Malcolm Mays has been running from a tragic event in his past. His flight has taken him to the tiny community of Ione, Oregon. There, he has bought an old, abandoned house to make his own, sight unseen. Much to his surprise, the town knows all about the House, and its reputation casts a long shadow indeed. Worse, Malcolm is getting impossible letters from a prisoner, Dusha, in the Oregon state prison who should be long dead. A prisoner that tells Malcolm that the house will “welcome him” but that Malcolm must prepare for Dusha’s release from the prison at the end of the sentence.
Impossible letters, a haunted house, dark secrets, the dread coming of Dusha, and Malcolm’s own tragic past come together in The End of the Sentence, a Subterranean Press novella, a collaboration between Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard.
The authors go deeply into myth and fairy tale to tell their story. There is more than a bit of Beauty and the Beast here, with a house which works to the benefit of the owner, although far more subtly than in the Disney film, by unseen ghosts rather than animated objects. Too, the as the story unfolds, the bargains made within the House by, for and with Dusha are reminiscent of the bargain Beast makes. Dusha also takes from the tradition of goblins and iron shoes, deals and long-standing bargains with the faerie, bargains and oaths that run both ways. There is even more than a bit of the folklore of smithcraft and metalworking, the creators and writers of this story accessing the taproot of stories about makers and forgers. And there are definite notes of horror and dark pasts shot through the work as well.
Malcolm himself came off indifferently to me as a character. There is the central question of the how and why of the Southern Gothic tragedy of his background that drove him to Ione. There is his slowly budding relationship with the town and its folk, and the slow descent into the myth and story of the town and of his house, in a way that reminds me of John Crowley’s Little, Big. The inner dialogue we get with Malcolm does help to flesh him out. However, there is more than a bit of a note of a Thomas Covenant denial of that myth, story and events in his character that turned me off a bit. It seemed to do little more than to extend the story and the tension, rather than being a truly organic character arc.
Textually, however, the novella is top notch. The use of letters from and to Dusha is a welcome touch, giving some of the novella a very epistolary air. That sense of texture to the story also goes down to sentences, scenes and word choice. The novella reminds me very much of Flaubert in some ways, a strong crafting of words, with beautiful rhythms and harmony. The descriptors are lush and vivid. Malcolm’s driving trip west, to the prison, for instance, is evocative and captures the Oregon landscapes perfectly. Both writers are known for their beautiful, strong writing, and together, their collaboration does not introduce hitherto unseen weaknesses in their work. I could not really tell where Howard’s work ended and Headley’s began, an excellent mark for a collaboration in my eyes.
Ghost story, Faerie story, recapitulation of Beauty and the Beast, epistolary tale, and much more. The End of the Sentence is all of these, and none of these, and more. The writers’ love and use of myth and story meld together into a novella that lingers in the mind and heart for long after you’ve finished the tale and closed the cover.