IF EDGAR ALLAN POE’S MUSE is the raven, Christopher Conlon’s comes in the form of a phoenix tattooed on the back of Mauri, the young, mysterious co-protagonist in Conlon’s new novel Midnight on Mourn Street. Like the raven of Poe, Mauri descends on Reed, a man obsessed and haunted by a past love and enduring guilt, and relentlessly torments him. In the process, Mauri implicates herself and becomes intertwined in Reed’s dark trajectory.
Poe feels like an apt comparison, especially in terms of atmosphere, which Conlon is adept at establishing. The feeling of gloom and dark brooding that pervades the novel is one of its strongest points. While Poe focuses, perhaps, on the more startling images of the macabre, Conlon expertly exposes and taps into more realistic veins of horror, the terrible things people do to each other and to themselves. Conlon employs dreams, memories, and madness, even, in ways that warp conscious perception in his characters and add a subtle phantasmagoric effect. In doing so, he does something new, redefines the standard conventions of horror or expands the genre into other domains of the novel. It’s fairly safe to say that nothing supernatural happens here . . . but the cumulative effect of the terrible things that happen to Mauri and Reed is horrible, in a more real sense of the word. The nature of that horror is as much social as it is psychological.
As the novel opens, we get a sense of Reed, a man bordering on middle age, who seems to be attempting to rebuild his life from what, we are unaware. Will, a young, rising, African-American youth, ostensibly college bound, is his only close friend. One night Reed notices a young teen, Mauri, homeless, outside his apartment complex. He invites her in to take shelter, providing the means for the rest of the novel to progress as relationships form and shift among the three and their histories are revealed. In the process, we learn much about Reed and Mauri, the nature of their guilt, obsessions, and dysfunction. While the novel centers around them, Will symbolizes their lifeline to the outside world, as the only other major character, particularly the only one that has meaningful interactions with outsiders. In the book’s preface, William Nolan describes Will as a “guardian angel” who appears at times of need to intercede on behalf of the protagonists.
While the novel focuses on Reed a little more than Mauri, she was the more compelling of the two to this reader. Particularly, it was hard not to turn a skeptical eye to Conlon’s construction of the only strong female character as a girl in her young teens, homeless, turned to various forms of prostitution, etc., becoming involved with a much older man. I think it was the nature of that involvement, not romantic, only tinged with sexual undertones, but evolving into some more essential or deeper connection, that redeems the novel, as well as the characters themselves. It also speaks to Conlon’s craft that he’s created characters like Reed, that remain with us after we’ve finished the book, worrying at our sensibilities, poised on a razor’s edge between redemption and condemnation. I found the state of the characters at the end of the book interesting and the ending surprising and satisfying.
Midnight on Mourn Street is compactly written and a quick read, but well worth it. Readers should bear in mind that this is Conlon’s first novel, not in order to make allowances for what they’re reading, but in order to savor the anticipation of what’s to come.
Paul Shovlin is completing a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at Ohio University and serving as an Assistant Director for the Center for Writing Excellence. He specializes in new media and writing technologies. He lives in Athens, Ohio with his wife and son.