Painting means more to Henry than he can quite explain. He has long had a vivid imagination, but now, with his wife having left him following one more argument (“Where have you been going in that head of yours lately?” Sarah asks for the millionth time), with their son in tow, he needs to reckon with the course his life has taken to date. An adult now, with Sarah gone, surrounded by his canvases in the attic of his farmhouse at midnight, with snow falling heavily upon the ghostly, barren countryside outside, and painting by nothing other than the light of the moon sliding through his window, Henry begins to hear the puttering of the boiler down the basement. Knowing he has to leave his attic and his paintings to drain water from that oil-devouring boiler (or the “bear”, as his father used to refer to boilers from his days working with them as a maintenance worker at Black Hill Community School) will start Henry down the path to terrible childhood memories and the realization that his extraordinary imagination has begun to unmoor him from some of the best elements of life.
After descending to the basement with nothing to see by but a flashlight–the snow has picked up and the power is out–he successfully drains the boiler and goes to dumps the used water in a drain only to find a giant red eye staring up at him through the grate.
The Painted Darkness: That Was Then, This is Now
The Painted Darkness, a novella by Brian James Freeman, is told in two parts, with quick chapters that alternate between the present and a single day of Henry’s childhood, that is also snowy, and which has closed school to let him slip away from a distracted babysitter and into the woods behind his home while his parents go off to work.
Readers learn from Henry’s childhood that he has already developed quite an imagination, which is supported by his tender father while both know the cruelties of schoolyards would make him a target of mockery and that he is best left playing his games at home, and in and around the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, on that snowy day as a boy, his imagination leads him into real danger, as it will later in life. He almost drowns in a river and falls out of a tree house he likely should have avoided in the isolated snowy forest. Whether by imagination or chance luck, he stumbles from the forest into the yard of the school where his father works, where he is about to witness a tragedy no one should have to experience. But…is it real or imaginary?
The Painted Darkness: Too Much Metaphor
The role of imagination in Henry’s life gradually evolves in the reader’s mind as the real demon in his adult life, not the creature attached to the red eye in the basement. Freeman’s portrayal is an aggressive, violent and murderous demon. As Henry flees to his attic, it comes up through the house, destroying everything in its path–rooms, china, furniture, everything. The demon is, finally, responsible for Henry’s separation from his family. Yes, the creature appears to be destroying that too.
Freeman’s desire to tie imagination to a demonic presence is worthy. Henry will need to face down his fears and his own sense of loss from what he experienced in the schoolyard as a boy when he stumbled out of the forest, and do away with the even greater role imagination has come to play in his life as a screen against life’s dark events. What will save Henry’s family is the courage he chooses to develop to face his inner demons. This is a classic Stephen King theme. (Interestingly, Stewart O’Nan , who penned a book with King several years ago, provides a testimonial for The Painted Darkness book cover).
The problem is that Freeman’s use of metaphor is too strong and lacks those rich details that lead to great storytelling. Freeman provides scant details about Henry’s painting, not even the mention of acrylics, oils or watercolors. Would these not even be just some basic words a writer should utilize to build in the reader’s mind the picture of a painter? Henry’s argument with Sarah in the novella’s first pages lack tension or a sense that the tipping point of some longer-standing disagreement has just been reached. Sarah shows up briefly, exchanges a few brief hostile words with her husband and then, with the dryness of a stage direction, exits the story.
The mantra Freeman uses throughout the novella: Henry painted against the darkness, could be used a bit more sparingly as well, and plays into my concern that the use of metaphor overwhelms. Painting has (spoiler alert!) become Henry’s way of generating color against horrible truths–the death of his father in front of him in other words. Look, no one enjoys considering such truths. I, myself, saw someone fall off a cliff and die when I was a teenager. But to throw up imagination and falsehoods against these dark truths will, as Freeman would like to point out, lead us to other dark places, where the good things we enjoy throughout out lives, such as family, cannot be enjoyed or appreciated.
The heavy use of metaphor, nevertheless, brings The Painted Darkness closer to the realm of parable than to fiction.
The Painted Darkness: Some Excellent Details
To contradict myself, to some degree, Freeman also makes some excellent choices when it comes to narrative detail. Both as a child and as an adult, Henry is saved from death by the lucky and unexpected availability of an object (a fallen tree trunk in the river, or a chimney) that prevents him from drowning or falling off the roof of his home. The ominous image of the boiler with its oil-guzzling voraciousness and endless panoply of pipes that turn into limbs, and the bizarre though effective use of an army of silent rabbits (occasionally, dripping blood) that leads Henry through the forest and to the school where his father works in the basement, is quite evocative.
These details all help drive the higher-quality elements of a story about an overly imaginative child who, having experienced something terrible, falls even deeper into the realm of illusion. It is a topic not usually addressed in such a direct fashion by authors and, therefore, The Painted Darkness is worthy of commendation for that reason. Overall, however, my final opinion is one of slight disappointment. A great story exists here somewhere. The panacea of artistry that wards off the all-too-often brutal aspects of the physical realm is the path sought by many a sensitive soul. Too-heavy metaphor, however, interferes and distracts from the author’s craft as well as, it must be added, some very loose sentence structuring. This interferes with the telling of the story. And while I can say this is something of a thoughtful read, I can’t say much more than that.