The Things I Don’t See by Nathan Holic
Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2015
120 pages – Main Street Rag
“You don’t know what children are capable of when your eyes are shut.”
Glancing at the cover of The Things I Don’t See, one might assume any number of things about this (slightly) graphic novella: is this about an apocalypse, the walking undead, murder, killer virus, pillaging, and whatever else the sci-fi fantasy industry has put together around the central theme of zombies? On the contrary, serial illustrator and novelist, Nathan Holic, presents an all-too-real psychological thriller, which maintains an unworldly amount of conflict until the very last pages when truths and realities surface in one dynamite finish.
The Things I Don’t See opens with what could only be viewed as a heaping amount of tension without overstaying its welcome—it intrigues, spooks, and erects hairs on the backs of my neck. When new homeowner, husband, and stepfather, Craig, attempts to chitchat with his prepubescent stepson, Taylor, he receives an abnormally creepy cold shoulder:
“What are you drawing now?” Craig asked.
“A dungeon…for the undead,” Taylor said.
This eerie dialogue continues throughout the novella, and every other day, Craig stumbles upon some of Taylor’s disturbing drawings, which depict him decapitated at the neck, Disney characters minced to pieces, and a house ablaze with a sinister figure smiling on the sidelines. Creepy. Tensions continue to rise, leading to otherworldly assumptions: is this kid having a premonition, does he have a sixth sense, is he a child of the corn, or just a pain in the ass?
Holic illustrates (literally and figuratively) the tough realities of stepfather-hood, and how much influence he’s supposed to have without any authority. Craig is not only outcast from any biological tie to Taylor, but here is a hard-working man who genuinely wants to provide for his family, and step up to the plate and be the kind of father he himself never had. Often times, he seems more protective and engaged in his stepson’s behaviors than Taylor’s belligerent mother, but cannot find his place within his wife’s ever-changing rules or Taylor’s heart:
no matter the strange shit he was up to, I was supposed to say “Good job!” or “Cool!” or whatever else you say to an 11-year-old who isn’t yours and will never be yours but for whom you’ve dedicated yourself—from day one of the marriage—to be a dad, a real dad. Of course, I always thought that “real dad” was supposed to mean the good and the bad, the encouragement and the discipline, but things got complicated somewhere along the way.
Not only is Craig, an idealistic family-man-in-training, overworked, underappreciated, and cast outside the biological circle of his wife and unadjusted stepson, but he has to come home every day to find Taylor drawing these violent images. Given the rocky relationship between stepfather and stepson, some animosity may be expected, but this kid has a keen interest in zombie comics and slasher movies, and not just an interest, but Craig catches him sitting in front of a gruesome film with,
a smile and a laugh to show that half his enjoyment was coming from the feat itself and the other half was coming from the knowledge that he was disgusting the adults, doing something that they were incapable of doing or enjoying or even understanding.
As the narrative progresses, Craig takes an honest look at his childhood and the unresolved guilt he’s carried with him into parenthood. Growing up, he endured a confusing and tumultuous relationship with his anti-role model for a dad, a man who not only lacked proper work ethic, but would come home in the middle of the night “smelling like Coors Light and other women’s children.” Craig recalls his heartless behavior as a boy, the role he played in murdering a neighborhood cat and subsequently burning down a tree house. We begin to understand more behind Craig’s fears of being a bad father but also the fears about what his eleven-year-old stepson could be capable of doing. Yet, even at this point in the storyline, it’s difficult to tell if Craig is in fact dealing with a supernatural force, if Taylor is an extremely troubled kid on the brink of a mental breakdown, or if he’s simply just another ill-adjusted youth dealing with a new home and a stepdad.
The author leverages these unknowns as metaphors for parenting (or step-parenting). Navigating the perils of childrearing, homeownership, and marriage are not only stressful and heartbreaking at times, but there are so many things we don’t see. Ultimately, Craig’s own unresolved guilt and suppressed penitence projects a halo of evil on his stepson, and drives him mad with paranoia. This novel is a prime example of how our individual fears and insecurities might possibly be more mutilating than reality itself, and how we unintentionally punish those closest to us for fear of them making the same mistakes, especially children.
A quick and well-written read, Nathan Holic’s The Things I Don’t See is an extraordinary piece of work. With a natural gift for weaving intense emotions into his prose, he accomplishes so much in so little space:
The beam of the flashlight recovered only sparing glimpses of the world from the hoarding darkness as we walked; we saw only the pointed ends of branches and the sinking shapes of old footprints before the flashlight passed them over and they returned to darkness. Onward we walked, farther than I’d imagined we’d need to, until the oak canopies overhead became so thick that what I don’t see was everywhere around me.
The Things I Don’t See is a psychological thriller about a family driven to the edge by things they fail to uncover, and ultimately, to “see.” It’s one of my favorite Holic publications yet.