In a Dark Time

In a Dark Time

by Larry Watson


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A powerful voice in contemporary American fiction, Larry Watson is the award-winning author of Montana 1948, hailed as "a work of art" (San Francisco Chronicle), and White Crosses, praised as "one of the most irresistible novels of the year" (The Globe and Mail). In this, his debut novel, Watson explores the themes that established him as a master protrayer of small-town America.
Another female student has been found strangled—the body count is up to three, and everyone suspects there will be more. But for Peter, a reticent teacher at Minnesota's Wanekia High School, his own morbid fascination with the murders haunts him more than the morning headlines. Keeping a detailed journal of his community's action—and his own—Peter discovers a disturbing ambivalence toward violence in the midst of uncommonly savage acts.
A taut suspense novel that is at once compelling and thought-provoking, In a Dark Time ingeniously explores our culture's complex relationship with violence—and paints a vivid portrait of America too often color-blind to the bloody hues that tinge its landscape.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780671551643
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: 04/01/1998
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 411,239
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Larry Watson was born in Rugby, North Dakota, and raised in Bismark. The recipient of numerous literary awards, he won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, The Mountains & Plains Bookseller Association Regional Book Award, and his novel Montana 1948 was named one ot the Best Books of 1993 by both Library Journal and Booklist. He is also author of White Crosses, a novel, Leaving Dakota, a collection of poetry, and Justice, a book of short fiction. He is recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts award in fiction. Larry Watson teaches English at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One

2 April 1973, Monday

The third body was found this morning. At seven forty-five a janitor found her in the boys' lavatory on the third floor across from the Biology Lab. Like the other two girls, she had been strangled, and she was found naked, her clothes, cut into strips, piled neatly beside her. It has been only three weeks since the last murder, and there were six weeks to the day between the first and the second. Numbers one and two were spaced, I remember noting, at report-card intervals. And now, if the mathematics of it work out, the next one will occur in a week and a half. After three murders, these are the kinds of observations that one is reduced to making.

The first girl was found in one of the small practice rooms in the music wing. She was in the school early to practice her cello, and she was also found by one of the janitors. The second girl was discovered by a student. Her body was behind one of the flats on the stage in the old gym. She had apparently been in school early as well (despite the warnings that were issued after what had happened to the first girl), but she was not found until after eleven thirty A.M., and the office had already called her home to find out if the girl was absent for a legitimate reason.

I should have started from the time the first girl was killed to make some sort of a record. Ordinarily, I think of a journal as something of a self-indulgence, as a place where one records those things that memory doesn't see fit to save. I have a student in my senior English Literature class who keeps a journal. Every time I come into the classroom, he is there, in the first desk in the row next to the window, his long hair held back with a blue bandana, and he is writing ferverishly in the journal which he knows every writer must keep. He writes in his journal, he says, his poems, his insights, and his innermost thoughts—whatever is "going on in his head." He is continually trying to foist his journal on me, to force me to share with him something of which I want no part. I tell him that it is probably best that he keep these private things to himself, that his journal will be more useful and meaningful to him if he does not make it indiscriminately public. But what is happening here and now, in Wanekia, Minnesota, in this spring, is an extreme situation, and I think to make a record of it is less a business of self-concern, of contemplating one's navel, and more an act of simply keeping one's eyes on what is happening here and now. And I want to hold onto it all, to know always not only that it happened, but to know who was here and what they said and how they dealt with all this. Someone has to watch things closely. Right after I left the school, I bought a black loose-leaf notebook and two hundred sheets of narrow-lined paper. I use a black felt-tip pen, and I print carefully, keeping vertical lines as straight as possible and making the circles and semicircles as round as I can.

When I drove into the parking lot this morning and saw the three police cars, I knew immediately that it had happened again and the feeling came over me again. It is a throat-tightening, adrenaline-pumping feeling. The only thing that I can compare it to was when I was in high school and would come home late at night. I would drive the car into the dark garage, and before I got out I would sometimes get the sudden feeling that someone was in the garage, pressed against the wall and waiting in the shadows for me. But rather than remain afraid in the car (or backing out of the garage), I would get a rush of power and leap from the car, any of the quavering of fear all gone into the tightening of muscle, ready to confront whatever was there. And when nothing was there, my shoulders would drop, and I would go slack. That was the way I felt this morning—afraid of what was going to be there but at the same time excited about being at the scene. And I probably will not go slack for a few days.

The three police cars were parked at the wrong angle, and one of the cars still had its red light on, beating in a quick circle and flashing dully in the early sunlight. The ambulance was backed up to the stairs that led down from the central doors. The new sections of the school have been tacked onto the north and south ends of the original building, and the new wings jut out to form a block-shaped U with the older section. The faculty parking lot is in the back in the center of the U, and the three sections make something of a courtyard for the teachers' cars. The courtyard faces the east, and the sun was shining into the lot so that everything was cast in a harsh and unreal light. The bright colors of the cars, the chrome on the ambulance and the police cars all reflected the light. I looked up at the rows of classroom windows to see if I could see anyone inside, but it was impossible to see through the windows—the sun made them look like sheets of gold foil.

It's strange, but when I drove in I don't think it was the presence of the police cars that signaled that something was wrong as much as it was the way they were parked. Yellow lines have been painted diagonally on the asphalt for the cars, and the police cars were parked the wrong way across the yellow lines, as though they were all crossing Xs.

People were standing around in small clumps. Closest to the ambulance, lined up by the stairs, were the students who had already arrived at school, all of them straining to see over someone else's shoulder. The rest of the people in the lot were policemen and teachers, and for the most part they both stayed with their own groups. Across the street people had begun to come out of their houses and were standing on their lawns and sidewalks, staring over at the school. The people across the street were still in the shade because of the angle of the sun and the high trees, and many of the women were wearing housecoats and had their arms folded as if they were trying to keep warm in the cool, damp morning air. The cars that drove by slowed automatically as if they were pulled up short by strings as soon as the drivers saw the police cars and the ambulance. Before I left, the news must have been on radio and TV because a steady caravan of cars began to circle the school slowly.

Another small thing, like the police cars parked the wrong way, that said that something was wrong was Mr. Proctor, the principal. He was smoking, drawing nervously on a cigarette cupped in his hand and talking to a detective who was writing something in a small notebook. Mr. Proctor is fifty-five years old and has been a principal for nine years, and he had set his sights on that position from the time he got into "the education business" at the age of twenty-three. (All these things, his age, his ambitions toward "principaldom," he confessed to the faculty and staff at a general meeting right after the second murder, the same meeting at which he began to cry and uttered what Roger and I agree is one of the most astounding understatements of all time; he said, "Nothing like this has ever happened at any of the schools I've been associated with.") Mr. Proctor believes, I think, that he became a principal and has been so successful as one, because he never walked through the front door of a bar (all bars in Wanekia have back doors), and because he has never smoked in public.

Copyright © 1980 by Lawrence Watson

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