Naming the Bones, Laura Mauro (Self-published 9781544177748, $9.00, 224pp, tp) June 2017.
Naming the Bones, the title of Laura Mauro’s compelling novella, refers to a coping mechanism her protagonist, Alessa, arrives at in order to help her through the post-traumatic stress from which she suffers in the wake of a terrorist bombing. When she feels a panic attack coming on, Alessa begins reciting the bones of the human skeleton, a strategy that largely succeeds. Unassuming as her activity might appear, it carries considerable thematic weight. It’s the opposite of the scene of the bombing, with which Mauro begins the novella in harrowing fashion. There, in the immediate aftermath of an explosion in a train carriage on the London Underground, Alessa witnesses the human form dismembered, rendered chaotic. Naming the Bones in their proper order is a recuperative gesture, an effort at re-imposing sense on the world. It is an effort that extends to a trio of incidents which happen after the bombing. The first concerns the fate of a man, another passenger on the train who, although himself wounded, assists Alessa in exiting the carriage and then sets off along the tunnel because he sees a light and a group of figures in that direction. He is not seen again, nor does anyone know his fate. The second incident occurs while Alessa is on another form of public transport, a bus, and glimpses in the window beside her the reflection of a shadowy creature seated next to her. The third incident takes place one night soon after the second, when Alessa looks out her apartment window and sees a shadowy form which looks up and sees her.
Afraid that her efforts at holding onto her mental health are failing, Alessa goes to a group therapy session. There, she meets Tom, a fellow survivor who also remembers the man who helped her. She and Tom agree to meet for coffee to discuss their memories. Afterwards, in a fit of bravado, Alessa ventures down into the local underground station. As she is waiting on the platform, struggling to control the panic that assails her, she becomes aware of the shadow things within the tunnel’s darkness. When one of them emerges into the light, squirming between the tracks, she flees, though not before being approached by another woman who apparently can see the creatures, too. This woman, Casey, follows Alessa to the coffee shop to which she retreats, where the two of them have a brief exchange during which Casey gives the shadow creatures a name, the Shades, and Alessa agrees to talk more with her later.
Their subsequent conversation reveals the body of knowledge Casey has put together concerning the Shades. She links the creatures’ origin to the construction of the underground, to the excavation of long buried sites of pain and death, releasing the energy trapped there into active form. Drawn to fear, the Shades prey on the victims of disasters such as the one Alessa was caught in. Eventually, Alessa will learn that Casey knows Tom, who is involved in her plans to locate the Shades’ lair and destroy them.
As the novella progresses, it’s possible to recognize the plot contours of the traditional monster story, in which the protagonist’s exposure to the monster results first in disbelief, then confirmation, then an encounter with the creature that highlights its danger, then a final, climactic confrontation. What distinguishes Mauro’s treatment of this form is the quality of her language and the depth of her characterization. Sinewy, dense, and punctuated by striking turns of phrase, Mauro’s prose envelopes the reader in Alessa’s perspective. And that perspective is richly elaborated, resulting in a rounded portrait of the protagonist which lends her story that much more resonance. Given the narrative context, it’s easy enough to read the Shades as a figure for trauma, for the way its effects spring from the deeper layers of the psyche and threaten to devour us. It is part of Mauro’s success that the symbolic implications of the monsters never overwhelm their more immediate narrative function; rather, they accentuate it.
“Sun Dogs,” Laura Mauro’s contribution to the most recent Shadows and Tall Trees, was one of the standout stories of that anthology, no mean feat. Naming the Bones is another success. Laura Mauro is beginning to assemble an impressive body of 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 January 2018 issue of Locus.