“So Shanna got a new job at the movie theater, 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.” As first lines go, Stephen Graham Jones’s opener for Night of the Mannequins is pretty close to perfect. And it perfectly sets off the saga of Sawyer, the kid who’s on the cusp of not being a kid anymore, and Manny, the mannequin who might be on the cusp of murdering everyone in town.
See, Manny used to be a member of Sawyer’s group, an honorary friend. They dressed him up and used him in all kinds of pranks, and he stayed in their clubhouse just like they all did in the long, crazy summers. He was almost real. And then, with one last prank, he was. Sawyer’s the only one who sees him stand and walk on his own two plastic feet, but that’s enough to make him wonder what happens to things we love and then throw away.
This is the teen slasher version of The Velveteen Rabbit. It asks what happens after beloved toys become real, and wonders if they wouldn’t be angry at being discarded.* What if, instead of a wistful meditation on childhood, nostalgia were a horror story?
Nostalgia as horror has been done recently in Severance by Ling Ma, but that was a quiet dread. This is a loud and bloody mess. The narrative voice reminded me of Ryu Murakami’s Sixty-Nine, but the story was much more Popular Hits of the Showa Era. Darkly funny with heaps of over-the-top violence, Night of the Mannequins is a B-horror movie in book form, a perfect little nightmare with a perfect villain. (Or is he?)
Mannequins are immutable by nature. They aren’t capable of emotional expression or physical change. That’s what makes them frightening for most of us: they mirror our form but not our actual humanity. But what makes them frightening in Night of the Mannequins isn’t the lack of affect, but the possibility that they might somehow acquire emotions and ways to express them. After all, that’s exactly the problem Sawyer is having with the rest of his friends: they’re growing up, starting to date and think about colleges, starting the inevitable drift apart. Their feelings and actions are changing. Manny’s really the only one who will stay put and stay the same—at least, until he comes alive. He really is the embodiment of nightmares, but they’re specifically Sawyer’s nightmares of growing up.
It’s a clever reversal, not to wish your toys real but to wish yourself a toy, unchanging, all the big scary realities of growing up forgotten. To then have even your toys defy you, to have your childhood abandon you and turn ugly calls into question not just your future but your past, too. Maybe all those pranks weren’t so funny after all. Maybe all those friendships were about time and place, and not an eternal bond. Sawyer will do anything—anything—to keep as much of his world intact as possible, but as he does so, he might start losing it entirely.
Is some of this over the top? Maybe. But that’s because Night of the Mannequins has its own internal logic born exclusively from Sawyer’s way of telling the story. His voice is part of the point. The subjective inner logic doesn’t bear scrutiny, and that’s the point, too. This is Sawyer’s story. Everyone’s the hero of their own story, whether that makes sense or not.
Night of the Mannequins will be released September 1.
*Fun fact: A tenth century Japanese text also wonders about this, and the result is the Tsukumogami Ki, a didactic Buddhist tale about household objects who gain consciousness and are super annoyed at having been thrown away. See more here.