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“Hey,” said Freddie, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Come on. Trust me.” And I did.

 

Seann Barbour’s The Maw is a rare example for me of a novella that’s genuinely the perfect length for the story contained within its pages. I’ve been very lucky recently to have encountered a number such books, but even among them Barbour’s tightly written and deeply resonant novella stands out. The Maw is one of my very top reads of 2024 so far, and I daresay that, were I the list-making type, it would make a list of my year-end favourites. With shades of King at his best, The Maw is ideal for anyone looking for textured horror where the surreal is married with an all-too-familiar realism that has human conflict at its heart.

As with many of my favourite horror stories (particularly short stories), The Maw has a deceptively simple premise: one day, in a small town not unlike the small town you probably grew up in (or at the very least have driven through) a giant mouth appears on the side of an abandoned mall. A relatable premise, to say the least (and here I’ll just imagine anyone who has grown up in a small town nodding their heads). One night, a group of teenagers visits the abandoned lot surrounding the mall and a popular high schooler (and the ring-leader of the clique) named Freddie shoves one of his friends inside the mouth. Viewed from the perspective of Freddie’s younger brother, Simon, the tragedy that follows threatens to consume (heh) not only the town on a macro level, but the intimate relationships between family and community members. The fallout from that initial event makes up the bulk of the novella’s story, with a significant portion of the plot focusing on the question of how insular communities (as well as families) cope with the incomprehensible.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. The sun was only just beginning to set below the horizon, and the crimson colors of dusk were only just starting to wash their way across the sky. The cicadas sang their song in the woods nearby, and the air was warm and sticky and humid. Freddie and I arrived at the Lot to find no music playing, no skateboards being ridden. There was just a crowd of kids from our school, all gathered around staring and pointing and wondering.
They were gathered around the Mouth.

To say The Maw surprised me would be a profound understatement. While I’d previously read and enjoyed Barbour’s The Last Day, I wasn’t prepared for the thoughtful authorial choices that make The Maw stand out as far more than the schlocky (but fun) book I was expecting based on the premise alone. The Maw certainly earns that ever-desireable “high concept” moniker. At the book’s heart is a story less about a giant mouth that eats people (and what lies inside it), but about obsession, loyalty, love, and the internal conflict between what one knows to be right and what one feels one ought to do to live up to societal ideals. The giant mouth is simply the vehicle by which Barbour encourages his audience to consider these deeper themes and the questions he raises within the architecture of the story.

I read somewhere once that most people like it when stuff is simple. If a situation is complicated, our brains reject that complexity and seek an easier explanation. We like it when there are clear-cut heroes and villains, and we don’t like it when people are, well, people. It’s how you end up with conspiracy theorists; no one likes it when the water is muddy.

Our protagonist, Simon, is emanently relatable as a teenager who feels somewhat adrift as he attempts to reconcile the idealized vision he has of his brother Freddie with what he feels in his heart to be the darker side of Freddie’s character. When Simon first introduces us to the clique who regularly visits the lot, it’s with a sense of the group as fairly open, yet as the narrative progresses, Simon begins to question the equity of these relationships. That Simon’s internal conflict is mirrored by the people who surround him, allows Barbour to comment on issues endemic to smaller communities: conformity, bullying, and the valuing of  tradition over individual injustices. With its emphasis on adolescent interrelationships and learning to define oneself through internal dialogue, The Maw thus falls into the category of a coming-of-age story. That said, Barbour’s writing has far more in common with King’s It, or The Body than with contemporary YA. Much as the real monster in It isn’t Pennywise at all, but the town of Derry, so too is the haunting image of the maw (a mouth painted on a mall that devours the town’s young) really a metaphor for much more frightening, real-world problems. There’s a nostalgic feel to the world Barbour crafts, but not in the uncritical way that’s become so popular in recent years. Rather, The Maw probes the raw and festering wounds that exist around nostalgia itself, calling into question the overly-rosy view we so often have of our hometowns and the fictionalized version of our pasts we long to return to.

Gradually, as the story progresses, Simon becomes increasingly obsessed with the maw itself. The varied reactions of the book’s characters to both the mouth and the tragedy that begins the novella, encapsulate the larger issues at the heart of the town and its politics. Barbour’s confident depiction of Simon’s spiralling mental health is one of the highlights of the book. There’s a deft yet gentle touch to Barbour’s character work overall, particularly with regards to Simon, but also in terms of his portrayal of Simon’s family, as well as the family of the boy Freddie pushed.

What drew my attention more than anything else, what truly unnerved me about the Mouth, were its teeth. They were each larger than a man’s head, lining the top and bottom of the organ’s entrance, growing from the fleshy red of the gums, and they all looked so normal.

As much as I’ve emphasized the mundane aspects of The Maw, equally important is the novella’s surreal ambiguity–its refusal to offer concrete answers. The mouth on the side of the mall is the subject of fascination not only for Simon and the townspeople, but for the reader. Where did it come from? Why is it here? You keep reading and reading, hungry for an answer you know in your heart Barbour is unlikely to give (and which would never live up to the tension created by the questions themselves). This refusal on the part of the author helps sustain the brooding, eerie atmosphere of the book, buoying the reader along and feeding into the textured sense of place and time that I’ve alluded to.

All in all, The Maw is a horror novella that deserves a much wider readership than it’s so far attracted. I can’t help feeling, reading Barbour’s work, that I’m coming in at the start of something big. That I’m one of the lucky ones to see a titan of the genre as he first emerges from his macabre cocoon. If you’re on the fence, I urge you to take a chance on The Maw. It’s a short book, so even if you hate it (trust me–you won’t), the most you’ll lose are a couple of hours and there’s oh so muchmore to gain.

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Steve Hugh Westenra

Steve is a trans author of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (basically, if it’s weird he writes it). He grew up on the eldritch shores of Newfoundland, Canada, and currently lives and works in (the slightly less eldritch) Montreal. He holds advanced degrees in Russian Literature, Medieval Studies, and Religious Studies. As a reader, Steve’s tastes are eclectic. He enjoys anything that could be called speculative, including fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, but has been known to enjoy a good mystery as well as literary fiction. He’s always excited to try something new or that pushes boundaries, particularly from marginalized authors. Steve is passionate about queer representation, Late Antiquity, and spiders.

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