Haints Stay is a snaky western with characters cut and formed by the elements, with wandering plots that get chopped off by murder or misunderstanding, only to rise anew out of strange circumstances or twisted events. A brutal book of lost souls trying to survive cannibals and stampedes and marauders, it reminds us no one gets out alive, and that there is always something more evil out there. —Jason DeYoung
“There was no logic to life and no road that could take you straight to elsewhere. Living was all winding around and doubling back.” Such are the lives of the characters in Haints Stay, thus is its philosophy.
Written in unhurried, cool prose without traditional chapter breaks—just double space returns—Haints Stay is a snaky western with characters cut and formed by the elements, with wandering plots that get chopped off by murder or misunderstanding, only to rise anew out of strange circumstances or twisted events. A brutal book of lost souls trying to survive cannibals and stampedes and marauders, it reminds us no one gets out alive, and that there is always something more evil out there.
But Haints Stay isn’t a traditional western, nor is it Cormac McCarthy-lite. Colin Winnette is already the author of four well-received books of fiction, including Revelation (2011), Animal Collection (2012), Fondly (2013), and Coyote (2015), which won of the prestigious Les Figues’ Nos Book Contest. Instead of the anti-pastoral of the afore mentioned McCarthy, Winnette has fed his vision of this earthy genre through his own sensibilities, one influenced by Oulipo, to arrive at something playful and visceral and acidic.
Haints Stay opens with two hapless killers, Brooke and Sugar, brothers, returning to an unnamed town, where they discover their employer’s bar has been burned to the ground. Looking for baths and beds, they are brought before a tiny man behind a desk. This tiny man doesn’t care very much for them, and at first tries to kill them, but Brooke takes the killer down with an ashtray, after which the tiny man offers them begrudging hospitality. It’s all stage setting for a novel in which—as we are blithely told by a dispassionate narrator—“things change… They changed often. There was not use fighting it.” These words in a way telegraph the novel’s narrative, prepping us for the shifting fortunes and wild plot maneuvers ahead. Indeed, Haints Stay with its circular narrative and relentless doubling lies somewhere between David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky.
The brothers are run out of town, and when they wake the next morning a naked male child is lying between them. The child has amnesia, and doesn’t know how he got to the killers’ camp, or from where he came. He does speak English, but that’s his only asset. The brothers take it upon themselves to try to return the child to his parents or guardians. But before they can get very far on that quest, faceless marauders rob them in the night of their food, gear, and blankets, and “avenging the blankets” supplants retuning the child, whom they call Bird.
Once the blankets have been avenged, and the marauders’ teeth cut out of their mouths and buried—‘So [that they are] buried with their ghosts’—the brothers take the child to a graveyard, where Sugar and a thin man in a suit, sitting upon a rock, have a strange conversation regarding Bird’s future. As the conversation progresses, however, we realize that the words are coded and that Sugar and the thin man are discussing something quite different:
“You should keep the baby this time,” said the man. “The woods are crying out with all you’ve left them.”
He looked up and around, as if at nothing in particular.
“There is no baby,” said Sugar. “Enough about the baby.”
“Nothing’s gone away. You know that as well as I do.”
The thin man wants Brooke and Sugar to keep Bird as their own child, and he also wants Sugar to keep a forthcoming baby. All along we have been given hints that Sugar is not a man, and we’re left to ponder his gender for much of the novel. Later it will be revealed that Sugar is biologically female, but lives as a man, and he is pregnant, perhaps by his own brother.
Sugar is angered by the thin man’s insistence that he keep both children. Enraged, Sugar stabs Bird, and upon stabbing the child a stampede of horses thunder through their camp, taking with them the wounded Bird.
It’s at this point the novel shatters. There’s a sense that it does so because Sugar has disobeyed the thin man, who is…. what?…. a small god, a spirit, a shaman? We’re never told, and we are never told whether the stampede was the thin man’s doing. After Bird is carried off into the dark by the horses, Brooke and Sugar try to search for him, but end up in a dry town, only to get arrested and separated. Brooke is convinced his brother is dead; Sugar is convinced likewise; and the three main characters never see each other again for the rest of the novel.
At its core Haints Stay is very much a novel built on ignorance and of the unknown. Characters knowingly enter fake marriages, shift identities, hold secrets, and practice mysterious customs, which impart a sense that there is more in this world than we could ever fathom. When Brooke and Sugar avenge their blankets the last living marauder spits out that “There will only be more men like us….You will only kill and kill until you are overcome.” We’ll hear these words repeated later in the novel, reminding us that there is something greater out in the abyss that we won’t see until it’s too late: “Between each of the towns was pure wilderness, and what came bearing down upon civilization was beyond imagination.”
In this envenomed wilderness, Bird will come face-to-face with a man who has gone to beast, and eats much of the skin off one of Bird’s arms. Bird’s savior, a man named John, will be gunned down. Why? Don’t know. But the “remarkably nondescript” men who come to do it claim vaguely that they are there to “collect.” Often characters don’t even begin to understand their own plights just the tireless maliciousness of survival, where their faces are rubs in the fact that “we are always in the wilderness. Beneath everything is the wilderness and there is no end to it.”
