“It Only Comes Out at Night”

The week’s weird tale being discussed over at LibraryThing.

.Review: “It Only Comes Out at Night”, Dennis Etchison, 1976.

This story was very evocative for me. 

While I have never driven between Flagstaff, Arizona and San Bernardino, California through the Mojave Desert anytime much less at night in the summertime, it brought back memories of night car trips through largely deserted areas on interstate highways.

A cautious person, in an age of what I remember as less reliable and comfortable cars, a cautious person might do what our protagonist McClay has done: pack a number of emergency supplies and provisions.

Etchison’s story is full of details: the tires heating up on the pavement and their constant flexing sidewalls pushing them closer to failure and the bug covered radiators and windshields. I don’t know if he invented the whole roadside complex of restaurants and hotels that cater to people who take the safer and more comfortable course of traveling this area at night. But it seems plausible.

The trip back home to San Bernardino for McClay and his wife, asleep in the back seat, has the air of desperation. Has something awful happened on the trip? Is his wife sick? Are they running from something? Have they killed someone? Committed a crime? 

But, it seems, it’s just a vacation trip that turned into an ordeal, a car trip extended way beyond plans. Wife Evvie just wants to get to a hotel and sleep. McClay doesn’t want another argument so doesn’t tell her that’s a two hour drive away.

In the night, the pair comes upon a rest stop. McClay and Evvie get out. 

While there, he notices a lot of cars parked, their drivers probably asleep.  He thinks he sees a shadow about the restroom and assumes its Evie. Curiously, he hears the sounds of slamming car doors twice before he returns to the car.  

All seems well when he gets back. His wife, her coat over her head as a pillow, is still in the back. 

He goes for a few miles and, very fatigued, he decides he can’t go any further and returns to the rest stop to sleep. 

(Spoilers follow)

He goes to the rest room again. While there he hears somebody say “Next week, we’ve got to get more organized.

He takes a closer look at the cars in the parking lot. They are silent, no ticking sounds as their engines cool.

They are so covered with dust and bugs they had to have been abandoned there a long time. And, he discovers, the people in them are probably dead. He sees at least one cut throat. 

Suddenly fearful, he runs to his car. He discovers his wife dead, killed the first time he stopped there and her body put back and covered. 

We wonder what the menace at the rest stop is. Merely human serial killers? Vampires? There seem to be more than one. And what is the “it” of the title?

It seems a bit quotidian and churlish to point out the possible flaw in plausibility: why hasn’t the local highway patrol or sheriff’s office discovered what’s going on here? McClay himself concludes they don’t even bother to check the area.

Still, it’s an effective, evocative, scary story – not least because of the unrevealed nature of the killers. And, of course, it’s a story that would be even less plausible set in the age of the smartphone.

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