The Last Vanishing Man
(Third Man Books, 2023)
One of the things about a terrifying story is that, eventually, it will be over and you can close the book and try to forget. But once in a while there’s a story that stays. There are very few writers who can write stories that stay with me in quite this way. Cheney’s new collection is less the “horror!” that his publisher hypes and more a combination of wildly post-apocalyptic brutalism and deeply sympathetic studies of people—lost or irreparably harmed by modern life and the punishing ways masculinity is often shaped. Split into four sections, these fourteen stories often have a male narrator musing on the questions asked in the first story, “After the End of the World,” namely, “Who is to blame, though, for destruction? Who is to blame for life?” For the narrator of this story—and arguably for the writer—what compels him is “the moment a life changes forever. The end of a world, and the after the end.” The stories in this collection move across space and time exploring these moments in varying extremes.
“After the End of the World,” focuses on the life of a woman (Jane) whose father kills several people in a mass shooting. He was a man who taught himself only what he wanted to hear: “The danger of such a history was that … he assessed its worth based on how well it fit in the puzzle he imagined for himself.” Like so many violent men, the shooter wants to have someone to blame, “someone to pin a life of rotted hopes on, and eventually (after all the anger and pain petrified into purpose) someone to kill.” Violence, the story suggests, is inherited, “and his father before him, and all the way back to the colonial settlers who brought disease and murder with them, and then all the way farther back…” As the story is told and retold with varying possible timelines, we learn that despite these shifts, “In all of the versions of this story, Jane finds her way to a glacier… The glacier is melting. Soon, the seas will rise and the cities will drown. She won’t live to see it, but she knows it is the only possible future. Misery, suffering, death.” There’s a foreclosure here, a finality of knowing what the end will be that appears in other stories in the collection but there are also some stories that have space for light and hope.
In “The Last Vanishing Man,” a narrator tells us that he once saw a vaudeville magician called “The Great Omega” perform a trick called “the vanishing man,” only this time, the magician made a violent heckler disappear—for good. As we progress through the story, we learn about a bed and breakfast that becomes a sanctuary for those whose gender expression or sexual preferences don’t fit into a brutal heteronormative world. The narrator ends up moving to the bed and breakfast, run by Alice and Mary, in the mid- 1960s. The story shifts into Mary’s first-person narrative, “We had met in New Hampshire, where she was performing as a man.” Alice was, we learn, the Great Omega, and the story of their last performance is much darker than it first seems. In the final part of the story, the bed and breakfast changes owners again, continuing as a space of sanctuary. In the comparatively light ghost story, “Winnipesaukee Darling,” a gay couple (Henry and “Candy”) watch a documentary on Candy Darling and rent a cabin on Lake Winnipesaukee so that Henry can film his partner dressing up as Candy Darling. When the power goes out, they cross the street to a mansion where they meet a man who may or may not exist and together dress up, dance, and celebrate life. Although the tale ends with a shiver, there’s joy here too.
The second section of the collection starts with a quote from Audre Lorde, “that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressor’s tactics, the oppressor’s relationships.” As each tale unfolds, this quote helps to frame the violence and difficult histories in each. In “Killing Fairies,” a lonely young gay man studying at NYU meets the beautiful and strange Jack who may or may not be enslaved by a supernatural being who he keeps in a box under his bed. Although the narrator’s love for Jack is doomed, we can’t help but feel he dodged a terrible fate. In “Hunger,” Eileen (one of the only female narrators in the collection) starts her tale of family violence and trauma with the line, “It was only a few weeks after my mother’s funeral when my father told me not to come home again.” Leaving behind her husband and young son, Eileen travels to the family farm—desolate and full of terrible memories. Her brother, Corey, committed suicide some years before and her mother is dead leaving only her father—full of rage and fear. Staying overnight, despite her father’s hostility and warnings, Eileen discovers an awful secret in the basement, a secret she carries home with her to her trusting family.
In “Mass,” one of the stories set in academia, the narrator (Ted Delaria) writes about his dissertation research on mass murder and American literature and a journey he made to interview the reclusive academic Wendell Hamilton, once best friend to an infamous mass shooter. As the two men move through the interview, the story becomes almost Lovecraftian with a rising sense of doom. Wendell declaims “Chaos torments the pattern-seeking mechanisms in our minds. Catastrophe brings out the fool in the best of us. And I am not the best of us.” And speaking not only to Ted but perhaps also to those of us reading: “The escape that man sought was an escape through literature, or, more accurately, an escape through the interpretation of literature. It was an attempt to get the stories right, to find, somehow, the right words, and, thus, salvation.” And then Wendell asks a question so many of us seldom ask ourselves “Why are you doing the work you are doing?” Ted struggles to respond and eventually walks out into an oncoming storm, and the story ends in a deluge.