Bird is something of an anomaly among the characters, not even Mary, the other child in the novel, comes close to his naiveté. A kid, around twelve or thirteen years old, Bird is in some ways fresh from the unknown, but has no recollection of it. What we see over the course of the novel is how he grows as a person. At first trusting Brooke and Sugar (especially Brooke), and then after Sugar stabs him, the stampede, and the cannibal’s torture he looses his memory again or it’s all mixed up (or he could be lying). He tells John it was two brothers who killed his family and he vows to avenge them. In many ways, Bird’s path through the novel, his progression and accumulation of knowledge and ethics (or lack thereof) is the most interesting because it is his dumb soul that is rung out through the cosmic stew of violence and consequences, and still he comes out full of bloodlust. For all its humor (yes, there’s humor here) Haints Stay is a bleak tale.
Even with its sinuous plots, Haints Stay is a damn good read and it does a lot well. The use of backstory here is particularly interesting. Brooke recites to himself his and Sugar’s life history to keep sane while he is in the wilderness. Because it’s so integral to Brooke’s survival, this history become a kind of hybrid form of forward moving action. Winnette also is careful not to divulge much about his world, which heightens the suspense and mystery. It takes confidence and rigor to deploy this level of subtle surrealism and leave so many questions unanswered and still deliver a satisfying novel. But the element here that is so well done and surprising is Winnette use of dialogue, and he offers a showcase of dialogue forms to admire:
“How old are we, Brooke?”
“Why would I know that?”
“You seem to know so much about our life and how we should live it. I thought you could tell me a thing or two about how old I am, why your body’s like that and my body’s like this. I thought you could answer one honest question.”
“We’ll get two new horse. They will be stronger and livelier than the old ones.”
“Henry and Buck.”
“Then Henry or Buck, yes, and they’ll serve us well and we’ll love them as we loved Henry and Buck, and then they’ll die and we’ll get more horses. And on and on, Sugar. Now sleep.”
“Have you ever caught anything before?” said Brooke….
“I don’t know,” said [Bird].
“Let’s say you haven’t,” said Brooke. “You’re going to feel a certain kind of pride, a sense of accomplishment. But you’re also going to feel uneasy with that, as if there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. It’s as natural as breathing. That guild tis all fear, anyway. Fear that one day you’re going to be on the receiving end of a blow, and the sudden wish that no one had to do that kind of thing ever. You can rid yourself of all that if you just accept what’s coming to you in a general sense, and work to prevent it in the immediate sense. No matter what you let live you’re going to die and it’s just as likely it will be a rock falling on your head or getting a bad cough as if is that someone will decide they want you gone. So accept it now and move on.”
“Okay,’ said the boy
“Did they take anything? What did they want?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“That’s not how this works.”
He was crying again.
“Because we are always in the wilderness. Beneath everything is the wilderness and there is no end to it.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean, and that is why you’re scared.”
“I’m Brooke,” said Brook, “and this is Sugar.”
“Twice the fee for two,” said [the hotel manager]
“Same as two rooms?” said Brooke
“Same,” she said.
“That doesn’t seem exactly fair,” said Brooke
“Maybe it isn’t,” she said
On whole, the prose doesn’t contain much internal monologue. Rarely do we get much in the way of what the characters are thinking until they speak. The stark absence of much thought leaves us again in the unknown, but the dialogue delivers us somewhat, and Winnette uses it to great effect to draw his characters, their thoughts and their desires. Additionally, the snappy heat of these exchanges adds a measured balance to all the killing and gore that haunts the pages.
After the characters are scattered by the events of the stampede and capture, the novel uncoils with various plots. After John is gunned down, Martha, his wife, leaves Bird behind to seek revenge for her husband’s murder. Bird lives out a snowstorm with John and Martha’s daughter, Mary. Bird has the notion of becoming a hired gun because within that role he believes he’ll finally find safety. Mary argues that its a foolish ambition, and eventually leaves him after they reach civilization. Brooke wanders the wilderness looking for his brother, and eventually meets a very sick Martha, whom he nurses back to health. Sugar’s baby is brought to term, and delivered by a drunken and manic doctor, who along with the sheriff kidnaps the newborn. Sugar eventually breaks out of prison, and slaughters everyone in sight while looking for his daughter. The novel ends on a safe plateau for most of the surviving characters, but as the novel repeatedly informs us: innocence dies easily, evil lives on.
The story closes in the same saloon and with the same villain—the tiny man behind the desk—it opens with. He is hiring Bird to hunt Brooke and Sugar. The pessimistic vision of Haints Stay is captured in this moment with the Sam-Elliott-tinged statement: “Left to their own devices, people will live out every possible variation of a human life.” These words are spoken derogatorily about Sugar, but there’s something more interesting at play here. It is the unnamable that Winnette seems to be chasing in Haints Stay. It isn’t who we project to the outward world, but that lost soul underneath. Not one character can live out their “possible variation” because civilization (as it is known within these pages) won’t tolerate it and the wilderness is too cruel to allow it to flourish. In the end, Haints Stay tells us that it is only “safety” that its characters can aspire to, satisfaction is impossible.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.
- In general, I don’t like comparing novels to movies, but in an interview with Two Dollar Radio, Winnette explains that while finishing Haints Stay he secluded himself in a “California Knockdown,” where he “just wrote and wrote and read and watched westerns.” So, if he doesn’t mind confessing that he was influenced by movies, I don’t mind saying his novel reminded me somewhat of El Topo.↵