On William Gay's "Little Sister Death": a Novel That Puts the P in Posthumous

So I should begin by the admission that I’m a diehard William Gay fan, and have been for years, ever since reading his first novel—The Long Home (1999), which was edited/published by none other than my own editor, Greg Michalson—though for my money Provinces of Night (2000) is still Gay’s best. He died three years ago, and I was sad to hear of his passing, then later excited to hear Dzanc Books had plans to publish two of his novels posthumously: Little Sister Death and The Lost Country. Little Sister Death came out this summer, though I just now got around to reading it, during Halloween Week no less. Spoiler alert: For various reasons I might give away some of (what passes for) the plot, just sayin’.
First off, the novel opens with a prologue that takes place in 1785, and which (kind of) establishes the progeny/origin of the spookiness otherwise known as the Bell Witch phenomenon, though this short prologue (nine pages) seems completely fictionalized, as it should be: this is a novel, after all, and we expect some lively (or deadly, as it were) events and descriptions. I’ve always thought of Gay as a kind of “poor man’s Cormac McCarthy,” which sounds like an insult, but in my estimation, McCarthy is so good that Gay doesn’t have to live up to that high mark, and if he comes close—as he does in Provinces of Night, for example, or his gruesome short story “The Paper Hanger”—that’s a great achievement. The prologue to Little Dead Sister (excuse the mangled title, but it somehow fits) fits the bill as imitation McCarthy in several ways: great sense of bloody history, anchored in period details and gritty descriptions, as in Blood Meridian; and a baby’s horrific death, as in McCarthy’s Outer Dark (1968). If the rest of the novel was as good as the prologue, Little Sister Death would be an excellent horror novel—gory and dark, as par for the course.
Unfortunately the novel falls apart after the prologue, and falls into a meta-trap of its own meta-making: the rest of the “plot” concerns one David Binder, a one-book writer living in Chicago who is trying to write a money-making genre novel based on the Bell Witch legend, a famous Tennessee ghost story. William Faulkner actually did this—wrote a “potboiler” to sell some books—with his novel Sanctuary (1931),  famous for its corncob-rape depiction, but which is actually a pretty good novel—not one of his best, but odd enough to be worthy.
The problem in Little Sister Death’s “meta” section is that a) a writer writing about being a writer is self-reflexive, true, but also boring and trite; b) Binder (the writer) is rather amorphous and inert. He should have been the ghost, actually; and c) nothing really happens. Binder moves his “family” (they aren’t convincing or alive on the page), wife Corrie and daughter Stephie, to Tennessee, to live on the farm where the Bell Witch legend apparently took place. The usual follows. Bumps in the night. Menacing black dogs. The little girl, Stephie, sees spooky things, tells Daddy, seems fine with it.
There’s one scene where Binder and his wife make love by a pond, and Stephie is supposed to be there, but it’s almost as if Gay forgot about her. She shows up at the end of the scene, apparently politely waiting off-page while Mom & Dad are doing it. (If my wife and I did that? Indulged in a little hanky-panky while our daughter was off examining bugs on a picnic? We’d no doubt be interrupted by her screaming in the background, “That’s disgusting!” and blaring her “Love Alarm”—a buzzing sound she makes if we so much as smooch in her presence. But I forgot: That’s a real kid.) Later he writes her out of the story, which is just as well, since she doesn’t really seem to exist. (Perhaps she could be the ghost, too.)
In the “meta” section the novel’s flaws are too numerous to list: awkward descriptions, awkward transitions, too much exposition, characters that really don’t make much sense, and most damningly—for a horror novel, at least—nothing really scary. Near the end I was beginning to wonder if something would ever actually happen, besides seeing spooky-girl figures in the woods and hearing rats in the walls. It does: a copperhead snake bites a hillbilly wife-swapper, who deserves it. (His name is actually Vern. It made me think of the great scene in the Coen Brothers’ film Raising Arizona (1987), when Sam McMurray says, “I’m talkin’ wife-swappin’,” and Nicolas Cage slugs him.) But that’s about it. The novel closes with an awkward section of an authorial first person narrator, presumably William Gay, talking about his own interactions with the Bell Witch legend, which is neither here nor there, really, but comes across as a pasted-on justification for the scrambled scenes we just spent a few hours reading. Vern doesn’t even die from the snakebite! That would have been better. Or at least be bitten on the face, and have it swell up the size of a pumpkin, so there would be a pumpkin-head thing ranting in the hospital, screaming for more macaroni and apple juice. There’s even an extremely dated, cringe-worthy mention of that Nineties phenom, The Blair Witch Project (1999)—which, from Gay’s own coda, seems to have been a hit around the time he was writing Little Sister Death.
Perhaps it’s a case of What can you expect? It’s a posthumous novel, seemingly cobbled together from notes and half-written passages. As I’m writing a novel at the moment, I sympathize: Creating the coherent, cohesive, visionary novel such as Provinces of Night is not an easy task, and it doesn’t happen all the time. Ah well. Little Sister Death is not so much a horror novel as it is horrible: a reminder that art is hard, and tricky. After finishing it I took my daughter to a high-school Halloween carnival in a small town in Colorado, and their haunted house was scarier. Or even these jack o’ lanterns, carved with sharp knives while Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) played in the background.

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