By Michael Griffin
Four people trapped in close quarters and forced to relive, day after day, an identical routine that seems to have had no beginning and offers, potentially, no end.
While that could be a scene sliced from today’s pandemic milieu, it is also the cold, stark narrative world of Michael Griffin’s Armageddon House that ultimately offers up a more exotic imprisonment. While this odd little novella is rooted in the horror puzzles of mind-bending grotesqueries like the Cube movies, the protagonists are chained to a world that is less imminently threatening, but no less sinister.
Branded with superficial identities built from foggy pasts, but no real idea of who they are or why,
Mark, Jenna, Polly and Greyson eat, exercise, fight, and occasionally struggle to figure out the greater mysteries of their lives – including, but not limited to, how they wound up in what seems like a concrete condo complex buried several miles underground.
The narrative is networked through the perception of Mark, who, at the start of the novella, awakens already caught in an intense mediation (for perhaps the hundredth, thousandth or otherwise time) on a mural on the wall of his room. The picture “offers a view of a blue lake surrounded by trees” and whose “image seems real enough to convince him briefly, at least, while his mind is partly blurred by sleep, that he’s looking at a beautiful scene outside an actual window, not just a photograph on a wall.”
The narrative is built of such false images: the four cohabitators could be part of an experiment; the last survivors of an apocalyptic event; random prisoners; or inhabitants or a particularly vivid, but sterile purgatory. The reader is never sure if he or she is looking at a hellish scene in an actual jail or an image on the wall of an imprisoned mind.
On one level, Armageddon House represents a standard metafiction, analyzing how the mind creates meaning from its surroundings, as the characters literally must imagine their past and present. At another, it is straightforward horror at a slow burn, as an imminent meaninglessness screws into them from all angles.
As much as the subtle, suggested climax offers the four a final resolution, where Mark slowly moves towards a simple and brutal exercise of free will that could be the only inevitable such expression under the circumstances, the story offers the contemporary, pandemic-enclosed reader an escape from the puzzle of his or her own existence.
Though, hopefully, just at the terrestrial level of imagination.