The third section shifts into poignant, sometimes apocalyptic, and sometimes horrifying territory. In “At the Edge of the Forest,” Bryan’s face is horribly disfigured by a car accident that killed his parents. He is convinced that he causes the death of anyone who gets close to him, including his best friend Julia and past lovers. He believes the only solution is his own death: “Julia’s death made him more certain than he had been in many years that the only way out was to die.” Bryan ignores the pleas of his current lover, Cameron, instead deciding that “Darkness isn’t terrifying, emptiness isn’t terrifying. It simply is. We had it before birth, we will have it at death. Pain is frightening, suffering is frightening, but emptiness and nothingness are the purest states.” But at the end there is a surprising uplift leaving both men with some sense of hope.
In “Wild Longing,” the narrator is (once again) a gay man who spent time at college in New York City studying drama. As he discusses his views on Oscar Wilde, the narrator tells us about Dr. Stevens, a much older man who was once a mentor. When Dr. Stevens dies, his lawyer asks the narrator to help value the man’s music and book collection. While searching for a version of Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” he discovers books that point to a repressed side of Dr. Stevens not in line with his “deeply reactionary” politics. Later, in a poignant moment at the library where the narrator works, his co-worker makes an observation that serves to help define both Stevens and the narrator: “Loneliness,” Rebekah said, “makes people fall into themselves. They lose sense of the world.” Continuing the theme of repressed desire, in the deeply disturbing “A Suicide Gun” Malcolm travels to Arizona to check up on his alcoholic childhood friend Billy. Malcolm’s wife Celeste is concerned and grows more so as the story spins out. What begins as a visit to a childhood friend in need becomes an obsessive journey into queer desire, gun lust, and slippage into very American paranoia. Where Malcolm seems the one in control at the beginning of the story, after he insists on seeing Billy’s father’s collection of “suicide guns” he shifts his desire for Billy into a warped desire for guns and an idée fixe that he cannot keep his home with Celeste “safe.”
In the fourth section, things get truly weird and apocalyptic. “The Ballad of Jimmy and Myra” is a surreal and disjointed love story about a boy who “started smoking when he was eight” and becomes a receptacle for male violence. Myra is tragically dying of a brain tumor but the two young people find a way to have sex and fall in love. Although its oddness is entertaining, the over-the-top nature of this story makes it the weakest in the collection. In contrast, “Patrimony” is a compellingly brutal post-apocalyptic tale about the perils of reproduction in a space where “we live inside an apocalypse” and “giving birth is immoral.” One day a stranger rides into town, strides into the town library, and announces he’s taking a copy of Psychopathia Sexualis. He claims he is “the savior of the human race” and embarks on a violent process of attempting to impregnate the women in town against their will. Eventually some of the women give birth, form a posse, gathering numbers from town to town until they capture the stranger and enact their revenge. The tale ends with the narrator repeating the message, “We have come to know it is monstrous to bring children into this world.” The next story is the very dark, “On the Government of the Living,” where people “slept in holes and built hovels in ruins…a place of ash and sand, a place of burned metal, a place of splinters” where the inhabitants (referred to only as “they”) sometimes come together around a fire to share a memory or a name. But just in case you think there might be some uplift at the end, we’re told “And if this were a happy story there would be an epiphany, and voices would rise with their own laughter…” but in this place, in this story, there is only silence. The final two stories in the collection are both strangely compelling and equally repellent. In “A Liberation” Arthur sells most of his possessions and moves to Siberia where he changes his name to Akaky, meets a stray dog (who he names Arthur), and a cold young woman, Zora. Zora informs him that the city is sinking, “the frozen ground is not staying frozen any longer” and the sea is rising. Of course, this image sends us back to the melting glaciers and the inevitability of climate disaster but there is a darker image at work as well. Arthur the dog drags bones and body parts up to Akaky’s apartment and Akaky discovers a terrible secret in the basement. The story ends in a horrific moment of artistic uplift, Zora and Akaky and Arthur finding a warped kind of joy in the rotting landscape. In the brief last tale, “The Box,” the narrator has a mysterious little box with a ruby lock containing “All dead: the mouse, the butterfly, the toad, the sparrow.” And anything else would spoil the lovely surprise. By the end of this collection, we can easily answer those questions “Who is to blame, though, for destruction? Who is to blame for life?”—we are, of course, every one of us.