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Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones3 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAs an homage to teen body-count horror, Stephen Graham Jones’ Night of the Mannequins has much of the entertainment value of watching a cheesy old slasher flick on VHS. It does ask us to embrace a central conceit that will push the limits of many readers’ willing suspension of disbelief, but then Graham never asks us to take the proceedings too seriously either. As a tonic to his previous novella release, the desperately bleak Mapping the Interior, it’s a welcome change of pace that evokes the right mood.

Our teen protagonist Sawyer — a very very dumb kid who might as well be wearing a ballcap printed with “Unreliable Narrator” — and his friends decide to play a prank on one of their group who ushers at a small-town movie theater. The kids have long been in possession of a discarded department store mannequin they found in a creek bed. Sawyer calls it Manny. They would entertain themselves for hours dressing Manny up and pranking their neighbors, indicating to me that this must be one mind-numbingly boring small town where the kids have yet to discover video games or sex.

So they decide to prank their usher friend Shanna by propping Manny up in one of the theater seats like he’s someone who snuck in without a ticket (a thing Sawyer and his friends have been caught at repeatedly). But not only does the prank not pay off, Sawyer is shocked to see Manny, at the end of the movie, stand up and walk out of the theater like everyone else.

Now we get the kind of plot horror has offered up many times, in which the viewpoint character who is witnessing terrible fates befall his friends is revealed, in a “shocking twist,” to have been the villain all along. Graham, to his credit, never wastes time pretending we’d be fooled by this, and makes Sawyer’s delusions apparent from the outset. After Shanna and her family are killed in a freak accident, Sawyer concludes that Manny is alive, is feeling — in the manner of all body-count movie killers — just a bit vengeful over the mistreatment he endured at the hands of the kids, and has commenced a murder rampage. More bizarrely, Sawyer believes that Manny has been breaking into toolsheds and eating plant fertilizer, causing him to grow to kaiju size.

Sawyer’s leaps of logic are pretty goofy even for a character in a silly horror story, and believing that he really believes what he says he believes is a bit much to ask even the most generous of horror fans, who are a far more analytical and critical audience than you might realize. But once Sawyer makes the decision to murder the rest of his friends in the deranged hope that doing so might mollify Manny and prevent the mannequin from taking out the rest of their families as well — sacrificing one for the good of the many, so to speak — we really have no choice but to throw up our hands and accept we’re in cloud-cuckoo land, and just roll with it.

What is fun is the way Graham honors his influences here. Movies play a big role in the subtextual narrative, with the story opening in a quintessential small town theater and its final scene playing out in that classically American pop-culture cathedral, a drive-in. (Graham seems to have it in for bloated three-hour Marvel movies, but that’s a discussion for another day, I suppose.) And it is entertaining watching Sawyer’s downward spiral. So heat up some popcorn and enjoy, and please, be kind to your ushers. Cleaning up other people’s messes is a thankless job.