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Threats: A Novel

Threats: A Novel

2.8 12
by Amelia Gray

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David's wife is dead. At least, he thinks she's dead. But he can't figure out what killed her or why she had to die, and his efforts to sort out what's happened have been interrupted by his discovery of a series of elaborate and escalating threats hidden in strange places around his home—one buried in the sugar bag, another carved into the side of his


David's wife is dead. At least, he thinks she's dead. But he can't figure out what killed her or why she had to die, and his efforts to sort out what's happened have been interrupted by his discovery of a series of elaborate and escalating threats hidden in strange places around his home—one buried in the sugar bag, another carved into the side of his television. These disturbing threats may be the best clues to his wife's death:


Detective Chico is also on the case, and is intent on asking David questions he doesn't know the answers to and introducing him to people who don't appear to have David's or his wife's best interests in mind. With no one to trust, David is forced to rely on his own memories and faculties—but they too are proving unreliable.
In THREATS, Amelia Gray builds a world that is bizarre yet familiar, violent yet tender. It is an electrifying story of love and loss that grabs you on the first page and never loosens its grip.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
David, a former dentist, receives a package containing the ashes of an unknown individual; later in the book, he encounters his wife, Franny, covered in blood, and he passes out. Thinking Franny has been murdered, afraid to leave his house and unable to piece together what is happening in his ruined life, David begins to lose his mind, a deterioration helped along by mysterious scraps of paper found throughout his house and the neighborhood bearing bizarre messages (“MY TRUTH WILL CAUSE ATOMIC SNOW UPON YOUR SWEET-SMELLING LAMBS AND CHILDREN”). In time, friends and strangers arrive, at random, with what David presumes to be nefarious intentions, and the unannounced comings and goings of ominous Det. Reginald Chico further unsettle David. David’s life becomes increasingly weird as he wanders his now unfamiliar home, struggling to tease out the details of his past life and whether his wife is dead with what little is left of his fractured mind. The book is a series of short, disjointed, and unchronological chapters. The story can seem labyrinthine at times, but the narrative arc acts as a clever reflection of David’s own developing mental illness. Gradually, as with any good detective novel, the pieces come together. What would have seemed gimmicky in the hands of a less skilled writer becomes a cunning whodunit with Gray (Museum of the Weird) at the reins. This is an innovative debut novel featuring a most unreliable (and compelling) narrator. Agent: Claudia Ballard, WME Entertainment. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
A man struggles to deal with the death of his wife and the odd messages that appear in her wake. Gray's debut novel—following two short-story collections (Museum of the Weird, 2010, etc.)—feels like an old-fashioned gothic tale as rewritten by David Lynch or William S. Burroughs; in her hands an unassuming Ohio town becomes a bottomless repository of strangeness and dread. The hero, David, is a disgraced former dentist who attracts police and media attention after his wife, Franny, is discovered dead in their home under unsettling circumstances: She suffered violent wounds, but David did nothing, staying with her corpse until the authorities arrived days later. David is clearly broken mentally, and he grows more paranoid as he discovers vaguely threatening messages on scraps of paper hidden around their home. (A typical one reads: "I will cross-stitch an image of your future home burning. I will hang this image over your bed while you sleep.") David's efforts to resolve the mystery involve a local cop, one of Franny's former co-workers and a regression therapist who happens to work out of David's garage. But resolution isn't really the point, nor is realism. This book is a mood piece about loss and the way the outside world becomes intimidating after an emotional anchor disappears. In that regard, it's often a very affecting and disturbing book: Gray regularly refers to wasps in the garage, Franny's ashes and a damp decaying house to evoke disorder and collapse, and her deliberately flat and unaffected sentences increase the tension. The book falters toward the end, as Gray tries to balance the oddness of her milieu with a sense of closure, making for a conclusion that doesn't feel ambiguous so much as unfinished. Still, a striking debut novel from a writer eager to shake domestic fiction out of its comfort zone.

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Read an Excerpt


By Amelia Gray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 Amelia Gray
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-0150-9


THE TAPE ON THE PACKAGE was striped with waxed string. David dug his fingernails underneath the perimeter of the tape and clawed at it. He didn't want to go to the kitchen for a knife, and he spent an extra piece of time examining the entire package to find the loose end that could be pulled up. Inside the package was a Styrofoam carton, sealed with another kind of thick tape. A receipt was attached to the top of the lid, noting a cremation charge of $795, a box charge of $25, and a shipping charge of $20.95.

