Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 281 pp., $14 paper
In her bracing debut novel, “Threats,” Los Angeles transplant Amelia Gray writes one of the most gorgeously clinical paragraphs about a blackhead you’ll likely ever read. The description is somewhere between a David Attenborough nature documentary, soft-core pornography and David Cronenberg’s 1986 movie “The Fly.” Here are a few choice lines regarding the blackhead’s existence and its extraction by a skilled facialist:
“The woman layered the [blackhead] with oil-based makeup, nourishing it, growing it like a seedpod covered by a warm layer of earth. When Aileen birthed it into her metal scoop, the woman sighed with the effort and release of it. Aileen brushed the lancet blade of her extractor over the edge of the woman’s lip with a surgeon’s precise motion. The woman’s lip twitched at the housefly feeling of the blade caressing her vellus hair.”
Depending on your tolerance for the minutiae of personal hygiene practices, this ode to a blackhead will either make you want to cover your face with Bioré strips or never cross paths with a magnifying mirror again. Those shivering reactions are exactly what Gray wants for her spooky novel, which starts at the high pitch of disturbed atmosphere and mucks around there for all of its nearly 300 pages of clipped, sometimes robotic prose.
From the first page, the world of “Threats” is clearly off, familiar but drawn in unnervingly detached detail. David receives an urn containing his wife’s ashes, and the package is noted for its tape, string and plastic foam but not for the significance of its contents. Emotions are present in “Threats,” but it’s like they’ve been through a sterilizing wash first.
The biggest plot point of the book is delivered with enigmatic precision, a narrative oxymoron that Gray nevertheless manages to pull off. A few brief chapters after the ashes arrive, a hallucinatory, herky-jerky death scene unfolds with details of Franny’s body decomposing. It’s not written just to explain how David’s wife, a healthy young woman, ended up dying in the first place. Instead, Gray anchors the scene in an eerie moment when a female firefighter, clearing away Franny’s corpse, confesses her confusion and grief to David, who takes on her role in pronouncing, “Your wife is dead.”
The firefighter is described as weeping — or is it David? — but Gray suggests that it doesn’t really matter: In emergency situations, disassociation takes over. We find ourselves shucked from the trusted constructions of our identity and reality, left with only the scrolling of our brains, still identifying objects, sensations and smells like some malfunctioning computer. The entirety of “Threats” seems to exist in that unmooring, in which sanity can be ripped up like so many rotten floorboards, exposing how the flooring was probably never very secure in the first place.
It’s not a coincidence that the two main characters of the book, David and Franny, were employed as a dentist and an aesthetician, respectively. In “Threats,” decay and the accumulation of detritus are dual tolls of human existence. If left unchecked, they can undermine ordinary surfaces or suffocate us in our own necrotic material, whether old newspapers or dead skin.
David’s mind, like the crumbling pack-rat house he inherited from his troubled parents, is just one more thing vulnerable to rot and overstimulation. When he starts finding bizarre threats typed on various papers around the house, it seems only a matter of logic — by the book’s own skewed version — that he’d hoard them.
Gray, the author of two previous, willfully odd short-story collections, is interested in the horror genre, but it’s more akin to the alternately seething and absurd moods of David Lynch and Cronenberg than the plot machinations of Stephen King. In one scene, David thinks that Detective Chico, who questions him to make sense of Franny’s death, has a nest inside his mouth, quivering with pills instead of eggs. Another character, David imagines, is harboring an inner ear between her lips.
Atmosphere is so consistently relied upon in “Threats” that it sometimes feels as if it might be just a skillful shrouding of the book lacking plot and developed characters. Indeed, there are times — especially when it comes to minor characters — when Gray’s usage of certain horror tropes, such as the omnipresence of wasps, can feel like contrivances unleashed to buzz around an otherwise idle scene.
But there’s also enough grim humor in “Threats” to pardon structurally weak parts. In a novel that’s invigorating, though not always inviting, the book’s own wicked sense of self-awareness carries it through. There are moments when “Threats” is clearly laughing at itself, Gray all too happy to stick in a deflating needle when the atmosphere starts getting a little too portentous for its own good. After all, if you can’t laugh at yourself in the darkest hour, what else can you do?