Fear and Suspense in A Single Shot

Fear and Suspense in A Single Shot

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Fear and Suspense in A Single Shot     

Matthew F. Jones' novel A Single Shot is a disturbing tale of one man's unfortunate mistake and the hellish consequences it brings him. John Moon, in need of money to support his estranged wife Moira and their infant son Nolan, sets out early one morning to hunt an impressive buck he has recently spotted grazing near his mountain home. Having weighed the value of the deer meat against the thousand dollars in fines and two months in jail he can expect to serve if caught shooting the animal out of season on state land, he decides it is worth the risk. This risk, however, proves to be far greater than John anticipates. After he wounds the deer, chases it several miles through dense underbrush, has his shoulder gored, and accidentally shoots sixteen-year-old Ingrid Banes dead before finally killing the buck, John is forced to reevaluate his decision. Having made the leap from small-time poacher to second degree murderer with a single misguided gunshot, John, his life transformed into a delusory state of confusion and guilt, reacts reprehensibly, but similarly to how most decent individuals would likely respond if placed in his dreadful situation. Choosing to hide her body in a small cavern in the quarry, "because burial has a ring of finality to it he can't yet bear" (24), John runs to an abandoned lean-to where the girl and her boyfriend Waylon have been camping, in search of material to build a torch. There, stumbling upon a large metal container full of money that he is unable to resist keeping, he realizes his troubles may have only begun. Indeed, this is true, as in the few short days that follow, he is tormented incessantly by both his own conscience and the men whose money he now possesses. Jones is able to convey this torment, as well as evoke apprehension and suspense, through his expert use of such elements as setting, atmosphere, structure, narrative voice, and, especially, characterization and dramatic action.

As the story opens John is embarking on a deer hunt in the early hours of morning. It is before sunrise, still "three-quarters dark" (3), and "it's so quiet in the forest that, even on a soft bed of pine needles, John's footsteps echo in his ears" (4). There is no wind, and as the scene unfolds, birds take flight, and the crows begin to caw.

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This eerie setting cannot help but create a feeling of apprehension concerning what will occur in these quiet, dark, stifling woods. Attention is drawn to the hot, humid weather throughout the novel, helping to produce the sensation of claustrophobic oppression and suggestive of how John's world is collapsing around him. His options are quickly disappearing, and it is requires a strenuous effort for him to think clearly and rationally. As for his surroundings, a lonely mountain with only one residence other than John's serves as a hauntingly perfect stage for such a harrowing series of events to be played out upon. Even the town itself, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone, yet no one is what they seem, intensifies suspense, as John wonders who else is secretly involved in his distressing situation. The town's exact location is intentionally undefined, suggesting that this form of tragedy occurs indiscriminately and that virtually anyone could fall victim to similar circumstances.

The story's atmosphere is one of paranoia and isolation, as John, constantly worrying that people are aware of his heinous act and are judging him accordingly, is certain the truth will soon be discovered and that he will be punished severely for his crimes. This sense of fear and apprehension swells as John's mental state deteriorates, causing him to be frequently delusional. Soon after accidentally killing the young girl, he begins to hallucinate and dream of her, envisioning the two of them in lewd, sadistic sexual unions and recalling carnal details of her body, like "her neatly manicured pubic bush, emanating the smell of apple essence shampoo" (67). Such is the vividness of his fantasies that it is only with partial certainty that he can deny their validity during his rare instances of sober clarity. Even at these times, John's mind is so plagued with fear and suspicion that he is incapable of fully trusting anyone or anything, not even his own judgment. After passing out one night, he awakes wondering, "had he been dreaming? - - The dead girl's transmogrifying body and his orgasmic spasm entering it like a gunshot" (69). His uncontrollable suspicion makes him increasingly isolated from the world around him. A lonely man to begin with, the departure of his wife and son, as well as his growing mistrust in his lawyer, Daggard Pitt, and closest friend, Simon Breedlove, causes John to become more and more introverted, to withdraw further into his desolate mountain home. There, he surmises, "he might forever elude his pursuers. He knows he could survive. And what of his current life would he miss?" (102). This mood of paranoia and isolation is so prevalent throughout that it is certain to be instilled in anyone reading of John's final week of existence.