The package measured a few feet square. It was pockmarked with red stickers printed with the image of a broken wineglass. The return address was of a funeral home in town. David placed the package on the coffee table between Franny's cooking magazines and a stack of old newspapers. Some of the crosswords in the newspapers had been completed weeks earlier, perhaps months. Franny would read the news, and David would complete the crosswords. David took the newspapers into the basement and stacked them in a far corner.


FRANNY had never faulted him his confusions. Once, a group of squabbling jays stopped them on a walk. Two of the birds were circling each other, ducking and weaving, thrusting beak to wing, falling back. The group around that central pair collectively made a noise like rushing water. They spread their blue wings. It looked like someone had dropped a scarf on the ground. They moved in a unified line around the fighters in the center.

She took his hand. "You're in the road," she said.

He knew he had found a good woman in Franny. After only a few months of movie dates, they announced their engagement. The two of them took David's father out to dinner and told him as the main course arrived. David's father thought about how tall Franny was, how much taller she was than his son. Even with the two of them sitting across the table from him, he could see the fine, straight lines of Franny's spine holding her higher than his poor thirty-year-old son, balding young, who scrabbled after a piece of meat with one side of his fork. Franny seemed stronger and older and smarter than his boy. She used her butter knife to push the errant cube of steak onto David's probing fork without breaking eye contact with David's father. Still, David's father thought, marry a straight spine and she'll grow into a walking stick.

David's regular patients asked the most questions. There were his childhood friends, Samson and the other one, the one whose name David could never remember even when he held the man's file, a file containing a near lifetime of dental history, on his lap. David kept in contact with his old friends over time because they came in yearly for checkups. They usually spoke of the small success and general failure of local sports. The hygienists were the ones who had let the engagement news slip, and then David was cajoled into producing a picture of his future bride, and then everyone asked about her grip strength and cooking skill, and if she could help them move a dinner table to a third-floor apartment.

The questions they asked were forward but mostly not impolite. One of his patients who worked in the art department at the local community college asked if Franny could stand for his life-drawing class, speculating that her anatomy would lend itself to easier visual interpretation.

"She's massive," said an uncle on his father's side, who came in from the country every few years for his teeth and had received an e-mail from the hygienists that included an image attachment. "I mean that kindly," he said, insisting it over the sound of applied suction.

David knew that his family and his patients were only trying to piece together the physical mystery of Franny. The truth was that he had always felt he was an average-size man until he met her and realized how small he truly was. He appreciated the perspective.


FRANNY HAD RUN AWAY from home as a teenager and ridden the bus alone. David asked what made her do that, and she said there was nothing else going on. She remembered the time fondly. In order to buy the tickets, she spent her paychecks from working at a food court shake shop at the mall. She took a bus to visit a town with a coal-mine fire that would slowly burn striated fault lines for the next hundred years. The blaze had evacuated the area a decade before. Franny walked around while eating a cheeseburger from the bus terminal café. She lay on a bare patch of dirt at a school playground in the middle of the Pennsylvania winter and felt warm. A vent in the earth released a sour smell. The heat from the vent steamed against the falling snow, turning it to a drizzle before it hit the ground.

Though she never touched tobacco as an adult, teenage Franny would pluck cigarette butts from the kitty litter trays by the bus terminal door and smoke the dregs. One of the other passengers might witness this act and stroll over to offer the girl a cigarette from his pack, but she would refuse. She figured a whole cigarette would make her sick. Often, the cigarettes she found carried lipstick marks, like blushing thumbprints, and Franny would light up and imagine the kind of woman who applied lipstick to make the trip between Ohio and Michigan.

The filters she examined were ivory-colored and darkened in a spectrum that revealed the pull of the previous user. She could find plenty of near-new smokes in an ashtray at any given bus stop owing to people running to make their connection. She smiled when she thought of those years but admitted that it was a true miracle that she did not contract oral thrush. It seemed to David as if she could leave at any moment. She would get that look in her eye.


HE KNEW FRANNY had been behind the house. She wore a scarf colored red like the berries that grew back there. Her feet were bare and her ankles were slick with fluid. "Something has happened," Franny said.

She was standing at the bottom of the stairs. She held the rail and tipped her head back to look at her husband. They held the same rail. "You've been tromping berries," he said.

"It's blood." She held the stair's rail and vomited down the front of her dress. "Could you call for help?" she asked, wiping her mouth with her fingers.

