The Making of the Atrocities
I recently read one of my favorite childhood books, Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, to my daughter. If you haven’t read it, it’s the story of a boy who faces everything from monstrous chefs to a plunge in a giant milk bottle to a brush with death by baking—and there’s full-frontal nudity! At her age, I read the book so many times I could recite it by heart, and I was excited to see her reaction to it.
When I was finished reading, I asked, “So, what did you think?”
She sniffed, “It’s all just silly, isn’t it?” This with a level of scorn only a four-year-old can muster.
I was surprised, even a little hurt. I tried to defend the book. “Well, silly things are fun, right? Sometimes it’s fun to just read a silly story.”
“Yes . . . but I think it will give me nightmares.”
I was struck by this assessment, not because it was inaccurate, but because it so neatly summed up every book I’ve ever loved beyond all reason, including The Baltimore Atrocities. In fact, my first reaction when I read the manuscript (which, incidentally, didn’t originally include the central story) was to laugh. Loudly. A woman systematically murders her dinner party guests—hilarious! A man poisons his benefactor, a woman who’s treated him like a son, as “a way of giving back to the community”—ha! A poet has the most successful reading of her career only to discover the heartbreaking truth: the attendees were only there because each book purchase came with a free coffee—this one had me nearly doubled over in laughter.
Since that first reading, I’ve talked about the book to lots of people: friends, relatives, coworkers, strangers on the bus (“It’s a book about mysterious child disappearances in Baltimore, and it’s funny too! Hey, where are you going?”) I’ve come to realize that for me, the best books have always been those that force you to experience contradictory feelings not one after the other, but all at once. Disgust merges with attraction, pity joins with fear, and terror and laughter aren’t enemies, but soulmates. It’s analogous to the wild, weightless feeling you have at the peak of a rollercoaster just before you plummet back to earth, screaming.
I now see that when I acquired The Baltimore Atrocities, I wasn’t taking on a new story so much as all the stories I’ve loved the most from the moment I started reading. What I saw in John’s manuscript was an author who, like Sendak, seems to inhabit that infinitely small point where stories that are “just silly” give you nightmares of the highest order. In this way, he has an intuitive sense of the knot of contradictions hidden inside every human, which is why I was determined to add him to the roster of Coffee House authors.
As for my daughter and Night Kitchen? She’s run her hand over the cover and smiled, even, oddly, slept with it tucked under her bed for a couple of nights. But since that first time, she’s never once asked me to read it again. Some silliness is just too terrifying to bear, I guess.