Edited by Alex Scully
The desert is a very hot place. Heat shimmers like a living thing as you gaze across vast stretches of more desert. That shimmer distorts your reality. It alters your perceptions. It can kill you. In Kate Jonez’s novella, Ceremony of Flies, the desert, with its oppressive heat and endless nothingness, serves as the perfect setting for a seemingly innocent decision with horrific consequences.
Two petty criminals, drifting from one desert town to another, make an innocent pit stop at a roadside bar. They’re full of dreams and schemes, but all they find is trouble when a stolen credit card leads to a brutal shooting. Fleeing into the “weird brownish haze” of the desert twilight, they come across a small boy and his dog at a lonely crossroads. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, they do “the right thing” and rescue the boy from the oppressive sand and rock. But as they flee toward Mexico to escape the law, they encounter forces far more dangerous than anyone with a badge.
The environment becomes a character as much as the human beings in Ceremony of Flies, and it gives the story a vivid backdrop. Images such as “the Joshua trees wave their twisted arms” and a desert “moonscape, unbroken in its desolate sameness” create an eerie parallel to the narrative. An evil rises from this endless desolation, and like the twisted desert trees, its distorted visage stands threateningly in the sea of emptiness. Jonez also uses the fly as a subtle symbol of the growing evil. In this inhospitable climate, the flies, and their master the Lord of the Flies, are the only living creatures to thrive.
Ceremony of Flies is disturbing on two levels. Taking the narrative at face value, Jonez paints a bleak picture of a coming doom that cannot be stopped. “This is the essence of the word disaster” as our protagonist tells us in the end. But there is another layer here. What if this is the tale of a madman? Can we believe our first-person narrator? What if Harvey, the little boy, is the fantasy of a demented mind? Jonez has skillfully crafted a dark and compelling story with multiple perspectives through the use of an unreliable narrator. Do we believe it? If it’s true, the consequences are horrific. If it’s not, we have travelled into a deeply disturbed mind. Both choices will leave with you nightmares, particularly in the shimmering heat of the desert during that haunted brown haze of twilight.