Digging Up William Gay’s Grave

“He feared that beyond the quilted gray satin of the undertaker’s keep there was only a world of mystery that bypassed the comprehension of men and did not even take them into consideration. A world of utter darkness and the profoundest of silences.” – from William Gay’s Twilight

In the wild mountains of Tennessee in the 1950’s, teenage siblings unearth the gruesome crimes of the local undertaker after they suspect something untoward was done to their dead daddy. A stroke of luck puts undisputed evidence of the heinous acts in their laps, which leads the undertaker to hire the local psychopath to hunt them down and get that evidence back at all costs. From there William Gay’s Twilight floats furiously into a nightmarish miasma of backwoods terrors where both hunter and prey find themselves lost in the eerily mythological but all too grittily real Harrikan territory.

William Gay’s Twilight couldn’t be further removed from its unfortunate namesake sharer about sparkly vampires. This is a throat-ripping barn-burner, a true horror book, Southern Gothic and visceral to almost a fault. It’s one of the few books that has given me direct nightmares with the misdeeds, human folly, and both physical and psychological violence depicted playing back in fever-dream loops during restless sleep. At times it presents as a modern-day Grimms’ Fairy Tale. The Harrikan is one of the most indelibly drawn settings I’ve experienced in literature, a character both fiendish and beautiful unto itself. If you feel weary just thinking about it, know that justice is ultimately met, giving the waywardly wise teenage boy at the center of the horrors a makeshift and wobbly hero’s journey, but no one, reader included, comes out unscarred.

I don’t remember exactly when William Gay came to my attention. I think his works started showing up in my Goodreads recommendations based on my predilection for William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Ron Rash. In the past 18 months I’ve read his big three novels: The Long Home, Provinces of Night, and Twilight…and the latter two are bona fide masterpieces I will never forget. Last summer, the snowstorm sequence in Provinces of Night was so vividly depicted I found myself shivering in a heat wave. Twilight has a Shining-esque snow squall hang over its latter section as well, equally indelible in the mind. Both novels are powerfully poetic, with Provinces of Night being more elegiac (and seemingly genteel compared to its brethren) while Twilight presents a propulsive forward momentum…both novels mucky and stuck up in the pain, sorrows, triumphs and new beginnings forever cycling and intertwined in the make up of a man.

Like my own novel Then Came Darkness, William Gay’s Twilight was directly inspired by The Night of the Hunter. Had I read it before I wrote my own tale, I would’ve been spent up with feverish jealously and probably never would’ve written it. But I’ve always found my favorite writers have come to my attention at exactly the right times in my life: Toni Morrison in college when I needed to broaden my perspective the most, Graham Greene in my late twenties right before I started to travel abroad, and now William Gay in my early forties (and after I published Then Came Darkness) when I needed something both familiar and new the most.

The author himself is something of an unusual case, not unlike the discoveries in the graves at the onset of Twilight. William Gay was your friendly Southern housepainter or carpenter most of his life (a loved one) who you suddenly learned had a dark (artistic) side, or must’ve had dark things happen to him. Suddenly there are these stories that had been buried and perhaps previously known only to him, shining a light on pain and suffering (and often the macabre) when exploded out into the public eye in a brilliant spark in the twilight of his life before he died of a heart attack in 2012. Fittingly he was born near Halloween and died seven decades later in the wild colds of February.

I’ll be tackling his short story collection next…and then his fourth novel, which was published posthumously along with a few other works. I wish there was more, but I will be forever mystified by the discoveries. William Gay’s literary grave may be a niche…but, oh, is it deep.

Review and Commentary by D. H. Schleicher

One comment

  1. It’s nice to hear about books that really dive the reader deep into its world. That’s hard to do with our numerous distractions and shorter attention spans, and his books really seem to strike that realistic chord. Thanks for the recommendations!

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