The novel's quality as a tale of suspense is also the result of its structure and pacing. The entire plot, from John's fateful deer hunt to his own unfortunate demise, spans just one week. This compression keeps the action swift and compelling, beginning just ten pages into the narrative, with John's realization that he has accidentally killed the young girl. Such dramatic action at this early stage immediately arouses considerable nervous curiosity about developments to follow. Moreover, instead of being divided into chapters, the events are rather separated according to the day on which they occur, effectively clarifying their order and chronicling the progression of Moon's paranoia. What is more, the plot is distributed evenly amongst the seven days, so that each, however intense, does not contain dramatic incidents which cannot reasonably be believed to have transpired within a twenty-four hour time period. Each night John collapses into a stress - - and often alcohol - - induced slumber only to suffer dreams equal to his reality in their horror, before awakening, disoriented, to increasingly unsettling surroundings and events. As a result, the end of every day provokes substantial anticipation concerning the developments of the next. Jones never disappoints; the menace of each succeeding morning surpasses that of its predecessor, culminating in Moon's arousal on Saturday to the sight and sound of a vicious sexual encounter between what he perceives as "two devils mating or murdering each other" (226). This perplexing scene portends the bizarre nature of the novel's conclusion, while figuring directly in John's own end.

Narrative voice is also skilfully employed in evoking fear and apprehension. Here, it is that of the third person singular; the narrator is aware of the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist but not those of the other characters. This point of view is effective because it provides necessary and disturbing insight into the mind of Moon, without inundating the text with superfluous information pertaining to secondary figures. Though the first person voice is often better suited to conveying mood and emotion, in this case the third person is preferable because of the unreliability of the protagonist. It would be far more difficult to believe the details of such a horrific story if they were related by a neurotic drunk who himself finds them suspicious. Instead, credibility is maintained by an external narrator who discloses the situation accurately and impartially. His offering his account in the present tense gains the narrator further trust. Whereas such a speaker usually recalls previous events, therefore narrating entirely in the past tense, Jones writes in the present, imparting a sense of immediacy. One tends to have more confidence in a speaker describing a situation in progress as opposed to one who is narrating from memory. In a work of fear, this trust is particularly crucial, because if a narrator loses credibility, with it vanishes all frightening effects.

The superb characterization of protagonist John Moon is another attribute to which the novel owes its success. Moon is convincingly portrayed as an indigent, bitter, and solitary alcoholic who, notwithstanding these faults and his minor confrontations with the law, is still not an entirely malevolent figure. Collectively, these characteristics make John a perfect protagonist, considering his circumstances. In the aftermath of Ingrid's death his actions are, in part, motivated by his humble financial position. Obviously, his hastily made decision to keep the money he finds in the lean-to can be thus explained. John views the money as a means of providing for his family and restoring his marriage, oblivious to the other problems which initiated the separation. Also, the desperation he feels owing to his lack of money, no doubt reinforced by the memory of his father's similar situation, can be seen to account somewhat for his woeful behaviour. His bitter attitude towards life, another dominant trait of his character, stems primarily from the loss of his father's land: "Every misfortune or failure, every hurt and tragedy, John sees as being born of that deprivation" (51). The agonizing death of Robert Moon, his body riddled with "cancer and metastasizing tumors - - and, four years later his mother's, whose heart just quit in the middle of dinner one night" (51) can, in John's opinion, all be attributed to the loss of his birthright. A hard life and his impending divorce bolster his cynicism as well, until John eventually loses all faith in other people and resigns himself to a hermetic existence on the mountain. Here, with no hope and no one to depend on, he is especially susceptible to his growing paranoia, a condition nourished by his constant drinking. It is possible that if Moon had no criminal record, he would have gone to the police and confessed, but as matters stand, considering his past convictions for poaching and drunk driving, he sees little chance of his innocence being accepted. Taking into account all of these alarming traits, it is evident that John Moon is a thoroughly unpredictable individual, and the rash behaviour one expects from such a figure causes substantial trepidation. Despite all of his flaws, however, he is a character more pitiable than condemnable. Jones' portrayal of Moon as a sympathetic figure is no small accomplishment, considering the damnable nature of his deeds; as it happens, Jones reveals his shortcomings in such a way as to make him seem a man with whom it is possible to relate, while his demonstrating John's conscience and his feelings of remorse generates compassion. Moon's motive for concealing the truth, and indeed for having been hunting in the first place, is to provide for his family. He contemplates confessing but is afraid of what will happen to his son and, thereby, justifies his actions. Then, once he has made his decision, John is tortured with guilt, the girl both occupying his every waking thought and haunting his sleep. He also demonstrates signs of a conscience, as he "remembers that when he should have buried the girl the thought felt like killing her all over again" (103). A protagonist who is at the same time a progressive psychopath yet also the subject of empathy arouses not only apprehension about the damage spread by the downward spiral of his life, but anxiety over his fate as well.

