Toplin by Michael McDowell is more akin to the weird writings of Thomas Ligotti than mainstream horror fiction. The narrator in the story (we never actually get to know his name) lives a life of solitude and order and is consumed by the acute symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a feeling that things have to be done in a way that is just right and this can trigger extreme anxiety which can impinge on day to day living.
In the context of the subject matter McDowell produces some powerful imagery highlighting the mind of the ordered “I found myself at work without recollection of having waked, evacuated, cleansed myself, drunk chocolate, spun my combination lock, descended my stairs, or traversed the sidewalks and streets from my apartment.” I particularly loved the description of the narrator’s suits numbered S1-S6...”They are numbered and I wear them quite at random. I might have placed on the floor of the closet my six pairs of black wing-tip shoes, for the boards there are completely bare. But my shoes are lined up beneath the foot of my bed. I might have placed my black socks in a shoe box on the shelf above the rack, but my socks are bundled in the top drawer of my dresser. I might have hung my slender black ties on a hanger pushed right against the side of the closet wall, or set on a hook that was already screwed into the back of the door, but my ties hang over one of the long bolts that hold my dresser mirror in place, The closet is empty but for my suits S-1 though S-6.”
So in the context of this somewhat disturbed narrator we are privileged to view his world through his own limited vision. He has become fixated with a waitress called Marta who is employed at the Baltyk Kitchen and because of her ugly appearance has decided logically that she must die..”She was quite simply the most hideous human being I had ever seen. The disfigurements of her birth were compounded with the ravages of disease. I saw them in her face. Her mouth was a running sore. Her bulging eyes were of different colors. Her ears were slabs of flesh pillaged from anonymous victims of accidents. Her nose was a bulging membrane filled with ancient purulence.”
The reader has this wonderful and yet unbalanced feeling of understanding the narrator’s world through black and white imagery helped by the subtle use of black and white photos all adding to a great feeling of unease. One such photograph I found very disturbing was titled “The Maintenance Man came forward into the light”...”The left side of his chest had hair, the same color as his partial moustaches. The right side was smooth but bore a fair-shaped female breast, with a large soft nipple spitting out from the centre of it.”.....”I turned and fled from the hermaphroditic abomination.”
This is a very uncomfortable read as if by reading the narrators thoughts we are condoning his actions and lending approval to his limited view of society and his unconventional sexual needs. However if the mark of a good work of fiction is the writers ability to linger in the mind then Toplin deserves great respect and praise for a memorable and horrific journey.