Noah Thornburgh on B.R. Yeager’s cosmic horror novel Negative Space

Works of cosmic horror threaten to consume their characters by the end. We expect an ultimate resolution, not necessarily through an explanation of the mysteries that preceded, but by the total convergence of the experience in a singular mystery. The Outside snuffs out the characters, inspires madness in them, cripples them—some final effect demonstrating the power of that uncaring and ruthless horror that the author had constructed.

Negative Space‘s brilliance lies in the way author B.R. Yeager’s horror evades any singular form due to the very structure of the novel. We are given a fractured narrative, split by perspective, time, and space. Three perspectives are deployed. Sometimes there are three paragraphs between perspective change, sometimes a few pages. We woozily lurch between scenes of fucked-up teens getting fucked-up and insidious horrors fucking up teens. We’re never allowed to assemble the pieces.

Briefly summarizing: Negative Space begins and ends in Kinsfield, a dying Northeastern town with a suicide epidemic. Three high school seniors, Ahmir, Jill, and Lu recount their (mostly) parallel stories as they relate to Tyler, a fourth teenager and the locus of change for the novel.

Through Ahmir, we watch Tyler deepen his experiments with the occult as he carves blood rituals from his arm. Through Jill, we’re aware of Tyler’s increasingly tenuous place in her reality. Through Lu, the outsider, the widening gyre surrounding the suicides and Tyler’s obsession becomes apparent.

In broad strokes, the plot resembles that of typical horror: an encroaching terror permeates the forest around Kinsfield, and our characters become entangled in it. Tyler obsesses over this terror, convinced of its existence, and chases further extremes of experience in order to reach it.

We are introduced to several plot devices that appear to be pieces to the ultimate puzzle: an anonymous imageboard that Kinsfield residents use to derive a sort of fetishized entertainment from the suicides, a chewable entheogen called WHORL that’s purchased from gas stations, shared nightmares, recurring geometric patterns, and excerpts from metaphysics texts that tantalize with their potential explanatory power for the mysteries of the plot.

My initial instinct was to file away these pieces in preparation for a final assembly at the end of the novel. I wanted to solve the mystery Yeager was drip feeding me through his limited narrators.

This is not the case, and reading the novel with corkboard and string handy would be a mistake. Our three characters, as any teenagers, are shaping themselves, not sleuthing. They try first to solve the mysteries of their identities and desperately ignore the cosmic lurkings they are drawn into by their relationships with Tyler. Both the slow dread, which Yeager wields with an expert touch, and the explosive scenes when the outside breaks through take shape only in relation to one of the narrator’s distinct fields of view. These characters, along with their network of to hand symbols used to make sense of what the hell is going on, perpetually diverge.

This makes the novel a primarily aesthetic experience, which I say meaning only praise. Yeager’s rapid perspective switches are bullets of shock, lodged within us variously as dread, nausea, and terror. The thick layers of description take their shape from the wide spectrum of techniques employed by each point-of-view character. To use an analogy, the novel reads like we are quick cutting between three cameras of different model, film, and lens, trained on a phenomenon from different angles, but always toward its back; any glimpse of the phenomenon’s front is seen only through distorted, dirty mirrors.

An example: Yeager’s most fascinating character is Lu. Lu is a neurodivergent trans woman, whose disorienting internal monologue is blunt but unfamiliar, as if from an alien. Viewing the knotted mystery through her eyes is to first see it in relation to her own horrors. She desperately fears losing Jill, her only friend, as she becomes entangled in Tyler’s quest for hell. Jill is her only affirmation of gender identity, as she is variously deadnamed and misgendered by everyone, including her parents. And Yeager writes Lu with both synesthesia and a vernacular unique to her neurodivergence—anger is “knives,” sobbing is going “fully wet,” and moods are colors and temperatures.

The style teeters on gimmicky, but quick cuts mean Lu’s alien language bolsters the aesthetic of the novel rather than drags on its flow. Similar analysis could be easily applied to the other two narrators, with Ahmir’s broken family and Jill’s broken individuality providing the foreground of their accounts, while we squint with dread at the writhing mass in the background.

To say the novel is primarily an aesthetic achievement is not to discount its themes. Negative Space provides a marked counterpoint to those coming-of-age horror tales that have gained popular footing with Stranger Things and It. These light-hearted affairs use horror as a vehicle for the maturation of the characters and tint the whole thing in warm nostalgia. Yeager’s characters get dragged through the shit, locked in by their own pathologies.

First-person perspective forces an honesty out of Yeager’s treatment of adolescence. A coming-of-age story that emerges from a shitty town, mass suicides, and desperately dependent teens must be dark and hopeless. Such is the case. And more than that, these teenagers lack the coherent internal world that makes possible a crystalline retelling. The ‘insanity’ trope that one finds in a Lovecraft story, where an adjusted but obsessive individual descends into madness due to the mystery they encounter, is warped by Yeager. The narrators’ descents are instead failures to realize an identity; They can’t escape the horrors of both their own torturous neuroses and the cosmic unknown that drained their hometown.

Maybe the highest praise I can give this novel is with an accurate account of my experience reading it. This novel invaded my dreams. I had a sleepless night haunted by a dismal amalgam of my family’s faces and Yeager’s sick and vivid imagery. His novel then became the outside encroaching upon my reality, lurking long after I had stopped reading, which must be the highest that a work of cosmic horror could hope to accomplish.

Negative Space, by B.R. Yeager. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Apocalypse Party, March 2020. 382 pages. $14.99, paper.

Noah Thornburgh reads and writes out of Madison, Wisconsin. He blogs, produces music, and can be found on Twitter @trycypress.

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