T.E. Grau has already carved himself a dark little niche in the busy hive of contemporary horror and weird fiction with only a debut collection to his name. I reviewed that collection about a month ago (you can read it here), and it’s a knockout, with a wonderful blend of Lovecraftian homage, as well some really original and harrowing tales.
So it’s cause for much excited wailing and gnashing of teeth when a new piece of Grau-crafted fiction is headed our way. This is Horror, an excellent publisher of short works in the genre – as well as being home to an awesome podcast, interviews and reviews – has produced Grau’s latest novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore. The quality on show here is apparent from that eye-catching cover, designed by the author’s wife, Ives Hovanessian, and with artwork by the ridiculously talented Candice Tripp.
The story itself focuses on Hettie, a quiet, odd adolescent girl stranded on the social outskirts, and the ramifications of her friendship with the most popular girl at school, Avery Valancourt.
Other than that, I won’t get too much into plot details because I think it’s best to experience the story without much of an idea of where it’s headed, but this is a wonderful novella about death and obsession and the more frightening and fallible crannies of the human condition. It delves into some really interesting psychological areas, but the story also feels like a study in the decay of the flesh, of all things material, all things human. Grau states at one point that “Death always makes the best stories”, and it’s certainly true in this case.
Grau holds back on key details, teasing out the mystery like the deftest of storytellers. This really feels like a story, too. A story being told, that is, like you’re in the room with the teller even as you lean forward into their tale and forget the real world for a moment. It’s the ease of Grau’s prose that largely accounts for this, making you look past, as the best stories do, its construction. Although there is a moment about halfway through when an apparent coincidence seems like a bit of a leap, it’s soon corralled into a more logical narrative device that re-submerges itself into the story’s flow.
Grau’s story-by-the-fire tone seems to give the novella the texture of a Stephen King, as well as an almost Gaiman-esque charm and whimsy underscored with darkness; a darkness that spreads as the narrative progresses, shedding the dreamlike tone for something more immediate and raw, but no less surreal. Ultimately though, these are just small nods in what is largely Grau’s creature; since his debut collection he has established a voice distinctly his own.
Part of this voice involves a strength for complex, original characters as well as the carefully crafted interplay between them. Grau highlights the little tragedies of human existence, the rough bits and the imperfections. He brings to light the idea that what we want is often what we never get, and everything else that happens falls somewhere on the spectrum between indifference and mortal danger. The character interactions also consistently engage the reader. Sometimes such scenes are silent and one-sided, heavy with unfulfilled expectation and the subsequent emotional blowback, as with Hettie and her “progressive” parents. Sometimes it’s more of a two-way street, the dialogue loaded with confession and braided together with sharp moments of body language.
In Hettie we have a protagonist full of doubts and quirks but also a ferocity, a drive that the author depicts without drama or preamble. It’s just another part of her, and she just… is. She’s very likable, but there’s also that understated darkness to her – which is maybe why we like her so much.
The young loner is a well-worn trope, and in lesser hands would have become an unwelcome one, but Grau brings Hettie to vibrant, fallible life. There’s a lot in this story, in fact, that could have turned out poorly if it had relied more on the traditional foundations of its characters and supernatural elements, but Grau takes every trope and twists it from tired cliché into something magical and new. Or not new, necessarily, but recalibrated. Honest and without frills. He strips everything down to the basics, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness as the words unfold on the page.
And what delightful words they are. His prose is, in a technical sense, as un-accessorised as his narrative, but he manages to give his writing an icebergian sense of depth. Grau peppers his scenes with bright little observations, teasing out the most interesting details of the mundane. Like so many lines in They Don’t Come Home Anymore, this description of a large, manicured lawn evokes both some excellent imagery, and pulls everything back to the often unpleasant intent of human beings: “A green so vibrant it hurt the eyes. No trees to dampen the sun or cast shadows. No flowers. This was a statement to space, and the ownership of it.”
I’m always fascinated with the way people speak in fiction, or more precisely the way writers construct dialogue, and I’m especially a stickler for contractions. Grau explores this in a nice little self-aware way, with characters occasionally commenting on it throughout the story. It’s just one more delightful detail, but also adds to the thread of gleeful, dark humour that runs through some scenes.
Teased with the kind of agonising restraint Grau exhibits in most of his work, the supernatural element, when it finally reveals itself, is a refreshing play on – again – a familiar trope. Grau embeds in it a sense of the cosmic that seems to situate the story within the larger thematic arc of his writing.
At its core, They Don’t Come Home Anymore comes across as the most twisted and startling and tender of love stories. It portrays the loneliness, the bitchiness and the tenderness of high school, and the more general complacency or malignance of human beings. It’s other-than-human elements, reimagined from familiar monsters you wouldn’t think had any blood left in them, are fleeting and sharply drawn. There are so many layers to Grau’s excellent novella, but even on a surface level it’s brilliant and, perhaps most importantly, immense fun.