Dripping by David Morrell from Best American Noir of the Century

best american noir of the centuryReviewed by Toby Ball

A man brings his family to live with his elderly mother in his boyhood home, a rural farm somewhere in In Cold Blood territory. One day he returns from town to find his family missing and his mother in bed, covered with blood. Nothing too unusual in this setup. But it’s not the plot that distinguishes David Morrell’s “Dripping,” it’s the odd, disorienting tones.

The narrator suffers from an unsteady hold on the present, a problem that is introduced in the strange first sentence: “That autumn we live in a house in the country, my mother’s house, the house I was raised in.” The story is told in the present tense yet takes place “that autumn.” This issue is addressed again, later in the paragraph: “It is as though I am both here now and back then, at once with the mind of a boy and a man. It is so strange a doubling, so intense, so unsettling, that I am moved to work again, to try to paint it.” You get the picture. Returning to his boyhood home has disoriented him somehow.

Exploring the house, trying to find the rest of his family, the narrator descends into the cellar and is confronted with a scene that is the central image of this story: a room awash in milk: “Milk. Milk everywhere. On the rafters, on the walls, dripping on the film of milk on the stones, gathering speckled with dirt in the channels between them. From side to side and everywhere.” Here we have the classic basement of horrors, but instead of blood we have milk. Purity instead of sin.

The bulk of the story – a closely observed description of the narrator’s search for his missing family on his childhood farm – is suffused with the narrator’s struggles with time as his attention focuses on what has not changed (and what has), and on an incident from his youth. The end neither surprises nor particularly shocks as much as it punctuates the desolation conjured in this memorable story.

***

Toby Ball’s first novel, The Vaults, was published in September by St. Martin’s Press.

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