"Of course," he said. He commanded his body to find a telephone and determine its use. "What's the problem?"

"God, damn it," she said.

"What did you do?" he asked. "What happened?"

"Could you call the fire department?" She sat on the stairs and leaned against the wall with her back to him. He came down and sat next to her. He touched her cold face with his hands. "You don't need to call anyone," she said. "Forget about it. I love you."

"What did you get into?"

She tipped her head to the side and back, squinting at him or resting against the wall. "That's your problem," she said.

They were quiet for a long time. He listened to her breathing so closely that he forgot to breathe, himself. He gasped for air. He prodded at her with his elbow. "Doc," he said. "You gotta understand."

She laughed once.

David sat next to his wife for three days. They leaned against each other and created a powerful odor. In that way, it was like growing old together.


DAVID decided that the police must have been tipped off by a neighbor who had wandered in a few days before.

"How long have you been here?" one officer asked.

"I'm not sure," David said. He was wrapped in a blanket. A firefighter was trying to strap an oxygen mask onto his face. "I'm sorry, I'm disoriented. I think there's enough oxygen."

"Not in your world," the firefighter said. David noticed that the firefighter was a woman. He felt the world shifting to the point where he was wearing her uniform. His straw-blond hair, which was hers, was pulled back into a ponytail. He had never experienced a ponytail. It felt as if his head was weighted from behind. The weight terminated at a single point, which gave him the sense that there was an opening back there that might allow fluids to escape. His lips felt thin, and he watched her, as him, sitting on the stair. His face had sunk around its bones like soft earth, and the oxygen mask protected his mouth like a clear carapace sheltering his organs.

David wasn't sure how to tell her what needed to be said. He needed to be brave and gather his emotions for the sake of professionalism. It wasn't the first time he had called upon this professional bravery, though it always felt like the first time and in fact currently felt like the very first time. "Your wife is dead," he said.

The firefighter swallowed something. She looked as helpless there as a fifty-year- old man, and David felt pity. He reached toward his pocket for a tissue before realizing that he was wearing a firefighter's uniform and there were no pockets, only reflective strips that would glint against traffic lights and fires.

"I'm so sorry," he said.

She held her hands on the oxygen mask as if it were an extension of her face.

"We're going to have to ask you a few questions," David said.

She shook her head. "I can't," she said. Her voice was muffled by the mask. "I don't understand. What happened?"

"That's normal," David said. "What you're feeling is normal." He could see her eyes inside his, even as he occupied her body. It felt warm in the retardant uniform. He took on her memories. He felt a strong desire to sit with her in a bathtub and wash her shoulders. He clapped a gloved hand on her pale, cold thigh, which was half covered by David's filthiest robe, a green-and-black flannel that always looked as if it had been crammed into the space between the water heater and the wall.

David and the firefighter crouched in the stairwell. He felt as if he was looking down from the position of an angel who could not get much vertical distance over the scene. He turned awkwardly in the bulky retardant suit to observe the base of the stairs. It was caked with the fluid and gunk sloughed from the mess of a living body and a dying one. His pajama pants rested in a filthy heap below.

He looked to the firefighter occupying his body and saw that her left foot had retained its slipper, but the other foot was bare. The second slipper was forgotten at the base of the stairs. The firefighter was still swaddled by the blanket. The smell rising from the stairwell and steaming from her was an embarrassment of childhood odor. It made David dizzy to experience it, and he tried to focus on the thin face blurred behind the oxygen mask.

"I'm sorry," she said. She was crying. David had never seen such emotion from a public servant, other than the time a post office clerk was informed of his daughter's death via telephone in the midst of a Christmas rush, and now he was observing it happening in his own body. He had seen the post office clerk take the phone call and put his head in his hands, sobbing, resting his elbows on an electronic scale. David had been there to mail a package of documents to his mother's lawyer, but he was touched by the display and later sent flowers to the post office. He didn't know the clerk's name and addressed the lilies to the office in general. It seemed like the right thing to do from a taxpayer perspective.

The firefighter clutched the blue blanket and took shallow breaths. She tried to touch her face again and felt the oxygen mask and moved it out of the way. David reached his glove out to touch her arm, then removed the glove and touched her with his bare hand. He moved the mask back over her face.

"Get it all out," he said. "Would you like to talk about what happened?"

The firefighter scrubbed at her face and mouth. "I can't talk about it," she said. "I'm so confused."

