The blurb for James Knight’s new book, In the Dark Room, describes the novella as being “governed by the logic of a dream”. I was happy to discover that in true Knight fashion, it certainly is – perhaps even more than his previous works involving more of the Bird King, Snowmen, Punch and Judy, and so on.
In the Dark Room is truly surreal. There is just enough grounding in tangible reality to make the off-kilter aspects of the text hit harder when they smack you upside your head. The narrative begins with a bit of calm paranoia – the threat of mannequins milling around downstairs is relayed to us by our bedridden narrator. But it starts also as it means to go on, with beautifully unsettling oddities like this one: “Everything’s the same, really … A table, a horse, a joke, pity.” As the story progresses, the narrator tells us more but makes less immediate sense. The effect is brilliant, claustrophobic at times – not unlike a Kafka story, but somehow more threatening.
If you are at all familiar with James Knight’s work, you’ll be familiar with oneirographs, and recognise the style of illustrations instantly. If you aren’t, read it and enjoy the discovery. The title seems to be a clever play on “darkroom”, as in, a room where one develops photographs (old school, I know), and also the inner darkness of the narrator. One of the things I enjoy about Knight’s books is how the reader is guaranteed to find several hidden things like this in the text or in the illustrations, whether intended or not. Knight’s work is, after all, largely intuitive and symbolic, and In the Dark Room is no exception.
The biggest marvel is perhaps the sheer smoothness of the disjointed prose. Nothing is as it “should” be, but nothing feels out of place. You’re there, in this world, in the pages and the words, and it’s all completely acceptable, if also bone-chilling terrifying in places. I forgot I was reading at times.
On that note, perhaps the best recommendation for reading this book is from In the Dark Room itself:
“It’s just sensible to have a book, so you can look at words and wonder at their odd shapes and try to fathom their meanings. Stops you thinking about other things.”
It’s good to stop thinking about all things now and then. Read this, and allow your unconscious to guide you through your own dark room (darkroom?), stockpile of symbols, and dreams.