Hieroglyphs of Blood & Bone, Michael Griffin (JournalStone 9781945373527, $13.95, 176pp, tp) February 2017.
Hieroglyphs of Blood & Bone, Michael Griffin’s strong debut novel, is narrated by Guy, a man newly divorced from his wife of more than two decades. Adrift without her, he has moved into a houseboat with Karl, his co-worker at the boatyard where Guy has an office position. Karl is 29, a college dropout, a repository of sexist attitudes toward both the women he pursues at local bars and Guy, whom he belittles for not joining his enthusiastic quest for the next one-night stand. The only activity Guy shares with his houseboat-mate in anything approaching an uncomplicated way is a fishing trip the men take to a nearby river. During their excursion, Guy stumbles across a rustic cabin in front of which stands a woman wearing a simple dress. Although Karl will insist there was neither dwelling nor inhabitant, Guy’s glimpse of them becomes an obsession, one that seems oddly connected to the strange woman Karl brings to the boat late one night, with whom Guy passes a few cryptic words, but whom Karl subsequently insists was a figment of his imagination.
Afterward, Guy is unable to sleep. Exhausted, harassed by his boss, and plagued by belittling phone calls from his ex-wife, he decides to return to the spot he and Karl fished. There, he locates the cabin and meets Lily, the woman who calls it home. Almost immediately, they begin an intense physical relationship, one in which time seems to advance in fits and starts. Finally able to sleep, Guy notices but is not overly worried by this. Lily shows him a handcrafted book she has made, full of pressed vegetation, written in a language he cannot read.
That Guy has slid into another realm of existence is evident, but its exact nature is unclear. After he returns to the houseboat, he finds another handmade book waiting for him, a gift from Lily, whose full significance he does not understand. The situation grows more complex when a glance into Karl’s room shows that his housemate is in possession of a similarly fashioned volume, which appears connected to Sadie, Karl’s new girlfriend, though neither she nor Karl acknowledge it. Soon thereafter, Guy and Karl have an extended conversation about their respective pasts. One of the novel’s unexpected highlights, the exchange deepens the portrayal of both characters, and Guy’s understanding of the younger man.
Guy’s comprehension of his present situation, however, does not increase. If anything, he understands it less. In this respect, Griffin takes a risk with the narrative. In a more typical novel of this kind, some form of explanation for Guy’s experience would present itself, whether via another character or a text. Griffin eschews this, preferring to deliver Guy’s story from the inside, as it were. There’s a distinct Modernist aesthetic at work here, an intent to present the (weird) event as directly as possible, free of overt contextualizing. The reader’s comprehension and Guy’s keep pace with one another. It’s a technique that recalls Machen’s “The White People,” as well as M. John Harrison’s later work (“Anima” in particular).
Hieroglyphs of Blood & Bone is short, but it is not slight. Griffin writes a restrained prose that also appears rooted in Modernist restraint. As is the case with writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, his sentences are wound tight with significance, so that by the novel’s end, it has achieved a weight out of proportion to its length. At a time when novelists are counseled to begin their narratives in media res and keep the plot moving at speed, Griffin’s deliberate pacing is a reminder of the benefits of allowing a narrative to unfold at a more gradual pace.
There’s more to be said about the book; ironically, its straightforward representation of its weird events leaves them radically open for interpretation. (For example: Is the narrative haunted obliquely by Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife?) No doubt, there will continue to be a great deal of conversation about it, and about Michael Griffin’s future work.
John Langan is the author of two novels, The Fisherman (2016) and House of Windows (Night Shade 2009), and two collections of stories, The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013) and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008). With Paul Tremblay, he co-edited Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters (2011). One of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Awards, he served as a juror for its first three years. He lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley with his wife and younger son.
This review and more like it in the November 2017 issue of Locus.