As I read Ilsa Bick’s Draw the Dark, I started thinking back to my days as an obsessive X-Files fan. Episodes either advanced the show’s increasingly complex mythology, or they were standalone, “Freak of the Week” episodes. These self-contained episodes commonly featured adults or teens with paranormal abilities, abilities that they often could not control and that led to increasing isolation. I thought of these episodes because the story of Christian Cage (metaphor alert!) in Draw the Dark would have made an excellent standalone X-Files episode, what with its discussion of telepathy, conduits, and conspiracy.
Christian draws. He draws to remember (what really happened to his parents?) and he draws to forget (same question). But he also draws unexplainable things, like the eyes of a wolf and a swastika on a local barn, at unexplainable times, like when he is asleep. He is convinced that the anger in his drawings has killed both his elementary teacher and his beloved aunt. And slowly Christian is drawn into a shameful past that his little village of Winter, Wisconsin, would rather not acknowledge, one that involves the importation of German prisoners as laborers during World War II and the fate of the village’s Jewish community.
With the help of his court-ordered psychologist Dr, Rainier (who plays the Mulder-role here), Christian comes to better understand his abilities and how his need to purge his own personal demons is entwined with his quest to discover the truth about what happened in that barn almost seventy years ago.
The title is appropriate—Bick’s novel has much to say, on several levels, about both drawing and darkness. I liked that Christian’s power manifested itself through something as seemingly banal as drawing, and his ability to enter into his drawings reminded me of early Stephen King.
If you have read Bick’s post-apocalyptic zombie novel Ashes (and if you have not, what is wrong with you?), you know that she does not spare on the gore. I read a passage from Ashes out loud to some of my high school students back in the fall, and my classroom copy has been continuously checked out since. Bick, a child psychiatrist, seems to understand that darkness is real, and her novels are suffused with it. The darkness that pervades Ashes has its precursor in Draw the Dark. This novel is not as immediately accessible as I found Ashes to be, but ultimately more redemptive. And its darkness is never just for the sake of darkness—it is darkness for the sake of understanding evil.
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