For Aiden Haunt, being born is a matter of life or death in this fantasy tale.
In Knight’s richly envisioned debut, middle-aged couple Marigold and Jeff, and their gestating child, Aiden, travel through a strange world: an alternate level of existence that operates as an anteroom before birth and after death. The Inner Landscape is hardly a place of comfort; indeed, it’s more confounding, cutthroat and violent than the inner-city Paterson, N.J., public school where Jeff teaches. Here, sentient babies grow on trees, and resident archetypes, including Instinct, Imagination, Logic, Love and Purpose, swear, put on disguises, and battle both the visiting humans and one another. Good and evil beings identify themselves clearly in the outer world, but not in this stark inner realm fraught with ambiguity; sometimes Instinct seems friendly, or perhaps Imagination is, or maybe both will eventually lead the humans astray. Aiden may or may not be symbolic of the salvation of a steeply declining world, and God may or may not be sitting behind the door in Purpose’s castle. Some of these beings want to prevent the child’s birth at any cost, and even Aiden himself is disinclined to go through with it. Meanwhile, his fate unspools in scenes of full-throttle, fever-pitch action reminiscent of those in a graphic novel. (Fittingly, a deftly rendered graphic version of the tale is available at thedarknessofthewomb.com.) The book’s own illustrations, by four artists, capture the tale’s darkness in wildly varying styles, including a charming, apparently hand-drawn map of the Inner Landscape that brings to mind J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Knight, a public school teacher, crafts a tightly structured narrative with an intelligence that transcends its occasional hiccups in word choice (“lied” for “lay”; “feinted” for “fainted”; “effected” for “affected”). He also wisely leaves some key questions unanswered, and some ambiguities unresolved: Why these parents? Why Aiden? Who created the archetypes and the Inner Landscape? Why are their language and behavior so crude and vicious? Indeed, the tale is like life itself: messy, painful and chaotic, yet laced with love and compassion.
An impressive first foray into the realm of dark fantasy.