Even if we couldn’t name five horror movies, let alone one horror novel, we still know horror when we see it: its tropes are alleys in our cultural city, and in the course of our travels, we pass themwhetherornot we walk down them. We know that a kid drowning in a lake isn’t yet a horror story. But if four kids go swimming in a lake at summer camp, and one drowns mysteriously, and then ten years later to the minute the other three return to the same lake in the dark of night, no one else around, to go swimming one more time and learn once and for all what befell their dead friend—then suddenly we’re in a genre that we know to be vast (Friday the 13th, I Know What You Did Last Summer ad infinitum).
David’s story at first evokes classic summer-camp horror: we easily imagine that our three friends, unsupervised by their horny negligent counselors,will stay up late telling ghost stories, one of which will doubtless turn out to be truer than they’d ever imagined. Yet no sooner have we buttered our popcorn than the divergences begin: David’s story isn’t about summer camp, there’s no gap of time between the horror-tragedy and the dramatic present (in fact there may not even be a horror-tragedy), and there’s no lake for anyone to drown in. Instead, “Ainsworth Gym” gives us a weekend elementary school sleepover, a swimming pool, and a pile of VHS cassettes.
The three friends who narrate “Ainsworth” are seven years old, an age when the short term is meted out in units of weekends—“we’ll have another weekend night after tonight”—and the biggest foreseeable future event is the graduation from PG-13 to R. They’re at the perfect age, in other words, to be takenin by a PG-13 horror movie called Lake Boy, and their decision to recreate the plot of the film makes perfect sense: the heroes of Lake Boy were seven years old when their friend drowned.
But they don’t have access to the landscape of Lake Boy, so they have to make do with alternatives. In the absence of a lake, they use the gym’s pool. The sweetest moment of the story, for me, is when the boys shower before swimming: they can easily handle sneaking out in the middle of the night in the hope of finding some good trouble, but they’re not bad kids. On the brink of certain and possibly lethal horror, all bathers must shower, as their mothers would have told them.
What happens once they’ve recreated the scenario of Lake Boy is obscure. They’re pulled to the bottom, or they aren’t; their new friend drowns, or doesn’t. Have they tornthrough reality into the supernatural? Is there really something other in this lake-like water?
I won’t speculate on what goes down in the pool that night, because David’s ending, in which the kids promise to return in ten years “and find out what happened,” makes it irrelevant. The narrators have produced their own Lake Boy. More important, they’ve shown us, as readers, a genuine truth at the heart of the story: wanting their weekend to be like a movie amounts to wanting their young lives—their seven-year-old selves—to matter. They don’t want to be forgotten by the teenagers they’ll become. They’re looking across a dark ten-year lake at the bright windows of teenage life, hoping they’ll see their own young ghosts waving back at them once they’ve crossed. And then, because what else can they do, they start swimming.