Jane, the main character, is trapped inside a claustrophobic “cold-lined box” that is her mind from which she cannot escape. Even in those bits and pieces of reality that might seep through her compulsion to get even with her husband Jack, she nonetheless aligns herself with those things “that wouldn’t quite fit right in her head.” She tries to convince herself that she is not crazy; it is Jack, she believes, who made her crazy and confined her in the Blue Room, the hospital or special room where she is incarcerated before she escapes. It is all Jack’s doing. He is the one who alienated her from “her beloved expression of life,” the dark passion that was her “self-styled art.” The Blue Room stripped her of her essence and stole from her whatever meaning she had.
And so Jane escapes from the Blue Room and finds her way to the house where she lived with Jack before he sent her away. When we meet her, she is hidden in the upstairs wardrobe closet, touching “the knife that would replace the explanations,” and we get inside her mind as she stumbles toward a legitimate reason to harm Jack, to kill him in fact, to right the wrong he perpetrated. It is a quest she cannot relinquish, one she believes will free her of the visions, the shadows and horrific images that taunt and confine her in the only mind she knows: a box with an “insatiable appetite.” Only then, after she is done with Jack and Becky, their daughter, will everything be right with the world.
“The Box That Jane Built” has an intriguing dramatic structure, the first third of the story alternating between the inner monologues of Jane and those of Jack—he downstairs, she upstairs, separated only by the landings. And then the structure changes significantly. The doorbell rings, Jane creeps downstairs and hears the voice of the intruder Autumn Rivers, the woman Jack is seeing. Autumn apologizes for interrupting his writing, but she says she needs to stop by. Something of a psychic, she feels something, sees something, and smells something odd. We do not know precisely when Becky appears on the scene, but it seems concurrent with Autumn’s running from the kitchen as Jane inflicts her pain on Jack, the eerie shine of the knife “reflecting the fathoms of indescribable shadows of madness.” Becky sees her father gravely wounded and runs to the attic, where she finds temporary safety.
With the introduction of Autumn and Becky, the action speeds up: Jane the stalker, Autumn and Becky the hostages unequipped to deal with the wife and mother who desperately needs to hold on to a bit of sanity, but all Jane sees is “a river of boxes, some open, some closed. “ “The Box That Jane Built” is a cliffhanger. We don’t know what will happen to Autumn or Becky, but as a psychological thriller, we shouldn’t be too surprised at the surprise ending, which intensifies the anxiety and menace of this short story.
Of the four stories in the collection, “My Imaginary Friend,” is most similar to “The Box That Jane Built,” insofar as it is also a psychological thriller dealing in the dissolution of reality. The mood in this story feels claustrophobic, and whatever dramatic action there is in “My Imaginary Friend” exists between the unnamed character, her imaginary friend Melanie, and the doctor who tries to convince her that she and Melanie are the same person. Seeing him as stupid and arrogant, she will have none of his counsel. He badgers her with this question: “‘Why do you think you are innocent of those crimes?’” and this indictment: “You must understand that she is not real, that it’s you who have perpetrated the murders, not her. Once you take responsibility for them, you can begin to heal.”
The plot twists, the mind games, the obsession, and the tortured relationship with the ego—all characteristics of the psychological thriller—Powell uses to considerable effect. We just might believe that Melanie is not the woman sitting across from the doctor, even as she watches Melanie step ominously behind the doctor and laughs. Is it she, or Melanie, or the consolidation of the two who then slashes the doctor with the knife, “as if his neck is but flimsy lace”?
The story “The Audition” is as well conceived and executed as “The Box That Jane Built” and “My Imaginary Friend.” A thriller as pure you can get, “The Audition” offers just the right amount of suspense because we don’t know what the protagonist is auditioning for. We know that his mother accused him of killing his twin brother, although we also know that it was the umbilical cord that strangled him. We know that his mother beat him and discovered the “oddly-shaped scar” on his skin below his armpit that marked him and “the undoing of us all.” And we know that he planned to be the last to audition, because he wants to know his competition. There is foreboding in this story and some foreshadowing, but we are not certain what the clues lead to—until he knocks on the glass door with the triangular sigil and finds himself standing opposite his twin brother whom he allegedly killed, auditioning for the part of the “Soul Seducer.”
“The Back of My Hand” seems to be an outlier, not only a thriller, although its surprise ending and threatening mood puts it squarely in the thriller genre. However, the perspective in “The Back of My Hand” is one of satire, and it is the satire that creates the tension that we expect of a thriller—until the ending, where we experience surprise and unexpected anguish. An older, rich woman hates the back of her hands with the sun-caused blotches that she can’t make beautiful again, even after applying products that “contain glycolic acid, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, or Beta-carotene.” She considers surgical “fat-grafts,” but what she really wants is a new set of hands. With the means and temerity to accomplish this “completely new start,” she finds “the forward-thinking expert surgeon, the venue . . . and soon, the donor.” In “The Back of My Hands,” Powell has cleverly yoked satire and thriller to mock and even evoke a queasy feeling of moral ambiguity.
In The Box That Jane Built and Outside the Box, Powell has written four short stories that are indisputably thrillers that quicken the heart and chill the bone. The menace is constant, the characters tortured, and the action gripping.
*“The Box That Jane Built” is published under the title The Box That Jane Built and taken from the collection Figments. “The Back of My Hand,” “The Audition,” and “My Imaginary Friend” are published under the title Outside the Box.