Stay Awake

By Dan Chaon

(Random House, $25, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Dan Chaon’s first story collection, “Among the Missing,” was nominated for a National Book Award. His novel, “You Remind Me of Me,” made “best book of the year” lists at The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. His novel “Await Your Reply” also was named to those lists and was a New York Times notable book. He lives in Cleveland and is a professor of creative writing at Oberlin College. And, in case you are wondering, his last name is pronounced “Shawn.”

Here’s what he told an interviewer about this new collection:

“Short stories are a glimpse into a larger world – they give you that thrill of peeping through a keyhole… as a reader, you’re an active participant in creating the world that exists beyond that brief glimpse.”

“I knew that I wanted to create a collection that paid tribute to the idea of the “ghost story” while at the same time adapting that form to my own purposes, so that not all the stories are necessarily exactly “supernatural.”

What is this book about?

This collection of a dozen stories presents characters haunted by their past actions or mysterious occurrences in the present, living in a twilight world where their heads buzz as though bees were beating against their foreheads – from the inside – or their family home has turned malevolent. A scene in one story, in which a musty old box containing a Scrabble set suddenly disgorges a flood of cockroaches, will, I shudder to say, remain in my memory for far too long.

Chaon’s people are striving to make sense of the inexplicable situations in which they find themselves and often must confront experiences best left unrecalled. They have plenty to shove down the memory hole, but you, the reader, won’t easily forget these stories.

Why you’ll like it:

If you like stories that upset your emotional balance, Dan is your man. Chaon is a master of the creepy, the skeevy, the deeply unsettling. Reading the stories in “Stay Awake” is like stepping into a peaceful-looking lake and suddenly finding weeds snagging your ankles and a steep drop-off where you least expect it. Stories begin in what feels like a normal world, but soon the characters begin revealing dark traits. These tales are all the more powerful thanks to Chaon’s gift for descriptive, disturbing language. For example:

“In the treetops, a cicada makes its trembly, pressure cooker hiss”.

“Something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.”


“…his mind is tickling with small, scuttling images: his former wife and son, flashes of the photographs he doesn’t own, hasn’t kept.”

Or even a backyard apple tree:

“—even that behaved strangely. Its leaves would get a white powdery substance on them and then they curled up and fell off, and the apples themselves were tiny and wrinkled and deformed in a way that made them look like little ugly heads…”

What others are saying:

“Chaon’s protagonists are plagued by common traumas and struggle to rectify their decisions with the external forces of fate. More often than not, characters are stuck in an eddy that seems inescapable, yet which is also a moment’s isolation from the surrounding flow. Chaon (Await Your Reply) brings readers fantastically close, slowly drawing them into the anxiety or loneliness or remorse of his characters, and building great anticipation for the twists to come.” Says Publishers Weekly.

“National Book Award finalist Chaon follows up his critically acclaimed novel Await Your Reply with this disquieting collection of 12 stories. His characters are everyday people experiencing extreme emotional situations that pull them into a strange, shadowy otherworld…  The powerful writing in this intense and suspenseful collection draws us into the emotional maelstroms experienced by the characters. A highly recommended work, not to be missed,” says Donna Bettencourt in Library Journal.

When is it available?

It is available now at the Hartford Public Library.

A note: Chaon will speak tonight, Feb. 7,  at 7 p.m. at R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison. Tickets are $5, which can be used towards purchasing his book. Reservations are required: 203-245-3959 or

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