What You See in the Dark is the first novel published by Manuel Munoz, a creative-writing teacher at University of Arizona. He’s also authored two short-story collections.
“Like all writers, I want my book to startle people and to prove unshakable,” said Munoz. “I want the book to stick around in a reader’s mind long after they’ve finished.”
He added, “I have a specific reason: I want to remind readers that books are better at haunting us than movies are.”
The novel’s unique and gritty premise, the disturbing murder of a young Latina singer in 1950s Bakersfield, Calif., amid the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho,” certainly is haunting, with subtly crafted violence and deep, disturbing emotions that film rarely achieves.
The author expertly weaves together the stories and emotions of three women: the singer, an aging waitress heavy with regrets and Janet Leigh. When asked how he writes convincingly from the actress’ point of view, Munoz said, “I studied her in both ‘Psycho’ and ‘Touch of Evil’ and found myself wanting to describe her line delivery, her diction and her film presence.
“To me, Janet Leigh always seemed like an extraordinarily wary kind of actress. So it was disconcerting to hear how nervous her voice sounded, as if her character was always afraid of revealing something terrible. I liked that quality, and that was the key to her characterization in this novel,” he said.
The plot of the novel is an interesting combination of thriller, love story and exploration of the dark side of the American dream. The characters’ desperate desires and fatal flaws mix together to end in violence and sadness. The violent themes and images and how they filter through American culture is an important topic for the author.
“Violence, in both books and film, disturbs me because it breaks an unspoken pact that stories ask us to make: Pretend that the characters you are about to encounter are real people,” he explained. “I’m willing to follow that to its logical conclusion, even when a character meets a terrible end. It’s surprising to me that film doesn’t know what to do with death other than show it. Books have more tools to let in reflection on what the horror means.”
Munoz’s exploration of violence is an intriguing one and well presented, but ultimately a touch disappointing. The conclusion of the novel is one the reader expects, and lacks the vigor and intrigue from the beginning of the novel. However, his prose and concept are certainly engaging. Fans of literary fiction and classic horror films will enjoy the author’s first novel.
Rated: Moderate, for some strong language, a couple of descriptive sexual scenes and violence.