There’s something slippery about the contemporary literary essay, which sometimes seems designed to allow its real subject—perhaps a personal experience or a critical intervention—to evade capture by the reader for as long as possible. The essayist will often present an accrual of observations or vignettes structured to reveal meaning in fits and starts, as if to state a thesis outright would be to strip it of its fragile ephemerality. But this delicate art of obfuscation becomes a natural mode of narration in Gina Nutt’s Night Rooms, an exquisite collection of linked essays that centers the idea of escape as a presiding principle, not just in form—as these essays break from conventional expectations in provocative ways—but also in content. In these pages, the grounding conventions of the horror film serve as handholds as the essays circle around themes of the body and grief and survival. All the while, something sinister lurks in the white space between the paragraphs, an unnamed threat that is felt rather than seen.
“I’ve heard each time a person remembers or shares a recollection, the mind archives the recall,” Nutt writes early on in Night Rooms. “The telling becomes a memory. New details emerge or sharpen, others blur or fade.” And this observation about how memory translates itself in the act of storytelling serves almost as a key for navigating the collection as a whole, a way to read the impulse of memoir and personal narrative not necessarily as a way to render recollected events as much as an intentional distancing of oneself from pain or trauma, burying the past as much as possible by recreating it in this new, more ordered form. The essay becomes the memory. Horror then becomes a telling touchstone to link these essays together, because what is horror if not the deliberate recasting of our greatest fears and traumas into entertainment, making something meaningful from what is otherwise just darkness? “Horror movies are contained catastrophes,” Nutt later observes, the word contained implying capture, something previously savage that has now been tamed.
Numbered rather than individually titled, suggesting a progression rather than a separation into constituent parts, the essays contained in Night Rooms are constructed in careful montage, braided together with a sense of purpose that feels confident and purposeful, even if the elliptical and recursive structures might sometimes be frustrating to a reader searching for a more conventional narrative arc. The personal details are starting points for thoughtful digression rather than stories unto themselves. For example, the memory of being a contestant in a shopping mall beauty pageant leads into a kaleidoscopic delve into ideas of fate and doom, and the suicide of Nutt’s father-in-law opens up conversations about grief and an interrogation of sadness that will ultimately be one of the collection’s organizing principles.
“Is my sadness about anything?” she asks. “Must sadness connect to a specific moment or experience for the feeling to matter?” Much is made in Night Rooms of the muted dread of contemporary life, ruminations about the ghostly apparition in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows leading Nutt to write more generally about the relentless forces always coming our way: “People on the sidewalk, or in line at the grocery store, bank, post office. People at the park with dogs or babies. Maybe we’re all looking out for It. Days filled as postponement or temporary escape from what walks slowly toward us.” And a trip to the Outer Banks becomes, with the help of imagery from Spielberg’s Jaws, a meditation on loss and the unknowable, all that darkness just below the surface where monsters wait to pull us down.
Nutt ultimately emerges by the end of Night Rooms as a kind of final girl, but not in the way we’ve come to expect from horror films. There is no “blood-soaked woman screaming from the back of a red pickup; the woman standing in a swimming pool fighting something only she sees; the woman who turns her back on a form risen from a mattress.” Instead, her own lived experience has become a representation of a more universal struggle, a way of looking at our relationship to the world.
When introducing the concept of the final girl early on, Nutt writes: “A woman or girl alive when a horror movie’s credits roll joins an ancestry of women and girls who have done the same. They make a lineage of final girls. Each outlasted a struggle knowing she’d someday die, that anyone’s immediate survival is only as urgent as the danger before them.” She’s talking about the boldness of insisting on life even with the inevitability of death all around us, but also reminding us that survival is only ever temporary. Sadness can always become something more. Nutt reminds us of the horror movie trope of the infected character hiding an incriminating bite or rash, pretending like nothing has happened in order to preserve her place in the herd. And almost in response to that impulse, these essays center the revelation of interior darkness as a subject worthy of serious reflection, rather than a cry for help.
The essay form may sometimes be a vehicle for hiding in plain sight, sentences looping around an idea until there isn’t anything anymore to see. But in Night Rooms, the ideas orbit each other in ways that illuminate something altogether more meaningful and surprising at their core. The herd is better for it.
by Gina Nutt
Two Dollar Radio; 173 p.