Two Thrills Worth Seeking – The Pricker Boy and Sleep No More

Alison Morris - December 23, 2009

A post about scary stuff might seem an odd fit for the holiday season, but as one of my recommendations here is time-sensitive, I’m not going to let that stop me!

I’m not usually drawn to things of a horror-type nature, but recently two things — a book and a play — have found me actually enjoying my walk on the dark side, or at least enjoying the feelings that washed over me AFTER my initial rush of fear had dissipated. 

THRILL NUMBER ONE is Reade Scott Whinnem‘s young adult novel The Pricker Boy (Random House, September 2009). Haunting and beautiful, this book was so much richer than I expected, and such a wonderful surprise for me given that (full disclosure here) Reade is a personal friend. Being my friend, though, is not enough to get you a mention on ShelfTalker. Writing a book as memorable and thought-provoking as this one is.

Deeply suspenseful and emotionally complex, this is the story of Stucks, a teenage boy living in a woodsy vacation town where he and his friends (some locals, some summer residents) are spending the summer together, passing time in the same basic fashion as they’ve done every year since they were kids. This year, though, things feel different. As they gather around the campfire for an annual ritual of storytelling, Ronnie (the most socially awkward of the bunch) tells the same story he spins for them every year, each time with more embellishment — the story of the Pricker Boy. A trapper’s son who was caught in one of his father’s traps, the Pricker Boy became part of the woods around him after his skin hardened into bark and thorns grew all over his body. For years, Stucks, Ronnie, and the others have been leaving peace offerings in the woods for the Pricker Boy — not believing he actually exists, but doing it, well… just in case. This year, though, things are getting freaky. Ronnie’s story reveals some odd new twists, Stucks keeps waking up to find that he’s sleepwalked into strange places, and a strange ball of furs appears for the group — which contains all of the offerings they’ve ever left for the Pricker Boy, as if he’s rejected them all and none of them will ever be safe.

One of my favorite things about this novel is the complexities of the relationships between Stucks and each of his friends. They treat one another the way teenagers do, testing the waters with one another in sometimes uncomfortable ways and tripping awkwardly through emotional territory. Ronnie, who is the brunt of many of the group’s jokes and knows they aren’t always kind to him, can’t help coming back for more. Stucks, the unofficial leader of the group, is in love with Emily but can’t even acknowledge that fact to himself.

It’s hard to say much about The Pricker Boy without including any spoilers, which I don’t want to do. Suffice it to say that what begins as a story about teens encountering a supernatural evil turns out to be much more about the evils we inflict on one another, and the evils that some of us must battle within ourselves. (That does not mean, however, that you won’t find yourself choosing to read this book during daylight hours only.)

You can learn more about Reade Scott Whinnem and The Pricker Boy at The Ruby Winkle Review.

THRILL NUMBER TWO is the American Repertory Theater’s production of Sleep No More, which the A.R.T. describes as "an immersive production inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told through the lens of a Hitchcock thriller." British theater company Punchdrunk has staged this performance/art installation in the rooms of the Old Lincoln School in Brookline, Mass., where play-goers are let loose to wonder through the school’s seemingly endless maze of rooms on four floors, each of which has been transformed into a different space or tableau you might find in Macbeth’s mansion, in the witches’ lairs, or on the set of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Cast members walk or run from room to room and floor to floor, engaging in strange wordless encounters that feel sexual or violent or some combination of both. A review in the Boston Herald described the experience as "wandering through a dream someone else is having," which pretty aptly captures the experience (though it should be noted that much of this dream feels like a nightmare). Every intricate detail of these rooms is laid out for you to walk upon, brush up against, run your fingers over, or stare at for as long as you feel inclined to.

How much Sleep No More feels like an actual play, though, is open to interpretation. Each visitor to this performance has a completely different experience, depending on how many scenes they stumble upon, how many rooms they explore, in what order they see them, and so on, and so on. At the end of our three-hour adventure through the Old Lincoln School, neither Gareth nor I felt as though we’d seen enough to piece together any actual narrative. But I had experienced enough general creepiness to leave my nerves feeling rattled for a good 24 hours at least. At one point, we entered a room just in time to see a white-masked visitor being led into a locked room by a beautiful costumed woman who pushed the man’s friend/girlfriend/wife aside when she tried to follow. (My husband was stolen from me for a time, later, in much the same fashion.) An accidental trip through the same room later in the night showed a basin of bloody water on the floor, a cloth beside it. Like walking through a series of snapshots, you come away with distinct, detailed images of things that have happened — things you may or may not seen — but very few clues as to how to put them together.

When you arrive at the school you’re ushered into a bar area where you can order drinks, check your coat, and mill about waiting for a musical performance to begin. When the number on your playing card is called, your group is ushered out into the hallway and each of you is handed a white plastic mask with a conical nose. (Yes, these are sterilized after every use.) Thus attired, you’re let loose to wander at random through the building, where other mask-wearing guests are doing the same. I was fascinated by the fact that, though, there might be 300 of you scattered throughout the school’s four floors, it can easily feel as if you and your companions are the only people left in one very bizarre universe. It’s easy to forget that there are other people in the room when you can’t see their facial expressions and when none of them are talking, as very few people seem inclined to do at the time. What sound is happening during Sleep No More (and there is a lot of it), comes not from the cast or from the so-called audience but from the combination of eerie music, familiar tunes, and unnerving waves of sound you encounter as you move from room to room. Just when you begin to relax, having been lulled by the quiet music playing in one particular space, music changes, or an agitated character rushes into the room, returning your nerves to their heightened and uncomfortable state.

The whole e
erience of this production is disorienting, unnerving, and COMPLETELY absorbing. Rare were the moments when I felt aware of the fact that I was just in a school, on a weeknight, accompanied by other play-goers. It feels creepy to poke through other people’s rooms and pore over the details of their worldly possessions. It feels creepy to glance around and see other formless, masked faces doing the same. It feels creepy to suddenly have costumed people rush into the room with you and do baffling (if beautiful) dances with one another while exchanging few, if any, words. It is creepy to grab a doorknob and find it sticky with (fake) blood. It is, in short, CREEPY, CREEPY, CREEPY to see Sleep No More.

But wow is it memorable — without a doubt the most unique and fascinating theatrical production I’ve had the (creeped-out) pleasure of attending. Which explains why so many people are going to see it again and again. As he mentioned in a recent blog post, Gareth has one friend who’s been three times and swears 80% of what he saw last time was stuff he hadn’t seen before. It also explains why the run of the show was very recently extended, providing more of you with the opportunity to take it in, which I hope many of you will do.

Sleep No More is playing at the Old Lincoln School until February 7, 2010. Take it from someone who generally doesn’t like to be scared and is not sure her nerves could handle seeing it a second time — this is still, most definitely, a thrill worth seeking.

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