“The Night Sun” by Zin E. Rocklyn (2021 Ignyte Awards)

“The Night Sun” can be read online at Tor.com.

Avery is trapped in a relationship with her abusive husband Jonas. Their marriage at breaking point, they make a last-ditch attempt to repair things with a vacation to a remote cabin situated at an idyllic lakeside locale, with seemingly nobody but state trooper Bruce Hayword and ambulance technician Casimiro in the vicinity. In theory, the cabin offers a chance to escape the stresses, strains and anxieties of the couple’s daily life; in practice, however, Jonas’ violent tendencies flare up even as he and Avery are driving to their destination.

Moreover, spending time in the cabin does little to help Avery to forget her troubled past. She is still haunted by recollections of her mother, and guilt over the latter’s death by aneurism. Her sister Kaya is another lingering presence. When Kaya makes a phonecall, Avery is unable to tell the little white lie that the retreat is working, and still more bad memories are dredged up:

“Since when did you start giving a fuck, Kaya?”
“Since when did you stop?!”
“When everyone disappeared! When the bruises were louder than the fucking lies and I just—” My breath caught and I squeezed my eyes shut, willing this moment not to consume me. But it was like puking because the spins won’t end; once I stuck my fingers in my throat, there was no holding back the deluge of years in silence. “Because I was fucking drowning and I didn’t know how to say it. Because no one saw me from behind your shadow, Kaya. Because Jonas was there to clean the fucking wounds when y’all slammed the door in my fucking face.”
I gulped at the cold air, my mouth thick with tears. “Because I’ve never felt more alone than I have without you and Mom.”
Kaya also reveals that the cabin, which she procured for her sister, once belonged to their grandfather – so perhaps it is only natural that it becomes a place where Avery must sweat out her family history.

“The Night Sun” is a ghost story, and the fraught emotional state of its protagonist (who has a “stomach thick with rotten memory”, as she puts it) is articulated through a series of supernatural occurrences appropriate to the backwoods setting. These begin at the very start of the story when the couple encounters a ghost deer on the road to the cabin:

The deer was long dead before my husband struck it with our car. The fur was mottled with blood and fluids, tendons of the neck naked to the air while threads of muscle clung to mass of the deer’s body. Its head stood on high, all nineteen points of its antlers aimed toward the heavens, its pulse visible in the exposed veins. I could see the forest behind it, the rest of the deserted highway as clear as a cleaned windshield threaded with red, palpitating stratum.

In this instance, the horror of the supernatural is abruptly replaced with the horror of intimate partner violence:

Admittedly, I was entranced by the deer, by the sheer horror of what was clearly a dead animal that had the nerve to defy all known laws of nature by standing stock-still in the middle of this backwoods highway, its trademark stupid gaze marred by streaks of gore running from its coal black eyes.
Once my husband realized I hadn’t been listening to his opinion on my job loss, he tried to make me.
The slap of a fist against flesh isn’t the stuff of ’80s movies, and the recovery certainly isn’t from any film with a knock-down, drag-out fight. My head struck the window hard enough to dizzy me, the pane left intact. My eyes rolled shut, the muscles of my neck seizing at the point of impact, my head lolling forward.
Domesticity and nature alike pose their respective hazards for Avery, the latter becoming evident when she is attacked and injured by a wolf after arriving at the cabin. Aside from some brief, ambiguous dream-like sequences, the story’s supernatural element does not return until nearly two thirds of the way through. This signifies a changing point in the narrative: the point at which everything comes together, as “The Night Sun” mixes the family-centric nature of the haunted house story with backwoods horror’s focus on nature.

Not only Avery’s family but also the state trooper and ambulance technician turn out to have roles to play in the network of supernatural figures. The story does over-explain things somewhat in its final quarter, and falls into the now-familiar pattern of having its protagonist make glib summaries of even her most horrific personal ordeals (“Yeah, well, been a wild-ass weekend and it’s hardly over. I’m pretty sure my husband punched me hard enough for a goddamn embolism, I just saw a bunch of deer with no fucking necks, and I’m naked, yet unbothered, in front of a very attractive stranger”). Yet it still holds up, largely because of the robust set of themes at the story’s foundation.

Avery’s tumultuous family relationship involves race. Husband Jonas is “the picture-perfect American boy, the kind to eternally get away with shit because he’s just a kid, no matter how many years may prematurely age his Nordic face”; Kaya, meanwhile, is the sister who “knew how pretty she was ‘for a Black girl,’ the one who was thinner, taller, lighter”. The haunted landscape is likewise scarred by racial strife, with both slavery and the persecution of Native Americans reflected in the ghosts that haunt the region.

The story of the haunted countryside and that of Avery’s abusive relationship, the themes of personal and cultural trauma, are satisfyingly and convincingly tied together at the conclusion of “The Night Sun”, where Avery is surrounded by ghostly images of family and heritage.

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