David felt like a dog peering dumbly into the darkest moment of his owner's life. "That's normal," he said.

He noticed a pain in his arm and saw that he was taking fluids intravenously. He was inside the dimensions of his own body again. The oxygen mask lined his face and the calming smoothness made his eyelids heavy. And there was Franny, resembling a piece of modern furniture under the police tarp. Her body had vacated its bowels beside him at some point in their time together on the stair. He cherished the life implied by that action, the odor of a living thing beside him, pulsing bacterial life that had once been harbored by her body, not unlike a child, ejected now into the dimming light, bacteria feeding on itself and fading. He wondered if a florist might deliver lilies to the stairwell. Franny's body had grown stiff and then soft again beside him on the stair, and by then it must have been as pliable as a wax figure. In the police business of securing the area, she was forgotten on the floor. A paramedic stepped over her. Sweet Franny, David thought.


DAVID WAS FAMILIAR WITH DECAY. When his father died, the house's basement was the unspoken casualty. His father used to head down there even when he had trouble walking, holding on to the banister and taking breaks between steps, breathing heavily, examining imperfections in the wall. When he reemerged, he might say, "Underfoot and out of mind," but he would always go back. David heard his father in the basement almost every evening in those last days. It sounded like he was riffling through boxes and tapping nails into boards.

After the man's death, the basement had become submerged in neglect. What had once been a guest bedroom, bathroom, den, workshop, and concrete-floored storage area became a single entity of waste. Dust drifted from the unscrubbed vents and made a soft layer over the tools in the workroom. The guest bedroom clogged with rot. The water in the bathroom's toilet dried and created a mineral line on the ceramic. A bird built its nest on the cracked basement window, and twigs scattered onto the floor inside. With no other source of fresh air, mold populated the damp walls. Pipes grew an ecology of rust. A single green shoot emerged from the bathroom sink's drain. The walls seemed fuzzed. Cardboard softened in the damp. A pile of leaves in the guest bedroom resembled a squirrel drey. The closet in the bedroom held coats made lighter by moths. One member of a row of canned peaches on the wall in the storage area had burst, leaking fluid down the wall, attracting ants, which attracted lizards, which attracted a cat, who scratched through a basement screen and left the squirming reptilian tails of its prey behind. The cat vacated before David found any of the damage, but it left its ammonia-rich urine on a stack of cookbooks in the corner of the storage room. He covered the books with more cookbooks, which he had moved down from the kitchen because he didn't want to see them anymore. The flood from a water heater explosion only served to unify everything as a solid, decaying layer.

A highlight of the basement collection was an inversion table, a symbol of the last victory of David's mother. In his middle age, David's father bought the table. It looked like an ironing board split in half and propped on four sturdy legs. He would strap his ankles into the supports at the base, then release a lever and push back, turning himself upside down on a horizontal axis at waist level, allowing him to hang by his ankles, his head and arms swinging between the supports. The purpose was spinal decompression. As a child, David would come downstairs in the morning to find his father inverted in the center of the living room, craning his neck to watch television. "Gravity," his father would say. "Take a cue from the planets."

David's mother hated the device and refused to dust it. Before she went away, she made a daily case for its move to the basement, where it would be out of sight and less of a general hazard. David's father tried to sell the table in order to help pay the bills after she left. Finally he moved it, and it remained, almost hidden under a carload of old road atlases, in the basement.

David went down and surveyed the scene a week after his father's funeral. He saw the lizard tails and the evidence of sagging rot and then closed the door behind him on the way out. He couldn't bear to gather what he had been looking for, the old organized dental files and contacts that had once been a proof of his value and were becoming the hallmark of his personal depreciation. He liked to look at them in the way that similarly sentimental people liked to look at their own baby pictures and the baby pictures of their parents. When he closed the door to the basement behind him, an old, dry fountain pen fell from over the door frame and rolled into the hallway.


Excerpted from Threats by Amelia Gray. Copyright © 2012 Amelia Gray. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

AMELIA GRAY grew up in Tucson, Arizona. Her first collection of stories, AM/PM, was published in 2009. Her second collection, Museum of the Weird, was awarded the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. She lives in Los Angeles. THREATS is her first novel..

