The twitching core of anxiety is not always, as many would assume, the fear of a terrible thing in front of you. Instead, diagnosis-grade worry can stem from the hovering potential for terrible things. Most anxiety sufferers will report being entirely capable in a genuine crisis — think pandemic — but debilitated by life’s constant parade of question marks: social gatherings, incoming test results, a casually texted “Can we talk?” Full-scale, heart-pounding panic is provoked not necessarily by bad news but rather by its quiet, perpetual possibility.
With this in mind, the best horror stories frequently depend on audiences not understanding exactly what they’re meant to fear. Heavy breathing on the other end of a phone line or the sound of a twig snapping in the shadowy distance can be much scarier than any overt threat. Often the most effective way to render a monster is to let us conjure it for ourselves. In this respect, Adriana Chartrand’s debut novel excels.
An Ordinary Violence follows Dawn, a twenty-nine-year-old Indigenous woman who, after pursuing a life in Toronto, moves back to South Saint Jude, the prairie neighbourhood where she grew up. Dawn had “hoped that a different place would make her different, that she could remake herself into someone new, half-believing in that old promise that in a big city you can be anyone you want to be.” But while there, “she didn’t become someone new; she didn’t become anybody she wanted to be.” Instead, “she remained herself, still carrying around the same aching heart,” burdened by the grief of losing her mother, Violet, to cancer and her brother, Cody, to prison.
Dawn’s unanticipated return is complicated by a reunion with Cody, who has just been released for good behaviour after serving seven years for manslaughter. With him is a mysterious new pal, Tyler, whose charm and charisma make Dawn wary: “He’s projecting a smile, like he wants everyone to believe he’s friendly and relaxed.” The story implies that Tyler is up to something nefarious but leaves the specifics harrowingly uncertain. Who is this “virtual stranger”? What exactly is he capable of? And who (or what) has Cody become?
From there, the decidedly eerie narrative holds back information — like what actually happened to Dawn to inspire her hasty escape back home — in service to maximum impact. Readers are told that “the worst, the absolute worst, is coming” and left to puzzle through scattered clues about what precisely “the worst” might be. Dawn has abandoned a new relationship and her condo, job, and social circle; she is seeing things, unable to relax, and consumed by dread. She is “off-centre and cannot seem to right herself, like she’s been falling ever since leaving Toronto.” Indeed, she feels as though “she’s flailing, but slowly — she can see everything pass her by as she windmills through the air, desperate to find solid ground that isn’t there.”
As much as An Ordinary Violence relies on the terror of the unknown, it also makes credible threats out of the familiar. (After all, “terrible things happen side by side with the ordinary.”) Chartrand adeptly turns what should be welcoming domestic spaces, like the home of Dawn’s father, the long-haul trucker Martin, into something altogether sinister. The bungalow feels “so sad and unlived in,” and, for Dawn, “it only confirms what she’s been feeling: She shouldn’t be here. She was free. She’d made it out.” Her former friends feel suspiciously distant. Dawn’s return “should be a happy homecoming,” but she can’t unwind because “she can feel a great rending scream starting in the pit of her, a scream that will surely rip not only her but the world in two. She’d release it, but she knows it would only be met with mute stares or averted eyes.” Even the weather is a genuine villain, tormenting Dawn throughout the novel. She comes to intuit “something else beneath her fear, beneath the dread, something she’s putting too much energy toward ignoring,” which she describes as a “wrongness woven through everything.”
It becomes clear that something otherworldly is at work when flashbacks reveal that Dawn’s deceased mother has been communicating with her daughter for years: “Violet came to Dawn in the bodies of others, in the daytime and at night. She came for seconds at a time, appeared and then vanished, leaving the people she spoke through unaware that anything had happened.” Meanwhile, Dawn’s relationship with Cody grows increasingly strained. A “one-way abyss” develops between her and the “stranger with her brother’s face,” an observation that will eventually mean something more supernatural than mere estrangement.
The mounting tension gets to Dawn. She “always has a stomach ache or a headache now” and feels as though she “might be slowly rotting from the inside out.” Her dreams unlock memories and make her feel like “she’s just opened her eyes and is standing waist-deep in a frigid pond with no recollection of how she got there.” Each vision pushes the story further and further into the fantastic, the uncanny, and the inconceivable. This dissolution of the divide between what is real and what is imagined means that when the monster is finally revealed, readers may feel the same reluctant relief as Dawn herself: “Despite her fear, despite the burning need in her to run. She should be here — she can feel that in her quivering bones now. She’s brought this on, whatever it turns out to be. It sought her out because it knew who she really was inside.”
An Ordinary Violence is an exceptionally executed work of atmospheric horror that delivers cruelly and completely. Chartrand masterfully draws out the narrative, gradually heightening the tension through skillful restraint and careful pacing. The book addresses deep themes alongside its anxious journey, concerned with feelings of alienation and being severed from — and betrayed by — the people one should feel closest to. Dawn comes to know intimately “that feeling of interior chasm, like always being slightly out of place no matter where she was, like a constant, steady pull of unattributable grief at the base of her rib cage.” This is also a story about the human capacity for monstrosity, the disturbing fact that “a seemingly regular life could conceal a deeply vicious soul.” Uncertainty remains even when the book reaches its conclusion, meaning that readers’ curiosity will cling to them — and discomfort will follow them out.
Stacey May Fowles has published five books. Her debut children’s title, The Invitation, came out last spring.