The End of the Sentence by Maria Dahvana Headley & Kat Howard

Posted on: November 26, 2015

Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.

The End of the Sentence is a strange, fascinating little novella — it’s a ghost story, a story of possession but not just that of a house — rather, the possession of a family, a lineage, a shared history, memory and love. A collaborative novella written by Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard, The End of the Sentence showcases both great writing and some terrifying horror pacing.

Malcolm is running away from a failed marriage, the traumatic loss of his child and immense guilt associated with the loss. He doesn’t have more than a lot of emotional baggage to his name, but he wants to leave everyone he has known behind and so he spends the last of his money buying a house in foreclosure in a small rural town, over the internet, sight unseen. He reaches there with nothing to his name expect that broken-down house, the land around it, a car that’s nothing more than scrap metal, and a packet of hot dogs that he can’t cook because the gas has been turned off.

In the house, he finds piles of envelopes by the front door, all addressed to a former owner and all from the same place: a prison in the nearby town of Salem. The letters are all signed by the same person — Dusha Chuchonnyhoof, a man who claims to be nearing the end of his sentence of two lifetimes and a day, and needs Malcolm to welcome him home when he is released. In the meanwhile, Chuchonnyhoof claims that the house will take care of Malcolm’s needs.

It seems that Malcolm may have bought a cheap house, but has instead inherited a ghost. Or perhaps more than one, as he later comes to find out. Chuchonnyhoof himself cannot be alive, surely, after a prison sentence of over a 100 years? While Malcolm struggles to understand the content of the letters he finds all over, the house comes alive around him and takes care of him: it feeds him roast chickens and apple pies, crisp white wine and lemonade, it turns his bed down and runs a bath for him, it places fresh flowers at his bedside. Malcolm isn’t afraid, however, because “the house didn’t feel angry. It felt full of something quieter than anger, anticipation rather than rage”. This, we can see right away, is a slow-burn horror story, which will reel us in very close before it shows us its teeth.

Chuchonnyhoof wants Malcolm to make him a pair of shoes at the end of his sentence, so as to welcome him back and allow him to remain on the earth. Of course, forging a pair of iron shoes at the anvil secreted away in the hollow heart of the house isn’t simply a matter of finding a blacksmith, but Malcolm is ready to do anything to get back the one thing no one can give him — the one thing Chuchonnyhoof promises to return, even if it means that he must “murder two people and forge their hands into shoes for him”.

Knowing that “death wasn’t the kind of thing that could be fixed”, Malcolm goes to Salem to find out more about these directives he is being given, and finds that the warden of the prison clearly knows more than he is letting on. Though the locals do not hide that Chuchonnyhoof had been convicted for the murder of a pair of young lovers, the bodies of whom had never been found, it is only when he reaches the prison that Malcolm understands that something much more macabre is at work here: Chuchonnyhoof, as the locals seem to believe, is not dead.

The warden admits, “if we had a prisoner here, if we did, a prisoner who wouldn’t die? We wouldn’t want the world to know, would we? There’ll be a moment when this all comes right and we’re waiting for that moment. A couple days left in that sentence. This is a job. I don’t trick with the devil in here, I don’t owe the devil my soul.” But Malcolm, it seems does owe Chuchonnyhoof some-thing, or so he believes. Is Malcolm caught up in some twisted, ancient evil that is finally coming home or is he just desperate enough to believe what a madman is promising, a promise that will ease a deep wound? We’re strung along like Malcolm is but not without release — his story reaches a definitive end, as does Chuchonnyhoof’s and it’s a satisfying end, though there are many twists in the tale on the way to it.

The End of the Sentence is a strange blend of the folklore of the Native Americans, Gaelic mythology and even Norse mythology, mixing all these up into something unique and haunting. It’s quite beautiful, elegant in its writing style, and harmonious in its single narrator’s voice and point of view — it’s hard to tell how the two writers divided the work, or who wrote which part. As far as collaborative writing goes, this is a perfect example of when things come together seamlessly and from minds that want to achieve the same result. A great deal is packed into this novella-length story, which is never burdensome for all its complex mythologies and references, though it is very much heavy with mood and fear. It’s creepy and entertaining, and often just delicious.