[The following contains mild plot spoilers.]
Tychy never goes on holiday – being far too delicate to endure the vulgarity of such things – but every other lover of horrors will surely be reading Dark Places on the beach this summer. Gillian Flynn’s second novel offers narrative formulas and formulaic characters from any primetime television schedule: a struggling single mom, loser teenagers dabbling in devil-worship, the massacre of a family in their own home, a miscarriage of justice awaiting correction, and all within the eternal setting of the eternally-unremarkable small American town. Yet Flynn’s whodunit juggles these formulas with such speed, skill, and dexterity, that one is left with no sense of their weight. At times Dark Places sloshes up some more original murk, with searching looks at teenaged paedophilia, the “Satanic Panic” amongst social workers in the 1980s, and the lo-fi entertainment industry which has constructed itself around crime.
Although the best novels are often the quickest read, one is constantly afraid of rattling through Dark Places too quickly and missing the riches of its observational writing. Dark Places is pitched low – as if underarm – to the readers of Steven King’s novels. On the book’s cover, King’s own tribute to Flynn’s powers (“A sharp, acerbic, and compelling storyteller with a knack for the macabre”) soars over the Days’ farm like a verdict of God. In truth, Flynn is a better writer than Steven King. Dark Places bears a passing resemblance to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – both feature Kansas farmers who are murdered in their own homes in the dead of night – but Flynn’s fiction is a merrier affair than Capote’s solemn investigative journalism. King hits the kitten squarely on the head when citing Flynn’s “knack for the macabre,” and little sparkles of awfulness are festooned around Dark Places like fairy lights: the baby girl running from her big brother’s voice because she thinks he will kill her; the nightmare of a horse with the body of a shopping trolley; the dreamy kid who inadvertently starts a forest fire, the long walk through a wasteland hangout of tramps, the head half shot off, the cow’s parts left in a school locker.
Dark Places tells the story of Libby Day, the thirty-one year old survivor of the “massacre” of her family, which was apparently the handiwork of her elder brother Ben. Libby is a professional victim, who cultivates and harvests her tragedy with a much greater success than her mother, Patty, ever achieved with the Day farm. Yet just as the Days wrongly assumed that the “value of land would keep skyrocketing,” Libby finds that her tragedy is yielding less and less; and just as the creditors who financed the Day farm eventually wanted to settle the bills, so the patient figure of Ben Day will have to be paid back. Dark Places earns a mild Gothicism from the setting and imagery of depleted farmlands, and the post-farming dystopia of the Days’ Kansas seems as fertile and productive as famine-stricken Ethiopia. Whilst the real farmers Patty and Ben Day will struggle ineffectively to castrate a bullock, the bored Kansas teenagers of the story will butcher a cow for kicks, and to their suburban minds this act seems as alien and as exotic as devil worship.
Libby will assume the role of detective, investigating the crime of which she was the solitary witness and survivor (or so she thinks). It is as if she has suddenly woken up in the middle of her own life, to find that her memories have to be salvaged from a rubbishy heap of mythology. The narrative flits airily between past and present, yet the pack is riddled with jokers and, as the book progresses, all the possible killers are jostling together, standing on each others’ toes, and Libby will only correctly remember what she experienced when past and present align and she gets another shot at surviving the massacre. History is the eternal ironist.
Flynn’s speciality is beastly little girls and in Dark Places she stokes up a nest of vicious serpents. Michelle Day is a particularly nasty creation, whose death is as neatly just as that of a villain in a James Bond film. Krissi Cates is a diabolical spoiled brat, whose dark secrets make the “devil worship” of the town’s teenagers look almost wholesome. Adulthood sloshes water into the whisky, however, and the adult women of the story are sad and defeated, the fires of their devilry are now damp embers. Only Ben’s girlfriend Diondra remains intact, perhaps because she is protected from growing up by her family’s money. She is thoroughly awful, but as stark and as handsome as an antichrist.
The wayward men of the story are, by contrast, good ole boys. Runner Day and Trey Teepano are merely careless, and forgivably so – the world is a bit too square and unadventurous for these characters. Runner’s family cannot keep up with him. The wimpy Ben Day is surrounded by whining females who have totally demoralised him, sucking up his blood and soul.
Flynn has the nerve to justify her dreadful female creations with a moral rationale. In the confessional essay “I was not a nice little girl…,” she reasons that:
Men speak fondly of those strange bursts of childhood aggression, their disastrous immature sexuality. They have a vocabulary for sex and violence that women just don’t. Even as adults. I don’t recall any women talking with real pleasure about masturbating or orgasms until Sex and the City offered its clever, cutie-pie spin, presenting the phrases to us in a pre-approved package with a polka-dot bow. And we still don’t discuss our own violence…
With orc-like armies of horrid little girls cheering and waving their swords, Flynn continues:
Female violence is a specific brand of ferocity. It’s invasive. A girlfight is all teeth and hair, spit and nails — a much more fearsome thing to watch than two dudes clobbering each other. And the mental violence is positively gory. Women entwine. Some of the most disturbing, sick relationships I’ve witnessed are between long-time friends, and especially mothers and daughters…
Libraries are filled with stories on generations of brutal men, trapped in a cycle of aggression. I wanted to write about the violence of women.
In complaining that girls are always served too sweet, Flynn pushes feminism that little bit further and ends up championing the viciousness and poison of women. Yet the conclusion of Dark Places may leave a different sort of unpleasant taste in the mouth. One may feel like the kid who gets the wrong bedroom and when the lights are turned on it is not the bewitching niece who he is illicitly kissing but the cheerful old aunt. A happy ending!? It transpires that Flynn’s heart is not quite in all the violence and despair, and perhaps it was so from the beginning. Although Libby drones on and on about her despondency, her narrative is perky, bright, and full of oomph and witticisms. Hers is not the voice of somebody who lies in bed all day. With happy endings all round, Dark Places is in the final analysis indifferent to horrific realities. The book’s “darkness” is largely scenic – more that of The Wizard of Oz than In Cold Blood.