Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Kearns, The Night Has Seen Your Mind (2021)

Simon Kearns, The Night Has Seen Your Mind. Elsewhen Press, 2021. Pp. 326. ISBN 978-1-911409-65-6. $20.00 pb/$3.99 e.

Reviewed by Jason Kahler

How would House on Haunted Hill have been different if instead of Vincent Price, it was Elon Musk who offered folks a bunch of money to hang out somewhere, and instead of a haunted house, that somewhere were a high-tech outpost in the Arctic Circle? The answer to that question, after a fashion, is The Night Has Seen Your Mind, a novel that replaces the supernatural chills with technological imposition, but still relies on the psychological impact of new places, strange thoughts, and the nearness of strangers to drive its plot and enforce its mood. The book, by Simon Kearns, offers some thought-provoking questions and interesting moments, but its ultimate success will depend upon how well you connect with the characters as they come to terms with their situation.

The Musk-type character here is Mattias Goff, an eccentric tech billionaire who wants to study the brainwaves of creative people using his new technology, an EEG cap. He invites five strangers representing a number of creative fields to stay at his Arctic compound and do their work while wearing the caps. He’s trying to unlock the nature of creativity, or so he says. If they participate in his experiment for a month, they’ll each receive $5 million. The $10,000 Vincent Price offered the folks from 1959’s House on Haunted Hill is a mere pittance in comparison.

Goff’s guests include Sarah, the photographer; Patrick, the actor; Cassian, the author; Jenny, the pianist; and Chris, the programmer. Kearns takes the time to give each of these characters a history and backstory, and we experience the book through all of them as the short chapters cycle through their perspectives. A reader’s enjoyment of the book overall will depend in part on which characters they prefer, and whether or not the book spends enough time with him or her. Goff himself floats in and out of the story, so we rely on his five guests to propel the plot as they work out the secret of the true purpose of Goff’s G-caps.

The real star of the book is the stark Arctic landscape. The isolation is important in a story like this, and Kearns does an excellent job of impressing us with Goff’s technological wonder of a compound while making sure we never forget the unforgiving ice and cold just outside the door. Most of the best parts of the book come from when the characters are out for some fresh air. There are no cell phones during the experiment, of course, which isn’t something Vincent Price would have worried about but is an important detail here.

The publisher describes the book as being in the tradition of the “New Weird.” I can see why the comparison is apt: The Night Has Seen Your Mind relies on the slow creep of the dread the characters feel as they realize things aren’t quite the way they’ve been described. A passage from about two-thirds of the way through the book serves as a good example of the tension Kearns cultivates:

Sarah and Patrick looked at each other. She saw in Patrick’s face the same riot of emotions she was struggling with: disgust, fear, anger, confusion. She was glad to have the rifle, and she slipped it from her shoulder and placed her finger on the trigger guard. (241)

Overall, Kearns probably relies upon too slow of a creep, and things don’t really get cooking until way late in the novel. By then, it’s too easy to care too little about the group, though readers will no doubt be rooting for their favorite. This reviewer would have liked to see this book tightened up a bit. We know things are going to go sideways; let’s get there a tad more efficiently, without so much gristle. I want the sinew, the bone, and the muscle. There’s enough here to make that work.

The book’s “Weird” isn’t Lovecraftian, so readers shouldn’t be looking here for tentacled monsters and arcane lore. The plodding subversion of the familiar with the unfamiliar is what makes it work, and isn’t a lot of technology its own brand of arcane lore, anyway? Readers will recognize elements of other science fiction works, but the novel never slides into the cliché. The Night Has Seen Your Mind is an admirable attempt to straddle multiple genres and make some classic set-ups new again. There’s a lot to recommend here, though you may need to exercise some patience before you earn your full reward.

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