Notwithstanding the significance of the aforementioned elements, the most efficient technique Jones employs in developing fear and suspense is dramatic action. The first major instance of such drama is John's realization that he has killed the girl and his subsequent discovery of the money. Ingrid's accidental death is a disturbing reminder of the ease with which anyone can end up in a dreadful predicament similar to John's. Another effective dramatic episode is the perverse scene Moon encounters at Moira's house. Emboldened by beer and schnapps, he intends to barge in on his wife and ply her with his new-found wealth. Instead, he is greeted by "a naked woman holding a pizza slice" (57) and threatened at gunpoint by the mysterious Obadiah "the Hen" Cornish, while his son wails in the background. This image is disturbing in its grotesque aestheticism alone, not to mention the tension aroused by Cornish, who seems so well informed about John, while his own history remains an enigma. As the plot progresses, the ominous Chevy Blazer repeatedly seen traversing the winding mountain road creates additional apprehension. At first it is merely suspicious because its presence is an anomaly; however, when John witnesses his dog Mutt being all but decapitated by a bullet which was, he and his "neighbour" Cecil Nobie infer, fired by the person driving that vehicle, it is evident that John is being targeted for his misdeeds by an entity far more sinister than the sheriff's department. Henceforth, the dramatic developments become successively more shocking , and each further illustrates the malevolence of John's pursuers. Later the next day, while still in a daze after the disappearance of the girl's body from the cavern, John, having learned from Nobie's daughter Abbie that the Chevy Blazer visited his trailer earlier, anxiously returns home. He finds the interior of his house in shambles and, after detecting that "a faint odor mars the air" (113), finally enters the master bedroom. There, "lying face up on the bed, her body wrapped below the neck in plastic, is the dead girl" (113). This horrifying development drastically increases apprehension and contributes immensely to the fragility of John's mental state, as does the rock which crashes through his window, wrapped inside a note proclaiming the capture of his family. Also functioning as a catalyst for fear and suspense is Obadiah Cornish's gruesome murder. "Cut clear to the spine, his throat oozes a thin line of blood" (141) as John enters his hotel room. In addition, the Hen is covered in cigarette burns and the "tip of his nose, his upper lip, and his left ear have been sliced off" (141). This savage mutilation simultaneously proves that Cornish was not solely responsible for tormenting John, and demonstrates the fiendish nature of his remaining stalker. Other incidents serving to create apprehension and suspense are John's near murder of Daggart Pitt, indicative of his desperation and instability, and the revelation of Simon Breedlove's involvement in his friend's hell and his subsequent suicide. The final two powerfully frightening events are John's confrontation with Waylon and his own tragic demise. Keeping Abbie, as well as John's trigger finger for insurance, Waylon sends him to retrieve the money, threatening the girl's slaughter if he fails to return within ten minutes. With this terrifying scene still ravaging his mind, John nonetheless is eventually able to manoeuvre his mangled limbs enough to fire two bullets several hundred yards through the dense foliage and into the head and chest of his nemesis with his father's old rifle, escaping at least that much of his torment. Finally, in an attempt to atone for his transgressions, Moon decides to bury Ingrid along with the remainder of the money and a note explaining the situation. Ironically, he ultimately joins her in the grave that he himself prepares, after her corpse tumbles into the pit and paralyses him. Unable to speak and presumed dead, he is forced to watch and feel his own interment at the hands of the two "devils" he had spotted copulating in a pond earlier the same day: A chilling, bizarre conclusion wholly appropriate for such a horrific tale.

Grippingly chronicling the final week of protagonist John Moon's life, Matthew F. Jones' novel A Single Shot is undeniably a superior novel of horror and suspense. Thanks to the artful use of the elements and techniques discussed, Jones depicts with convincing physical immediacy the disastrous impact of the events of these seven days on John's mental state, while evoking an overall sense of dread which is so vital to the piece's character.


Jones, Matthew F. A Single Shot. Toronto: Harper Collins, 1996.

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