“MERCY” (Book Review)Book and Comic Reviews,Books/Art/Culture,News Shawn Macomber
One night, Philadelphia dark-fiction author T. Fox Dunham (pictured above) discovered that a golf-ball-sized lump had materialized just below his left ear. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a rare composite form of lymphoma—Hodgkin’s, large cell. A death sentence, basically, but even with the metaphorical gun cocked, loaded and pressed against your temple, the will to survive can be overwhelming.
To that end, Dunham subjected himself to an array of brutal, destroy-the-body-to-save-it treatments: Merciless chemo. Five months of daily radiation. A bone marrow transplant. Raised and dashed hopes. Pain. Dependence.
Now, in what he describes as the early stages of a “very tense” second remission, Dunham has channeled his many brushes with the other side into the exquisitely rendered, lyrical supernatural hospital thriller MERCY. It’s a novel so evocative in imagery and powerful in transcendent implications that its swaying between JACOB’S LADDER-esque nightmarish surrealism and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME expanses of post-mortem beauty and hope will no doubt nudge readers to consider and reconsider what they believe about this life, and the next.
MERCY—available now from Blood Bound Books—opens with EMTs rushing the fever-stricken, cancer-wracked form of 26-year-old William Saint to Mercy, a hospital for the poor and uninsured “hunched over like a sick old bear at the river, waiting to die.” En route, we get our first inkling that this will not be your ordinary hospital admission or course of treatment when a young boy appears in the ambulance and declares, “You can see me because you linger in between the worlds. They cannot see me yet, but they will soon. All your world will know me.”
Through a series of perception-altering, veil-lifting chapters bearing titles such as “Virgil Descends Into the Sub-Basement,” “Her Night Can End Now,” “The Hungry Goddess in the Valley,” “Heart Made for Agony,” and “The Cross and the Man in the Bunny Suit,” this boy’s soothsaying is slowly, steadily actualized. Along the way, the building—inhabited by a beguilingly weird cast of characters—is revealed to be both portal and living, devouring organism.
If the preceding sounds like a reductive summation…well, it is. By necessity. MERCY is, as Dunham puts it, a vehicle for him to “come to terms” with his hellacious tribulation through “a spiritual matrix of feelings.” In that sense, it is obviously a deeply personal and idiosyncratic journey. Dunham’s soul is herein laid bare, and he has experienced trials a great many of us cannot fathom. That is, however, not the only way to approach the tome: The mysteries of existence and faith, good and evil, life and death, reality and hyper-reality he grapples with are universal, unavoidable questions that, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, have been planted in our hearts, though man cannot yet appreciate the work done from “beginning even to the end.” As his excellent 2015 noir tale THE STREET MARTYR—soon to be a motion picture via Throughline Films—ably demonstrated, Dunham can do grit; MERCY proves he can marry that street nastiness to the sublime.
In Dunham’s prose and imaginative sequences, engaged readers will no doubt frequently find a mirror for their own hopes, fears and searching. His horrific ordeal is channeled into a beautiful gift he shares freely in MERCY—if only after he’s given you a taste of the terror required to properly appreciate it.
“The sun is setting,” a Mercy nurse muses to William early on in the book as she pulls open his room’s shades. “Always makes me feel softer somehow. No matter the dark things I see here, the sun always rises.” At this point, the worst is still ahead for William. But he, like us, will get his chance to walk toward the warmth, the light and sights greater than our world.