“I know all this,” claims the narrator of Peter Stenson’s scarring and hard-to-shake second novel, “because humans are all fundamentally the same. We are a desk of control switches in a recording studio. Our only differences are the… levels and mixing.” This bleak notion proves a navigational star for the narrative, one that draws us on even as it makes our skin crawl.
Stenson’s 2013 Fiend was a simpler sort of horror, featuring a demon child, but only monsters of the psyche haunt Thirty Seven. The title refers to the narrator, barely adult now, and 15 when he was given this “name.” At that point he joined a group calling themselves The Survivors, under the charismatic leadership of “One” and tucked away in a Colorado woods mansion. Now he himself is the survivor, following the cult’s collapse— a vague business at first mention, but even so unmistakably grim. The details emerge in bits and pieces, placed with suspenseful skill, as reminiscence alternates with the refugee boy’s effort to make it in the straight world. Released from therapy (also glimpsed in unsettling flashback), he’s taken the name Mason and works in a Denver vintage shop. The shop’s owner, Talley, even becomes a lover, and in an early scene or two Stenson lets this woman tumble into pixie stereotype. The misstep is quickly corrected, though, as Talley and Mason, or whoever he is, tumble together into worse: the destructive ways of the Survivors. The narrator’s recollection turns up murder and more, drawing ever nearer to the apocalyptic “Day of Gifts,” and meantime the two cult revivalists begin to wreak havoc of their own. The bloody paroxysms of the final chapters exert a nightmare grip, and their impact makes the novel’s continuing neglect, almost a year after publication, no less than bewildering. Thirty Seven deserves better. It upends one of dearest American dreams, namely that anyone, no matter how fallen, can be rehabilitated, and instead shows up what horrors may lurk behind the affable surface of socialization: “silence was the sound of sins being committed.”
by Peter Stenson
Dzanc Books; 269 p.
John Domini’s latest book is MOVIEOLA!, linked stories, on Dzanc. In June 2019, he’ll publish his fourth novel, The Color Inside a Melon.