JULY 5, 2017
VICTOR LAVALLE is an author with work finely honed in his own unique style of the uncanny. His novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver, are fascinating reads, rooted in the dark nature of the human mind and the effect it has on those around us. Each contains elements of horror and/or the supernatural, but LaValle tends to use these as seasoning to the entrée, which is a deeply personable story line laced with his inimitable brand of humor. It was his 2016 novella The Ballad of Black Tom that introduced his work to a larger audience, giving a much-needed retcon to H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Horror at Red Hook.” Instead of the wealthy white madmen, it examines the life of a black man caught in the middle of a Cthulhu conspiracy, salvaging and reshaping a problematic narrative into something engaging, heartfelt, and newly sinister.
In his newest novel, The Changeling, two people face an onslaught of dark manifestations — some familiar, some not. The story of the Kagwa family is one that quickly transforms into a saga, and The Changeling is its chronicle, filled with the deeds and secrets of the members. They must confront their tenuous control over their own realities in order to have any chance of discovering the truth about themselves and their future. The book opens with a family origin story. Lillian Kagwa is an immigrant from Uganda escaping a violent regime, scraping by while working as a secretary for a crooked manager. Brian is a private detective from upstate New York, trying to pin down said manager, who finds himself more interested in the secretary. The first third of the book follows the Kagwa family’s cozy beginnings, complete with humble accommodations and a baby on the way. When the baby arrives, we are introduced to Apollo Kagwa, named for the god. He grows into a slight, intelligent, bookish boy, living an altogether normal childhood — until the day his father Brian disappears without a trace.
Even with this early detail, a reader could not be blamed for overlooking the slowly creeping strangeness of The Changeling and what lies ahead. It isn’t until nearly halfway through the book that The Changeling finally begins to reveal its true form — a modern fairy tale, which LaValle has captured in intense, riveting detail. The focus shifts to Apollo’s self-made life as a bookseller, as he rises from a kid fleecing used paperbacks from neighbors to a full-fledged hunter of rare books. As you would expect, his research eventually leads him to the local library branch, where he meets the love of his life, Emma Valentine. They embark on the quintessential big-city romance, filled with all the glitz, glamour, and stereotypical quirkiness that go with the genre. They get married, Emma becomes pregnant, and one adventurous only-in-New-York emergency subway birth later, Brian Kagwa is welcomed into the world. Apollo beams with pride at the birth of his son, ready to take on what he prepared his whole life for — being the father he never got to have.
It’s at this point that The Changeling grabs you by the wrist and extinguishes a lit cigarette on the sensitive underside of your forearm.
Apollo wakes up in a daze, chained to the radiator pipe in the kitchen with a U-lock around his neck. “When he pulled forward and gasped, the lock resisted, and he slumped backward. As soon as he did, the back of his exposed neck touched the steam pipe like a pork cutlet pressed against a hot skillet.” The air in the apartment is thick with an oppressive, tropical heat. Screeching erupts from somewhere in the distance — a tea kettle, steaming away on the red-hot stove. Emma, or something that like her, stumbles into the kitchen to remove the kettle. She is nearly unrecognizable — grizzled, feral, dead to the world. She removes the kettle but the screeching remains. It’s coming from somewhere else — further inside the apartment. The nursery.
Confused by the circumstances but acutely aware of the situation, Apollo begs Emma not to hurt their baby. Emma only replies, with cold confidence: “It’s not a baby.”
Thus, The Changeling has begun its first transformation, or rather entered the second phase of its being. From this point on, any notion of a feel-good family story has evaporated, and madness begins to lead both Apollo and Emma down paths of intrigue, paranoia, and the supernatural. There are times when Apollo attempts to return to a normal life, but it’s disturbing and upsetting to watch him interact with the husks of a reality that no longer exists. “This was why he might’ve been the only man on the bus who didn’t want to board it,” Apollo contemplates on a ride back to the city. “Everyone else wanted to get back home, but Apollo Kagwa had no home anymore.” LaValle paints Apollo’s pain in harsh strokes flared by horsehair edges. Among dealing with his own problems, he is still haunted by the question that has been plaguing him since that horrible afternoon: why, why, why. His life seems devoid of purpose beyond one goal: to find Emma and kill her.
The style of The Changeling will be familiar to those who enjoy Twin Peaks. In true Lynchian fashion, the story subtly explores the line between reality and unreality, how stark the text can be in its visage, and how disturbing it becomes when one crosses over to the other. The story is a long, slow burn with a lingering sizzle, a burn that scabs over into a shape not unlike the face of your dead father. As Lynch did, LaValle plays with the notions of contemporary culture, painting recent phenomena to have much more ancient and literal roots. As Apollo dives deeper into the mystery, notions of the past and present clash and oddly intermingle with each other, like dark bubbles of vinegar floating in buoyant olive oil. Visions of his own vanished father, blind and spectral, haunt his dreams. When a lead digs up some video footage of Emma in the city, she appears to engage differently with the people around her. “If people saw her, they didn’t act like it. They moved around her as if she was a cloud of bad atmosphere.” Had Emma’s transformation — first with her horrific act, then her strange disappearance — truly been the work of something unnatural?
Even if that is so, the possibility emerges that the supernatural is not his enemy — that there is a bigger threat lurking just behind a phone screen. Strange texts appear and disappear, social media trolls find ways to taunt him online and offline. As he tumbles deeper into the rabbit hole, technology helps and betrays him again and again, manifesting the cycle of humanity’s progress as it boosts and hampers us. “Why worry over witches when the internet could conjure so much worse?”, he wonders, echoing a curiously modern sentiment. But when he starts to get help from a man who wants to help him find Emma, he will learn to become wary of the stories people like to tell about their lives, because they will almost always frame themselves as the hero. And, perhaps, witches are not the myth he should be most worried about.
Apollo has only now just crossed the threshold, and many ordeals await him before his journey is complete. Before the story is over, Apollo will have his notions challenged, forge alliances, discover betrayals, undergo trials, and be forced to confront evil in all its forms. No matter how you think The Changeling is going to end when you’re halfway or even two thirds of the way through, remember the nature of the creature in its title — a being invisible to the static mind and only barely glimpsed by those willing to shatter their ego completely.
At its heart, The Changeling is a parable on the vanity of parenthood. Not just the surface emotions of pride and oversharing, but an acknowledgment that fairy tales, whether gruesome or whimsical, exist for a reason: to educate the coming generations on the inherent dangers of our world. As far as we’ve come, there are still plenty of things out there beyond our understanding. Despite all the trappings of our modern lives, the threats to our safety — modern or ancient — share a common, predatory goal. But more so, The Changeling is all about the challenges of raising a child, how being a parent is a truly sacred task, never to be taken for granted. The task of a guardian is one that must be earned rather than given. This is something that both Apollo and Emma Kagwa, and LaValle’s readers, are about to learn on a journey they’ll never forget.