Childhood memories always seem uniquely potent. Inhabiting a dim space in the distant past, they appear irrevocably estranged from the conscious mind. At the same time, however, when evoked — by the smell of freshly-cut grass, the taste of a long-forgotten dish, the sound of a once-familiar jingle — they invariably come rushing back, flooding over us in waves of almost unbearable nostalgia. Tim Murr’s new novella The Gray Man (2019) inhabits this realm of childhood memory, creating a space where the world seems at once immense — hemmed in by high surfaces and door handles perennially out of the reach of small hands — and intensely intimate, circumscribed by the closeness of carpet patterns and the familiar contours of favorite toys.
The Gray Man tells the story of 4-year-old David, the eldest son of an unhappy working-class family, and throughout the novel Murr deftly exploits the naive, often uncomprehending perspective of his child protagonist to engender a powerful anxiety in the reader. The Gray Man is a novella that plays in the small crevices of fear that pucker the surface of childhood innocence.
David’s family is a dysfunctional one. His parents are young — still in their early twenties — and the rush of youthful rebellion that propelled their high-school romance has slowed to a bitter crawl of routine and resentment. In one scene, David’s father, Randall, brings him to a grocery story, and the contents of his shopping cart make Randell appear more childlike than the pre-schooler he has in tow. Alongside milk, bread and baby formula, Randall also purchases Cheerios, peanut butter, two liters of soda and hot dogs. He also buys a six-pack of beer, reminding us that only a few short years ago Randall was a disaffected teen who spent his evenings vandalizing mailboxes and committing petty acts of adolescent rebellion.
His wife Vera appears equally ill-equipped for the demands of parenthood, spending her days going back and forth between the infant Patrick and 1-year-old Jason, and largely ignoring David who is babysat primarily by the television set. Vera, we are told, “hated her life.” Perhaps, it is this general air of dissatisfaction and the deeply embedded unhappiness of love turned to resentment that draws a malevolent supernatural force into the lives of David and his family.
After moving into a new house, another repetitive relocation in a string of moves necessitated by Randall’s job, the family finds itself in an isolated house in rural Tennessee. Upon first seeing the house, young David immediately imagines that its darkened windows conjure notions of death, as though the house itself were a corpse. Murr’s depiction of the house and its surroundings are evocative and chilling. Even before we see any evidence that the building is haunted, the novella is infused with a sinister sense of place. From the remoteness of the house, with its sparse, curtainless windows, to the swampy garden whose waterlogged thickets germinate snakes, the very locale appears suffused with omnipresent menace. More disturbing still, the malevolence of the house appears to extend beyond its walls, reaching out infect the entire community: bikers speed past David’s home and by night the KKK burns crosses in the deep Southern night.
When winter comes, the house is cut off by snow, further compounding the isolation of the young family. In the midst of all this, David comes to realize that there is a supernatural entity occupying his home, warping his dreams and exerting an especially potent influence over the room designated as the children’s playroom. The malevolence that flows through the house is the titular Gray Man who is an unsettling, silent figure described as possessing a grey face, with deep lines and wide, unblinking yellow eyes. The Gray Man is an omnipresent and threatening force throughout the novel, and Murr skillfully interweaves the escalation of his supernatural terror with the growing conflict that threatens to pull David’s family apart.
In this way, David’s new home accords with film theorist Robin Wood’s conception of the “terrible house,” the sinister domestic space that serves as an extension or “objectification” of its inhabitants’ personalities. The disruptions that upset the house in Murr’s book — cabinets opening and closing of their own volition, misplaced toys, children locked in rooms — reflect the dissolution of Vera and Randall’s marriage, their mutual resentment at being trapped by parenthood, and their frustrations at a seemingly dead-end existence.
The Gray Man is a deeply unsettling novella. In places it explodes with violence and supernatural threat, while in others the text exudes a quiet menace. The Gray Man weaves his way into the lives an innocent, albeit unhappy, young family. His influence creeps through empty hallways and into childhood bedrooms. It seizes characters when they are most vulnerable, appearing as an explosion of spectral violence that merely serves to give physical form to the emotional agony of this crumbling family. Yet, ultimately, this swelling malevolence culminates in a crescendo of terror that is it at once heart-rending and disturbing. Murr is undeniably a skilled horror writer, playing with his readers and drawing on the universal language of childhood fear to craft a tale creeps its way beneath your skin.
Brilliantly paced, The Gray Man builds to its strange and horrifying conclusion in a series of disturbing increments, as the house and its ghostly inhabitant become increasingly hostile. However, where Murr truly excels is in his characterization of children. Although The Gray Man never strays from the third-person narrative voice, the story is focalized through young David, and we see the events play out through his child’s eyes. He is an observant child, but his youth prevents him from ever fully comprehending the puzzling behavior of the adults around him. Early in the book, we see an emblematic example of this astute characterization when David describes his happiness at the ample space in his father’s new Ford LTD.
The boy considers that he prefers this new car to their previous one, a little yellow Pinto, because it has more room and he won’t be squashed against his younger brother’s car seat. In this seemingly innocuous remark, the reader can glean an understanding of the family’s broader socio-economic situation: they are working class, but upwardly mobile. Yet, the thought is framed by a child’s perspective and so centres around the little boy’s relief at no longer being squished into the backseat alongside his brother. Another wonderful instance of this childish point of view occurs again later when David and his father drive past a Klan rally, and David imagines that the hooded, white-clad figures are ghosts.
While this conflation of real-world and supernatural evil clearly foreshadows the manner in which the everyday pain of familial disintegration would later merge with the supernatural terror of the Gray Man, it also highlights David’s naive and limited understanding of the world around him. Murr’s depiction of David is profoundly sensitive, and as the novella progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to watch as his family falls apart and his life is invaded by a ghostly evil. As his home becomes ever more uncanny, young David clings to his favorite toys, Batman and Frankenstein figurines, for protection. He plays elaborate games with them — plotting epic battles of good versus evil — but he also treats them as totems, protective charms that will inoculate him against the sinister forces that inhabit his home.
The finale of The Gray Man capitalizes wonderfully on both the intimate characterization of the young family at its heart and the mounting tension that pervades the text. Without spoiling this spectacular twist, it seems as though the conclusion serves to highlight the potency of childhood trauma, the way in which it follows us to adulthood, always threatening to pull us back to a time when we were small and vulnerable. Murr’s talents for writing subtle, creeping horror and convincing family drama meld in The Gray Man to create an eerie, atmospheric and intensely personal story. The Gray Man is a work that skillfully lures the reader back to a point in their own life when a half-open closet door invariably threatened to unleash some hidden monstrosity and every fleeting, night-time shadow seemed possessed of a sinister sentience. The Gray Man is available on Amazon. For more titles from the author, click here now.