“It is tempting to say that the discovery of William Gay’s last manuscript is a story as compelling as the novel’s own brilliantly constructed, deeply chilling plot. There are many examples of posthumously published, ‘undiscovered’ books – Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal – but Little Sister Death, William Gay’s ‘lost’ horror novel published this month by Faber & Faber is a remarkable addition to the list. Pessoa’s is a sprawling and unfinished work of over five hundred pages, Darger’s book – like the paintings which were also found in his home after his death – raw and immediate, but crucially incomplete. Little Sister Death, though, comes to us fully formed, a book about death and haunting that seems to appear from the land of the dead.
Like Henry Darger, Gay was a self-taught artist who worked in blue-collar jobs and wrote after hours. Gay was a construction worker from rural Tennessee, a man who, as Tom Franklin writes in his wonderful introduction to this edition, cut his own hair and bathed in the creek behind his house, and who found fame as a writer late in life. His first novel, The Long Way, was published when he was 57, and only handful more appeared before his death in 2012. Working as builder, a dry-wall hanger, a carpenter, it wasn’t the thing to talk about writing, especially your own. ‘You don’t come out on Monday morning and then tell these guys you’re working with about this sonnet you wrote over the weekend.’ It is thus not surprising that a manuscript was found among his paper’s after he was discovered dead in his log cabin in Hohenwald, southwest Nashville.
Little Sister Death is a truly frightening book. Inspired by the famous 19th-century Bell Witch haunting of Tennessee, it follows the unravelling life of David Binder, a writer who moves his young family to a haunted farmstead to find inspiration for his faltering work. Movingly between the early 1800s and 1982, the two periods conjoined by the ghostly appearance of a girl in a green dress, disembodied laughter cackling in the night, sexual obscenities muttered from behind closed doors, the book is beautifully written and deeply unsettling. Binder, a writer with one published novel to his name and desperate to find his next story, knows the house’s terrible history but chooses nonetheless to bring his family there. As has been noted in The Telegraph, it is ‘scary story but also a study of the writer – his temperament, his torment and his devil’s pact for the price of a good story.’ Or, as Tom Franklin puts it, it is about how ‘the necessary obsessions of writing can cause its practitioners to risk alienating or losing not their loves ones but (perhaps) their sanity as well’. It is a sublime piece of writing, a darkly gripping, terrifying tale, a masterly example of Southern Gothic horror and book that confirms Gay’s place among writers such as William Faulker and Flannery O’Connor. But for all that, let’s not forget – it’s really, really scary.”
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Little Sister Death is published by Faber & Faber and is available now.