Last December, Polygon premiered the first excerpt of Chuck Wendig’s new novel, The Book of Accidents. With the book now out on shelves, we’re reupping the passage, along with Wendig’s own introduction written for Polygon readers. Here’s a taste of what to expect from the writer’s latest.
There are apocalypses, and then there are apocalypses.
The ones that come to mind are big ones — a meteor hits, a nuclear bomb goes off, or ahem ahem ahem, a pandemic throttles humanity and crushes civilization under its. That’s the kind of apocalypse I wrote with in my book Wanderers (2019), where people begin mysteriously sleepwalking toward an unknown destination while a second disease, White Mask, rises like a specter across an America savaged by diseased politics and white supremacy. (Sound familiar? Oops.)
But with this next book, The Book of Accidents, it’s more about those little apocalypses — those small but significant events that roll up on us and rock us to our core, that threaten who we are and what we’ve built, that represent the ending of things. Less “fire in the sky” and more “emotional cataclysm.” It’s about trauma circuits and abuse cycles, but also about how we end those dangerous loops — sometimes in ways that are freeing, and sometimes in ways that are terrifying.
In this excerpt, the father of a family of three — Nate, married to Maddie, the two of them parents to teen boy Oliver — goes to the house he grew up in as a kid, a house whose horrors he escaped from long ago. He goes there to witness (and in a way, confront) his dead father, who waits in repose. But what Nate meets there is far stranger, and far more confounding, than he expected. It begins one of those little apocalypses, the kind that families go through sometimes. But it’s worth remembering: apocalypses are endings, but they’re also new beginnings. And they’re revelations, too: sometimes freeing, sometimes terrifying.
Or maybe, just maybe, both.
The One Condition
This was the house:
It was a stone colonial farmhouse, its old bones dating back to the late 1700s. It was a tall house with narrow shoulders, and it cast a deep shadow as the sun rose behind it. The door was red. The gable roof above the door was teal. But the paint on both had long faded, peeling away in leprotic strips. The flagstone walkway was cracked and fractured, with weeds widening those gaps. Spiderwebs, some old, some new, hung in the windows. The slate roof was in grave disrepair, many of the tiles broken and shattered. Nature wanted this house back. Wisteria hung from the power lines, and ivy—poison ivy and five-finger ivy—crept up from the ground, like fingers looking to grab the house and pull it down into the dirt.
Just as the trees loomed over the house, the house seemed to loom over Nate. He had a vertiginous moment where it felt like the red front door would whip open, and the house would lean forward and the doorway would become a mouth. Gobbling him up and swallowing him down. This was a house of foul breath and bad dreams.
As Nate regarded his childhood home, not seen by his eyes for decades, he heard an engine, and the pop of stones under tires.
The lawyer, Rickert, drove up the long cracked-asphalt driveway in a decades-old BMW—a welcome interruption. He parked the BMW next to the little Honda Nate suspected belonged to the hospice nurse.
Rickert hopped out of his car and sauntered up, clutching a brown paper bag envelope with string-and-button enclosure.
“Mr. Graves,” he said.
“Rickert,” Nate said.
“Your one condition has been met.”
“He’s in there now?”
Rickert nodded, unfazed. He didn’t like Dad, either, Nate realized. Which was apropos; Dad hated lawyers much as he hated anything.
Nate dug into his pocket and pulled out a ratty, wrinkled dollar. The kind a snack machine would spit out.
The lawyer took it. Then he handed over the envelope. Nathan peeked inside, saw a sheaf of papers—ones he’d already signed a few days ago, the day after Oliver told them he wanted to move—plus the deed and a key ring.
The door to the house opened, just then, and the hospice nurse—a broad-shouldered woman with kind eyes, a helmet of brown hair, and a sad look on her face—came out. “Nathan Graves?” she said.
Nate nodded, but sharply corrected: “Nate. Never Nathan.”
“Hi, Nate, I’m Mary Bassett,” she said, taking his hand and holding it. Had that Philly accent. Wooter. Fullelfya. Gow. “I’m the hospice nurse. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Don’t be. I’m here to gloat, not mourn.”
A flash in her eye told him she understood. It made him wonder what kind of hell she’d had to put up with from the old man in the last week of his life.
The wreckage that old creep left in his every wake . . .
“He inside?” Nate asked.
“He is. In the master on the second floor.”
“Then I’d like to see him.”
This, then, was Nate’s one condition: He’d told Rickert over the phone three days ago that he would accept the dollar offer if he were allowed a small, private “viewing” at the house, after his father had passed, but before they came to cart the body away.
