Stephen Graham Jones’ 2020 Night of The Mannequins is a stand-alone horror novella.
Four teen chums — Danielle, Tim, JR, and narrator Sawyer — set out to play a hilarious prank at the theatre where Shanna, the fifth member of the quintet, works. As so often is the case with carefree teenage pranks, horrifying carnage ensues.
Key to the jape: Manny, a discarded mannequin that once provided the friends with enormous amounts of entertainment before being discarded like Puff the Magic Dragon. Dragged out of storage, the mannequin is carefully placed in the theatre audience. The carefully planned prank is forestalled when to Sawyer’s astonishment, he sees the mannequin stand up and walk out of the theatre.
Not too long after the theatre incident, a truck plows through Shanna’s house. All of the family members in the house die, totaled by the errant truck. It’s a tragic accident — or is it?
A mannequin that somehow came to life might remember how teens once loved it. It might remember how it was abandoned. It might therefore set out on a campaign of bloody revenge, starting by stepping in front of a truck driven by a tired driver so that the unfortunate driver veers into Shanna’s house. Or so Sawyer concludes.
Sawyer isn’t bothered all that much by the fact that he and his friends are no doubt fated to die in horrible ways at the plastic hands of a spurned mannequin. He is distraught that Manny is targeting their families as well. Arguably the teens earned their fates with their treatment of Manny. Their families, on the other hand, are innocent.
It falls to Sawyer to save the day. There can be no campaign of vengeance if there are no teens to kill. All Sawyer need do is kill his friends and himself before Manny can act.
I’ve argued that horror universes are limited to choices that are all bad, so that no matter what options the characters choose, the results are unpleasant1. I see now that this is incomplete. One can have a perfectly functional horror novel in a universe whose outcomes are not limited to death and mayhem, provided at least one of the characters has spectacularly bad judgment. Given how group projects generally work out, it follows that any sufficiently large cast — four or five people — has a very good chance of veering off into horror. The solution of course to take steps to reduce the number of participants below the level at which catastrophe is assured. As this novella demonstrates, that’s easier said than done.
I picked this particular Jones work over all of the other Joneses I could have selected thanks to its eye-catching opening:
So Shanna got a new job at the movie theatre, we thought we’d play a fun prank on her, and now most of us are dead, and I’m really starting to feel kind of guilty about it all.
Talk about narrative hooks.
The writing and characterization are up to the level of that opening. Sawyer may be a murderous nincompoop, but he’s a very sincere and hard-working murderous nincompoop who conveys his perspective very effectively. It’s inspiring to see such a work ethic, at least if one is not Shanna, Danielle, Tim, or JR. It’s possible that the joke might have gotten stale at longer lengths … but this is a novella and just as long as it needs to be.
1: As Herman Kahn stressed, even an assortment of universally undesirable outcomes can generally be ranked. Even in horror “one survivor” is better than “no survivors.”