Amelia Gray grew up in Tucson, Arizona. Her first collection of stories, AM/PM, was published in 2009. Her second collection, Museum of the Weird, was awarded the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. She is the author of the novel Threats. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Threats: A Novel 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
BadKittyW More than 1 year ago
This was a VERY difficult book to read!! Although I do not mind unconventional narrative, this book was all over the place and was very difficult to follow. If it had focused solely on following David, it would have made more sense to me, since he was the character who was suffering through mental illness. I also found a lot of the descriptions to be disgusting and uncomfortable, which MAY have been the point, but I often found my stomach turning at times. I was also very dissappointed at the ending. I wanted several times to quit reading this book, but kept on with the expectation of a rewarding resolution, which I did not recieve. Like almost every other reviewer, I will say this was not an easy or light read, but that is not something that, on it's own would turn me off to a book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This has quicly turned into one of my favorite books of all time
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There were times when reading this novel I genuinely wondered, "What is going on"? Once I adjusted to the style, I was able to enjoy the tale. I found the ending unsettling. Recommended for the writing.
Author_RichardThomas More than 1 year ago
THIS REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN. “I WILL CROSS- STITCH AN IMAGE OF YOUR FUTURE HOME BURNING. I WILL HANG THIS IMAGE OVER YOUR BED WHILE YOU SLEEP.” The debut novel by Amelia Gray, entitled THREATS (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is an unsettling and hypnotic story of loss, disintegration and the ways that love both builds and destroys us, anchors us, and alternately, lets us drift away. This is not conventional storytelling, but if you’ve read Gray’s work already (Museum of the Weird and AM/PM) then this will come as no surprise. To call this a detective story would be limiting. You have to jump in with both feet into the freezing waters, no easing a toe beneath the surface to see if the water is indeed water, to see if everything is safe. Nothing is safe, or reliable, and often others don’t have our best interests at heart. David and Franny are not your typical couple. Franny is a large presence, a woman who does her own thing, often keeping secrets from her husband, wandering behind their house into the woods on a regular basis. David is a former dentist who has slowly fractured in the wake of his family’s demise and the loss of his practice. The domestic life seems normal on the surface—reading the newspaper, filling out the crossword puzzles—but from the beginning, Franny has had to take care of David, accustomed to his wandering mind: “FRANNY had never faulted him his confusions. Once, a group of squabbling jays stopped them on a walk. Two of the birds were circling each other, ducking and weaving, thrusting beak to wing, falling back. The group around that central pair collectively made a noise like rushing water. They spread their blue wings. It looked like someone had dropped a scarf on the ground. They moved in a unified line around the fighters in the center. She took his hand. ‘You’re in the road,’ she said.” It’s not clear at what point David started to fall apart. Maybe it was the death of his sister, who drowned in five inches of water. Or maybe it was the death of his father and subsequent institutionalization of his mother. But wherever he is mentally when the novel starts, it is the death of Franny that unhinges him completely. Take this early exchange with Detective Chico: “David knew he would enjoy very much the feeling of a woman placing her palms on his face. ‘Someone altered my clocks,’ he said. ‘We don’t want to alter your clocks, sir.’ The paranoia that David carries with him slowly creates an aura of mental instability, and we learn early on that whatever surreal passages Gray throws at us, reality and truth are merely shadows and hints. Is the man down the street who looks exactly like David a figment of his imagination, or just a strange coincidence? Have people really been seeing Franny on buses, or are these just reflections of grief? Are his neighbors really out to get him? Are they watching him with stolen glances, normal behavior when witnessing a man mumbling to himself while boarding up his windows in a robe and slippers? TO READ THE REST GO TO THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.
Anonymous 22 days ago
I hated this book, got into it over 100 pgs and still couldn't figure out what was happening or where the writer was going with it. I have read thousands of books and this is one of the few that I put down, when I really wanted to throw it out the window!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I like to think I'm a fairly advanced reader, but I never fully understood what was happening in this story. Perhaps that was the author's intent. Just when I thought I had it pegged, something even weirder would occur. Is it a story about a dentist's decline into mental illness or is it some kind of conspiracy? If you like complicated novels, this is for you. I couldn't stop reading, despite my confusion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not a summer or light read for sure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unsettling and unsatisfying - depressing without resolution. Interesting for its structure, and lack therof. Not a light read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If it weren't for the fact that I hate to not finish a book I've started, I would have stopped reading this after the first chapter.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
But no story
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If I could give zero stars I would. This book is just awful. I wanted to stop reading so many times but I always finish books I start. There are no answers no conclusion no explanation. I wish I could get my money back. I would never  recommended this book or its writer to anyone EVER !!! 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Confusing with no conclusion