His father, through Rickert, had agreed to that stipulation.
And now, here Nate was. Looking at his father’s corpse.
Nate had seen a handful of bodies in his time as a Philly cop—one time, a heat wave took an elderly woman, leaving her a greasy and swollen mess, blistered and oozing. Another time, a hard winter robbed the life from a homeless man, froze him solid against a dumpster. All the deaths he’d seen were unintentional—overdoses and car accidents and, the worst of the worst, three bodies pulled out of a nightclub fire. What was true in those deaths was true here: A dead body had no soul. Something crucial had gone. A missing piece had turned them from a living thing to a waxen prop.
The old man’s skin lay loose on his bent skeleton, wrinkled and sallow, like the pages of a Bible that had gotten wet. The eyes were glassy, the mouth thin, each lip a sickly earthworm spooning the other.
This wasn’t his father. Not anymore. It was just a mannequin.
Nate had expected that when he saw his father again, he would feel indignation that would give way to rage like some pyroclasm deep within—a rise of lava in his throat, a magma roar of fire that would not, could not, be contained.
He hoped he’d feel joy, like a boy told the monster in the closet was gone, that in fact all the monsters had been beheaded, that everything from here on out was balloons and carousel rides.
He feared that he would feel sad—that seeing his father this one last time would open up something he’d been hiding, a reservoir of sadness, at seeing the old man like this. Sad at never getting to have the childhood he thought he’d have. Sad at wondering what made his father become the man that he had become.
Instead, he just felt empty. A chalkboard, wiped clean of all marks and left a gleaming, damp black.
One thing he did feel: like he was intruding upon this room. His father had never let him in here. It was off-limits. One time Nate snuck in and poked around and thought he wouldn’t get caught, but Dad knew somehow. He always knew. Something about the way the molecules in the room were disturbed.
(That didn’t go well for Nate. He had bruises for weeks.)
It made him feel queasy being in here. Like he was gonna get caught again. He didn’t give into that feeling, though. He didn’t run, though he wanted to.
The room had changed. It was messier, a hoarder’s paradise: stacks of gun magazines on the dresser, piles of dirty clothes, a couple defunct mousetraps in the corner (no mice), a stack of filthy plates on a nightstand next to knockoff Rolex watch and an old-ass alarm clock, the kind with the two metal bells on top of it. It didn’t look like this when Nate had lived here—Mom kept the place immaculate. Those molecules in the room were hers to arrange, and keep arranged, all for the pleasure of the old sonofabitch.
Nate expected, too, that his father’s guns were still here: a .45 ACP in the sock drawer, a pump-action shotgun under the bed, a two-shot derringer in a shoebox in the closet. And if they were here, they were loaded. Dad was paranoid. Said someone would come one day to steal his shit—the imagined array of racist fears, like a line of Black guys or Mexicans were just lining up in the dark forest outside to rob him of his knockoff watches. King has to defend his castle, Dad always said. But he was no king. And this was no castle.
But there was one thing that did surprise Nate.
Dad hadn’t offed himself.
That was always his big thing. I ever get sick, real sick, I’ll put a gun under my chin. I go out on my terms. That was something he told his son when Nate was . . . what? Twelve years old? Who tells a twelve-year-old that kind of thing?
“Coward,” Nate said, not expecting any response.
But his father responded anyway.
Dad’s body stiffened on the bed, life thrown suddenly back into its bones. The corpse’s back arched, the eyes wrenched open, and the jaw opened wide, wider, crackling as it did, the face turning fast into a rictus of raw misery. Dad gasped like wind whistling through a broken window—
“Jesus,” Nate said, backpedaling off the bed.
And then he saw Dad, another version of his father, standing in the corner of the room. Impossible, but there it was: one father lying on the bed, one guarding the corner of the room. The one in the corner wore mud-caked jeans, a filthy white T-shirt, carried a boxy army pistol in his left hand, his wrong hand. He was staring right at Nate—staring at him, or staring through him, Nate couldn’t tell, all while on the bed his father’s actual corpse stretched and stiffened tighter and tighter, the high-pitched sucking breath going on louder and longer than seemed possible.
“Nathan?” the version of his father in the corner asked, voice so hoarse it buzzed, buzzed like a wall full of secret wasps.
The door to the bedroom burst open, and the hospice nurse came hurrying in. The body on the bed went slack and slumped. Nate blinked—the presence in the corner, the second Carl Graves, was gone.
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