Called to Terror

I picked up Amanda Coe’s debut novel, What They Do In The Dark, not because I had heard of it (which I hadn’t) or because it was propped up on the bookseller’s “staff picks” shelf (which it was), but because of its eerie, beckoning cover. The jacket displays a black and white photo of a girl on roller skates moving, head bowed in either determination or desperation, away from the camera and further into a grim, treeless, slightly apocalyptic-looking neighborhood. You almost want to reach into the photo and grab the girl by the hood, ask her where she’s going, or at least follow her there to make sure she arrives safely. So, on this impulse, I did pick up the book, only to discover that the jacket material of this first American edition is itself made of some kind of extra-velvety, sensual sort of paper over which I kept running my hands.

Well, the jacket designer isn’t putting one on, because this kind of seductive magnetism is a marked feature of Coe’s writing. Set in northern England in the 1970s, What They Do In The Dark is the story of two school-age girls of vastly different economic and family backgrounds—Gemma, middle-class and spoiled, and Pauline, utterly neglected and living in squalor—whose lives becomes entwined to disastrous ends when a British child star comes to film a movie at their school. Coe parcels out the narration to both Gemma and Pauline, as well as a number of characters on the movie set, namely an insecure, pill-popping American producer named Quentin who seems to think only of herself, and Vera, an older actress playing a minor character (both in the film and in the book) who spends her downtime coolly observing others. The dark, blunt, unapologetic observations of the four female characters quickly pull you in; Coe lets each voice pay just enough attention to her own sensory experience to be captivating, yet remain believable. Only Gemma’s section is written in the first person, which at first makes the author seem as if she could not quite fully put herself in the shoes of lower-class Pauline, but the ending of the book is so horrifying that the need for a first-person perspective on these events quickly becomes apparent. In any case, the alternating narrative voices perfectly contrast the cynical, restrained emotions of the adult characters with the much more intense, unrepressed feelings of the children, for whom every event, no matter how minor (a visit to a pancake house, a new hairstyle), is a matter of life and death. The way Pauline, in particular, responds to cruelty and begs for love eludes all redemption clichés and is absolutely heartbreaking.

Presumably, Coe also created the adult characters to allow a larger perspective on the plot, and some of the book’s most riveting passages are the descriptions of the politics and oddities of life on set. Coe’s writing has none of the timidity of first-time novelists: the narrative plunges the reader into a world of filmmaking jargon and 70s British slang, slurs, and pop culture references (“gaffer tape,” “ice lollies,” “Butlins,” “gyppo”) and, like the best anthropological fiction, takes no time to explain itself. Unfortunately, the vast array of briefly sketched characters required to give the movie set verisimilitude ultimately bloats the book (as author Kirk Russell put it, “Each time you invite someone new into the boat it sits a little lower in the water”), and Quentin’s sections in particular come off as completely superfluous to the main plot.

Gemma idolizes the child star “Lallie Paluza” coming to film at her school, and one reads with the presumption that Lallie will be at the center of the plot. (As an aside, the cutesy nearness of the star’s name to “Lollapalooza” irritated me to no end.) But, in a way at once odd and perfect, the story never comes too near to Lallie (except, of course, in descriptions of her close-up shots on film). She is at the book’s center, but as with the eye of the hurricane, the plot mostly whirls around her, and her interior remains invisible: like many child stars in reality, she’s observed and judged and marketed by other characters, but never given a narrative voice of her own. As the book progresses, one begins to eagerly anticipate the intersection at which Gemma and Pauline will meet Lallie, and one begins to sense that the meeting will somehow turn tragic; Coe, with considerable magic, weaves a terrible sense of foreboding into her writing (perhaps beginning the book with Lallie’s obituary aids that magic). The book’s ending does satisfy most of that anticipation, but in a way that somehow, like the best horror films, still shocks and surprises. The seriously disturbing climax of the plot will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, including mine; I almost flinched as I read the last ten pages. Nevertheless, just as with the eerie cover photo and oddly supple book jacket, readers willing to enter into the dark world of the story will be rewarded by Coe’s touching, gripping prose.

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.