Children live closer to the ground and see truths adults cannot.

— “The Mannequin”

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I HEARD RUMORS from others who had read advanced printouts of James Nulick’s new manuscript that it was, undoubtedly, a horror collection — an unexpected move for the refined literary dark horse. When questioned, Nulick claimed he had no intention of writing horror but that perhaps the Ligottian dread of COVID-19 had seeped into his latest work. Immunocompromised living with HIV, Nulick is at higher risk, so he never left the house. This existential suffocation — trapped in your body or dissociating, possessing another one entirely — churns like a storm through the work gathered in Lazy Eyes.

Lazy Eyes, released by Expat Press in May 2022, is horror that could only be written by an author who paid close attention to the inherent terrors of adolescence. Nulick writes like he’s been high risk since the first day he cried: born under a bad sign but wide-eyed, dangerously curious once the tears dry. Teenage nostalgia suffused his sublime 2015 novel, Valencia, whose suicidal narrator is saved by simple recall of a life flashing before his eyes, precious memories of elemental innocence. But in Lazy Eyes, these memories are pure danger, remembering where it all goes wrong.

“If the collection has any theme at all,” Nulick says, “perhaps it’s a consideration of how animals and children are often abused at the hands of adults, with or without intent.” It sounds horrific, but Nulick, a searcher for and practitioner of the perfect sentence, uses language so beautiful that, even in a tale’s most traumatic moments, there’s a detached wonder, a reverence. Perhaps his style is best summarized in the tech-nightmare “Spiders”: “When you stop caring about what others think of you is when weird and creative and dangerous things start happening.”

A gay Mexican American, Nulick grew up in the wide-open spaces of the scorching Arizona desert and now sequesters himself in overcast Seattle, so he’s accustomed to serving as a conduit between worlds. The occult element in his work is convincing because Nulick can possess other POVs like no one else. In “The Beautiful Sister,” he highlights sibling rivalry through the eyes of a teenage girl. When Melanie meets Fernando, she makes no secret of her hatred for her older sister, Melissa, the beautiful one. “I want her dead,” she texts him. “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “Let me talk to my Aunt Lena,” he responds. And then the author ushers us into a world of Santeria witchcraft, culminating in a death spell. Nulick researched rare black-magic books to create a palpable authenticity, but the story is less about the dark arts than about jealousy’s broad strokes, youth’s failure to envision consequence (though Nulick’s rhythmic prose often reads like a spell, truth be told).

In “The Mannequin,” Nulick explores profound devotion to the inanimate. When the attraction is this strong, who’s to say it’s not legitimate? “Holding someone’s hand in your hand until their hand disappears, until you become one, their body and your body indeterminate. This is the definition of love, is it not? When we forget someone is there, when they become us? Moving from the other to the us.” For those who follow Nulick closely on social media, this piece serves as an origin story for Nico, the store-window mannequin he calls his son, through which he often communicates to his followers.

Some nights Nico appears in our bedroom, loitering by my nightstand, on my side of the bed, and the unexpected shadow temporarily frightens me. I pick him up and move him back into the living room, and he asks why I am moving him, he doesn’t like being alone. I don’t answer him because I don’t know the answer. […] I don’t want him frightening my lover. We all have our secrets. It’s how couples stay together so long.

Nulick gives further voice to the voiceless in “Claws,” a feline-narrated confessional from a world that looks down on our sleek sexualities and a shape-shifting reclamation of our feral essence. “Some might call me a manifestation, others, an idea. But the simple truth of it is, I am whatever I need to be.” By contrast, “Four Foot Nine” and “Bunk Beds” are the collection’s tenderest bits: appearing consecutively, they’re fluid recollections of bemused (yet driven) youthful eroticism, with its oozy mix of the predatory and the explorative. The bewilderment of teenage initiation, a coven around a fire, conspiratorial laughter, the stillborn thought: “Why am I the only kid on this camping trip?” With the stench of fish gore on his fingertips, the boy reflects:

[I]t’s as if my body has been marked for death. It bothers me that I am responsible for the suffering of another being, like the summer afternoon, aged ten, when I shot a white pigeon from a palm tree with my Daisy rifle. […] I ran to it, horrified, and it was as if I had died there too, on the lawn.

It’s a simple equation: a youth who feels gentle wants to be treated gently, wishing he could bypass puberty’s roughhouse posturing. Yet the hormones remain: a crush develops for another boy, kindled by lures of Jack Daniel’s and Copenhagen trickled down from parents numbing themselves into oblivion. And here Nulick embeds a chilling stanza, straight out of a 1970s horror film:

Mirror, mirror
My quicksilver double
Is there anything more beautiful
than children in trouble?

The unmistakable style, known to many as “Nulickian,” slowly unravels and unveils. The sentences trickle, rush, then flash-flood; with little to no attribution to his voices, we are left to our own creativity as readers, forcing us to trace threads through the disparate perspectives. In “Strange Captive,” we assume it’s a child who has been kidnapped, until the ice-cream truck approaches: “[T]he gummy heat off the asphalt tonguing my body as I trot into the street on all fours, my paws burning, […] barking at the children as I sense the door of the house opening.” On the one hand, it’s a sweet reminder of the profound bond between children and their dogs; on the other, a frightening admission that we might neglect our children like pets, some growing up to be animals.

In “The Black Doberman,” a dog observes the habits of its owners until it disappears, its consciousness compromised — perhaps commandeered? — by the woman: “I know safety is only an illusion, for the world has always been dangerous, especially for women, children, and animals. […] [M]en’s hearts are filled with rage and murder.” Female power also assumes an unlikely form in “Spiders,” whose eponymous technology is an arachnid hybrid of our real-life robot dogs. This Black Mirror–esque tale also offers a prescient warning — a perfect bookend to the one provided in “The Beautiful Sister”: “The Invocation used in this story is for entertainment purposes only. […] Neither the author, editor, or publisher shall be held liable for the use or misuse of any information in this story.”

To be born into the right body but the wrong time is the raw subject explored in “Doe,” the book’s most devastating and human offering. Nulick treats the topic with a blunt sensitivity that invites us to “stand at the altar inside the cathedral of my skull.” The effect is reminiscent of the hyper-observant inner dialogues of Wim Wenders’s 1987 Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire), implying an in-between spiritual purgatory, inhabited by angels too pure for our world. “We can never be alive again, not like them.”

James Nulick has come a long way since he studied under William T. Vollmann, since the college he was attending kicked him out for throwing his typewriter through his 14th-floor window. So, it’s fitting that Expat Press calls him their “long distance runner.” And with Lazy Eyes, his most horrific yet somehow most accessible book to date, Nulick offers us his hand to see how hard we can sweat along with him. Try to keep up, will you?

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Gabriel Hart is a writer living in Morongo Valley in California’s high desert. His most recent book is the literary-pulp collection Fallout from Our Asphalt Hell (2021).