Follow Me Into the Dark opens with thirty-something Kate setting aflame the hair of her step-father’s mistress Gillian. It’s possibly the least fucked-up thing to happen in the novel.
In 2013 Felicia C. Sullivan wrote a memoir about her childhood. I’ve not read the book but if the back cover copy is anything to go by Sullivan’s upbringing involved living among drug dealers, “substitute fathers” and a mother who was prone to overdosing. This less than ideal childhood led her toward a life of drug and alcohol abuse. It was also a clear inspiration for Follow Me Into the Dark, a “literary”* horror novel that, at its core, supports the argument that abuse is cyclical. In this case it’s abuse inflicted and suffered by three generations of mothers and daughters.
Novels about abuse, especially when it covers the gamut, physical, sexual, verbal and involves children, are not my first choice of pleasure reading. But when they’re written this well, with a plot that takes surprising turns that, on reflection, have been carefully seeded and foreshadowed, it’s hard to look away. Sullivan’s argument that the abused often becomes the abuser isn’t a new insight – social theorists and psychologists have pointed this out for nearly fourty years – what’s disturbing in Sullivan’s depiction is how this abuse stems from a twisted and perverse form of love that works both ways. A mother’s desire to protect her daughter (even though that might include locking her in the basement or having her pretend to be someone else) and a daughter’s desire to be loved (trying to find sense in the abuse, adapting and rationalising the pain). It’s powerful and raw and told with a great deal of insight and pain. The following excerpt is from Ellie – daughter of Norah, mother of Kate – which captures a horrible self-awareness, a fatalism, an inability to escape the abuse she has suffered and the abuse she will, inevitably, doll out on her daughter.
I’ve outlived my best-by date. I accept that I will never scramble eggs. I will always burn or break toast. My skin will itch and blister after a man touches it. There will always be marks and stained sheets. I will never understand the nuances of dinner parties, where conversations require constant costume changes. I will never gnaw down to the bone. I will be cautious of birds. I will live in a series of homes and never see the deed. I will pin butterflies to the walls of my room to replace the mirrors that have been removed. The days will continue to leave their scars. I will never take my own life because I can’t bear the thought of writing the note. Instead, I’ll let others leave their marks. I’ll open the Bible and read the book without understanding the story. It doesn’t matter. In the end, the men will save. This is what I was told. What I needed to know was this: my role was to own the books and believe. Men would do the work.
I think of my house and I see my daughter reaching for me as I fade and fall out of the frame. All I’ve got is a mouth that has a taste for metal and a desire to leave my three-year-old daughter and go.
There is quite a bit of violence toward women throughout the course of the novel. Gillian’s brother – the mistress of Kate’s stepfather – is a serial killer who turns the remains of his female victims into dolls. At first the whole serial killer subplot seems like Sullivan is over-egging an already rancid pudding. But, no, there’s a reason for this that links back to the themes of the novel. A reason that is revealed, like most of the truths in this book, in a genuinely surprising manner. Whether it’s Kate, Gillian, Norah or Ellie, Sullivan provides the reader with a sympathetic portrayal of these women, even when they do the most awful acts. She doesn’t demonize them, she doesn’t resort to straw-woman. And yet, as the title suggests, this is a dark novel. The only ray of hope, and it is slender, is that the cycle has been broken, that a daughter to be born may escape what her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother experienced.
I don’t want to end this review by saying that this won’t be a novel for everyone. First off, it’s a stupid statement – I mean what book is for everyone – and second off I don’t support dissuading people from reading terrific writing even if the subject matter is difficult. Literary or otherwise, this is a fantastic horror novel. When the writing and story-telling is this good it’s worth peering into the darkness.
* On Twitter the critic Ron Charles recently defined literary thriller as “a technical term that we critics use to describe a thriller that we’ve read.” How true.