This New Dark: A Novel

  • By Chase Dearinger
  • Belle Point Press
  • 286 pp.

Literal and metaphorical storm clouds pervade this scary, hopeful tale.

This New Dark: A Novel

Given all the action packed into Chase Dearinger’s debut novel, This New Dark, it’s hard to believe the story takes place largely over a single weekend. The fast pace lends itself to the narrative’s feeling of briskly approaching dread, creating a sense of urgency that propels the characters (as well as readers) toward some unseen ending. The question is, will it be a happy one?

The novel’s events take place in and around Seven Suns, Oklahoma, where desperate characters are trying to scrape by each in their own way. Wyatt Whitecloud is hoping to take his marijuana operation legitimate while attempting to care for his missing girlfriend’s teenage son, Randy Strange. Randy, resentful and hurting, teeters constantly on the edge of making bad decisions while struggling with his sexuality.

Esther Grundel, who cares for her aging mother and crafts sentences out of magnetic word tiles on her fridge every morning — “A Bird Is A Fish In The Sky” — is a bailiff who’s unexpectedly promoted to sheriff for the weekend because, as she notes, she’s “the only one they got left.”

Kitty Kershaw, crushing hard on Randy (“Something like a sparkler traced his name inside her ribcage”), wanders around daydreaming. And a mysterious, malign presence (“I’m a white-hot fever. A prophet. The open nerve at the center of the earth”) floats, miasmic, through and over the proceedings, spreading its noxious energy everywhere.

It’s the disappearance of Kitty that sets events in motion, though a sense of wrongness seems to have pervaded the characters’ worlds long ago; perhaps the vanishing is merely the culmination of lives lived in disappointment and despair. Esther grapples with looking for the girl while dealing with bar fights and other domestic disturbances, while Wyatt searches for an elusive black cougar he believes to be stalking the hills around town.

Randy, in the meantime, experiments with homemade tattoos and explores his feelings for his best friend, Squints, both with disastrous results. And all the while, a nameless preacher meanders about, eventually becoming embroiled in yet another fight that Esther is called in to break up.

Esther is unaware of what manner of creature she’s dealing with when she goes to meet the preacher but learns fast: “Cuff him, quick. The more he bleeds, the stronger he seems to get,” she instructs her deputy. It’s only when the semiconscious clergyman is locked in the patrol car with them and Randy (wanted for questioning about Kitty) that they understand what a colossal mistake they’ve made; the man begins to transform into something else entirely:

“A flicker. Something black and spiny, and then there were two, no longer than a fingernail, feeling their way out. And then two flat black eyes on each side of a narrow head, and a burst of yellow between them. Yellow, translucent wings, wet with blood, wide and sharp. And then it was out all the way, balanced at the end of the self-severed arm, and when the skin began to slide down it took flight, came toward her, slowly as if drifting and then landed on the glass before her face: A mud dauber.”

Dearinger’s strength is in these viscerally horrifying descriptions, which he peppers throughout the book without oversaturating it. You can almost feel the terror leaching out of the story and into reality, even as you know it’s safely contained in the pages. A later confrontation between Wyatt, Esther, Randy, and whatever it is up in the hills that’s taken the form of a cougar adds another jolt to the nightmare.

Much of This New Dark is so, well, dark that I wondered whether it could deliver anything approaching a happy ending. Here, again, the author excels, mingling realistic outcomes with a dose of optimism, leaving the reader eminently satisfied.

Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.

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