Dennis Etchison’s “It Only Comes Out at Night” uses such concrete details to bring to life one man’s drive through the Mojave desert that I feel I’ve heard, touched, felt, tasted, and seen everything that happens to him as if it had happened to me.
The editors describe his style “naturalistic but still undeniably strange, unease becoming horrific sometimes in the span of a single paragraph.” All these powers are on display in this story, where you see the soup from the swatted bugs on the windshield of his car, envision his delusions after driving for hours down the same infinite road, and feel the dust as he drags his finger along the hood of a car.
This accumulation of detail not only creates verisimilitude, but contributes to the sense that McClay, the protagonist, is trapped on this road with its oppressive heat and loneliness. Those effects pile up to create the sense of unease.
McClay is driving his wife homeward for an unspecified reason, though it seems ill. She sleeps in the back seat under a blanket while he adjusts the radio to staticky frequencies and pauses at rest stops to calm his nerves. He needs to find a motel.
However, as he keeps driving, he realizes the same cars, which appear all alike under the flat light of the sodium bulbs, appear in every rest stop he can find. The same cars. And they have been parked for a long, long time.
McClay inspects the cars much like an archaeologist, noticing specific details about these abandoned vehicles, traces of the human past. He notices the dust they have gathered. He even notes the patterns the raindrops left on the hood of his car, comparing them to the more layered patterns on the cars parked nearby. Based on this evidence, he knows the cars have been parked much longer.
Geology’s concept of deep time plays a special role in cosmic horror since it denotes spans of celestial and geological time that transcend all human reference. The sheer sublimity of deep time renders our own time on this earth, even that of the human species itself, infinitesimal and insignificant.
While Lovecraft taps into this fear explicitly, Etchison arguably taps into it here, though obliquely and on a smaller scale. Though the time intervals between the cars parking and becoming dusted are—obviously!—shorter than the formation of the Mojave desert itself, it is unknown how long the cars have been there to the extent that McClay must resort to sedimentary analysis, of a sort, to determine their age. This suggests ancient powers might be at work, trapping cars and people at these rest stops.
What he discovers behind the silted-over windows of the parked cars shifts the tone from mounting anxiety and strangeness to unveiled horror. The effect is remarkably chilling. Though I think Etchison could have gotten away with positing a more supernatural or surrealist reason for why the cars are trapped, this is the moment he reveals a serial killer has gone on a murdering spree at the rest stop.
The one issue I had with this story is when McClay guesses that the Indigenous person wearing a blanket over his head might be the author of the grizzly murders. Reading it in 2022, it felt like paranoid racial profiling. I found this cheapened the story; however, it must be acknowledged that the human mind craves an explanation for traumatic events and fear, even if it is an irrational explanation born of prejudice. However, I choose not to take McClay’s explanation at face value.
The fact McClay is driving on ancestral lands might also have contributed to his paranoia, an example of the fear of the colonizer to become colonized himself—a return of the repressed.
The depiction of this racial profiling is especially disappointing since Etchison does such masterful work building the sensorium of the desert highway and rest stops that he lulls the reader into a dreamlike state. I didn’t need a rational explanation for the reason the cars were stalled. I was prepared to accept that the rest stop exists out of the normal running of time and space, in a chronotope if its own.
I love the idea of “don’t go to sleep at this rest stop, or you’ll sleep for so long your body will be mummified and your car will stay parked here forever.” This was the surrealism I craved and which the rest of the story does such a good job of (potentially) building up to. Attributing the deaths to a serial killer—any serial killer—takes away from the feeling that cosmic time itself could be a threat. Mere humans are to blame.
The story strays from what could have been a compelling mix of cosmic horror and a mundane, if heightened, setting, becoming a work of crime fiction, which in my opinion renders the story more conventional and less original. That being said, the spotting of the murders themselves is exceptionally compelling in how it is written.
Next week I will read “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” by James Triptree, Jr (1976).