After the People Lights Have Gone Off is the equivalent of a rock star’s greatest hits album; nearly all of the author’s tales previously appeared in other venues, including “Best of” anthologies, so I thought it would be the best way for me to get a first taste of powerhouse Stephen Graham Jones. There were quite a few stories that stood out for me for both their imagery and their originality. In “Welcome to the Reptile House,” a rookie tattoo artist wishes to practice his craft; his friend works as a security guard in a morgue and offers to let him use the cadavers as canvases. Unfortunately, the protagonist tattoos the wrong corpse: as it turns out, the unwilling client doesn’t appreciate having his eyelids marked with X’s, and he’s not shy about expressing his dislike. “The Spider Box,” one of the few stories original to the collection, is a delightful creepfest. A discovered container seems to have unusual powers of regeneration, and the family’s patriarch decides to use it in ways we as the reader might have done, which is the key to the horror the story creates. A similar ethical dilemma pops up in “Snow Monsters,” where the unselfish love of parenting is truly put to the test.
“Xebico” is one story I found myself rereading. The narrator’s partner is involved in a play and asks him to do some research on its genesis. There are sly winks at King’s “Sometimes They Come Back” and perhaps even John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness here, and they work.
In another story of returns, “Second Chances” is a dark sci-fi featuring a researcher studying generations of chrysalides; the protagonist recently lost a child, and what she stumbles upon in the lab might be the ticket to filling that gaping empty hole.
One of my two favorites in the bunch is “The Spindly Man,” a story fit to tell around the campfire. In it, a small-town book club meets to discuss Stephen King’s “The Man in the Black Suit” only to find their number has increased by one, an eerie stranger who challenges the staid group. “Speak of the devil, and the devil appears” never rang truer. However, it is the collection’s title story, “After the People Lights Have Gone Off,” that left me thinking long after I had closed its pages for good. In its skeleton, “After the People” is broken love story that rings truer than most mainstream romances. A couple moves into an old home and a freak accident leaves one of them severely disabled, and the consequences of that accident haunt their house, and their relationship.
Admittedly, I was hesitant to pick up this book. Jones’ reputation precedes him; he is known to be a juggernaut of horror, and while he weaves speculative elements into nearly all of his stories, his characters, for the most part, are Everyman individuals and grounded in reality, something I enjoy. That being said, originally, I picked up his latest book, The Only Good Indians, but was warned that the frequent animal deaths might tarnish my enjoyment. Jones does incorporate animal death into quite a few of his stories here as well, and I found myself trying to decode why it is a steady motif in his work, but I came up short. Final verdict: yes, Jones is a genius, and the ubiquitous praise is well-deserved, but I’ll be wary of jumping into another of his works with both feet.