“Before the Clock Strikes Six” is a delicious slice of noir fiction topped with just the right sized dollop of psychological horror. Packaged in a length perfectly long enough to read before settling in for the night, the story is certain to make the reader wake up thinking about it, perhaps pushing one to reread the tale over breakfast just to sweep up the artful breadcrumbs author Justin Tate drops along the way. The story opens innocently enough: an unnamed housewife gathers items in preparation for making dinner for her husband who is due to return from work at six. However, as this process continues, both the protagonist and her surroundings wink that things are not as they appear. Gradually, everything about the scene drips with subtle menace. As five o’clock passes, “The clock is evil, she thinks…she fantasizes briefly about throwing the clock out—chopping it into firewood with a sharp ax.”
Although time figures heavily into the narrative, anachronistic details swirl about the story, adding a bit of surrealism. The woman appears to be young, yet her husband sports “a receding head of dyed black hair is locked into place with some kind of lubricant. His face is the product of failed morning regimens: anti-wrinkle ointments, chemicals and pastes. The youthful charade is a poor performance, but she cannot deny that he remains attractive.” Her spouse is aged and worn: a stark contrast to the appearance that their marriage is relatively new. Can the uneven puzzle pieces be explained away by the housewife’s failing memory, or is something much more sinister occurring?
As she watches the pot of water continue to boil, the bayleaf she dropped inside sailing about like a ship adrift, the protagonist pontificates about how “water—in its natural state—is docile and non-threatening…[but] boiling water is different. Boiling water can kill if it wants.” It is a sly metaphor by Tate to remind the reader that every the most innocuous of settings--such as this midcentury kitchen filling with the scent of a freshly baked pie--can quickly transform itself into a dangerous prison. An engaging hybrid of Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” and a David Lynch film, “Before the Clock Strikes Six” is a well-crafted short story that kept me rapt until the very end.