in Rome, utterly sick of one another. One morning Lindsay sneaks out early for a day alone. She signs up for a tour of the Tivoli ruins outside the city, only to find that every other member of the tour belongs to the same religious family, the Gooleys: five daughters, their Pentecostal father, and their ill mother whom Lindsay understands to be both “Biblically old” and yet pregnant. As Lindsay walks the ruins with the eldest Gooley daughter, however, she learns with a dawning horror that she has made some big assumptions about this “seemingly wholesome” family; these strangers somehow know more about Lindsay’s deepest inner workings than she knows about herself. Like all of Pearson’s stories, this surface plot is braided tightly with the narrator’s backstory and mental health, leading us, finally, to a climax in which we join Lindsay in questioning what exactly is real.
Many of Pearson’s stories follow a similar arc and use like elements, so at times her work can run the risk of becoming formulaic. Turning the page from one story to the next can feel a little like sitting down for a new M. Night Shyamalan film: you may find yourself hunting for the “twist” as much as you are enjoying the story itself. Pearson, however, largely manages to avoid this trap through a tight voice that brings us extremely close to her narrators’ unravelling grasps on reality: in story after story we encounter people who are far younger than they first appeared or, conversely, grotesquely older. Household items mysteriously rearrange themselves. Dark coincidences occur with unsettling frequency. Strangers keep sending us telling looks from street corners or winks from across the bar, as though everyone is in on a big secret but us. “There was the faint imprint of lipstick on my water cup from the night before—a mark that I knew had not previously been there,” one narrator tells us. In another story, the narrator explains that, “I began to notice things missing from my drawers, items of jewelry replaced with others that were similar yet not the same, photos moved from one spot on the wall to another.” Pearson maintains this voice throughout her collection, building a sort of low-level paranoid schizophrenic buzz where even the most trivial details seem to hold great importance.
In the first pages of “The Whaler’s Wife,” for example, the narrator Gracie travels to Massachusetts on an academic summer scholarship, arriving at the old New England home of the family that will be hosting her. When Gracie makes note that “a child’s bicycle lay on its side in the yard, and there were a small pair of yellow rain boots on the front porch,” I immediately found myself wondering if the boots and bicycle were clues or omens. Did children really live here? Maybe the children had died long ago but the parents are crazy with grief? Could we be dealing with ghost children?
The rain boots, it turns out, mean nothing. The bicycle is a bicycle. The kids are ordinary kids. But something in this home is still very off. Pearson works in such details in a casually expert fashion, leaving us in a state of mild paranoia—the same paranoia her characters feel. Meanwhile the true darkness lurks around another corner or, more likely, within the characters themselves. Pearson’s writing is not only tightly plotted but often gorgeous in the most wonderfully ominous way, often combining the literary and the eerie within a single well-crafted sentence:
“His face was haggard but soft, like melting vanilla ice cream.”
“Old men in storefronts arranged cheeses and sausages tenderly, as if tucking in sleeping infants…”
“I could see a faint smear of raspberry jam on her cheek, giving her a carnivorous look.”
“When he heard us, he looked up, and I saw that his face was smeared dark, like that of a predator feasting after a kill. He clutched a partially gnawed chocolate bar, big as a cutting board, the kind you might give as a novelty gift.”
Now You Know It All knits together a dreamlike world in which the settings and characters are crafted in laser-cut realism, while the dark coincidences and subplots hint at the supernatural, the spooky, the rupturing of reality. Lines of beauty delight while simultaneously announcing something more sinister. This is true from the first page of each story to the last; Pearson has a talent for ending on the perfect minor-key note. She rarely provides her readers with a sense of closure, instead leaving us so intertwined with the minds of her narrators that we are still questioning what is real and what isn’t. Rather than opening a door to see who is knocking, we are left with the ominous bang, bang, bang. Hearing a hungry animal cry in the woods behind the house, we are left with the crack of branches as something approaches. Or take my situation with the pre-k teacher and the mysterious call I couldn’t remember making. What really happened was this:
I called the number. A man answered. He sounded exactly like me. Yes, he said, this is Nick. Yes, he knew the pre-k teacher. Yes, he had called her last night. He knew her from high school, years ago. He had called her out of the blue. They had an entire conversation with her believing it was me. A strange confluence of misunderstanding, coincidence, and timing. I wasn’t crazy. Case closed. Had this been a Joanna Pearson story, however, it would have ended a beat earlier to maintain that wobbly sense of uncertainty. She may have ended the story as I placed the call: the phone ringing and ringing and ringing. Or it would have ended with a voice. My voice.
“Yeah, this is Nick, who’s this?”
“This is also Nick.”