As a word of warning before we begin with today’s essay. I’m going to use words like ‘normal,’ ‘mundane’ and ‘ordinary’ to describe Iain Reid’s novel, ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things.’ None of these descriptors are implied in a negative sense. In fact, those elements might just add something more profound to the story.
As an additional note, this essay, and the book it’s about, include discussions of mental health. If that’s not something you’re up for, don’t feel bad about wanting to read something else.
Had I read this book sooner, it would have been a good essay topic for October. Oh well, if Christmas celebrations can go on into January, then why not continue celebrating Halloween in November?
As I mentioned in the title of today’s analysis, ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ feels like a microcosm of horror as a genre. The book centres on an exploration of fear in the simplest, most normal way it can be – the inner monologue going on inside an ordinary person’s mind as they debate a choice with themselves.
The normal person in question is an unnamed young woman in a car with her boyfriend, Jake, as they journey to meet his parents. Meanwhile, she is thinking of ending things.
This lends itself to the book’s main structure – inner monologues of this woman, and the things she is thinking about, and remembering. Alongside this, she occasionally engages in conversations with her boyfriend.
The prose in the novel doesn’t feel like prose. Reading this book doesn’t feel like reading a book. As pretentious as both of those claims may sound, it genuinely felt to me like nothing included within these pages was being filtered through a protagonist. It simply felt like I was inside the mind of a normal person, as their overactive mind spills thoughts and feelings. Such is the power of this intelligently considered first person perspective.
Both me and this perspective character have one thing in common though – anxiety.
The character’s thoughts are mostly occupied by stresses, concerns, and indecisiveness. There’s nothing happening in the early sections of the book, while we’re inside the car, so nothing is explicitly wrong in the moment. Things do feel wrong though, and there is something unsettling regardless of whether there is any real danger.
Part of this atmosphere comes from the writing, the constantly brimming anxiety of our main character. There are other aspects to it as well.
The conversations and thought processes in the car feel disjointed, for instance. There’s no rhyme or reason to when and in what way they take place. The two characters do not feel like they’re on the same wavelength, with conversations interrupting thoughts (some of which we experience, others we don’t; you never know what’s happening in someone else’s mind) and even the conversations themselves feel disjointed, as the two main characters often respond in ways that don’t feel like responses.
It’s a realism of a kind we don’t see books use often. The awkwardness and the meandering nature of real-world fractured conversations. It should feel normal, relatable. But because we’re so not used to conversations like this in fiction, it feels off instead – the perfect response for the more toned down horror the author is going for.
And that’s not the only thing. The POV character is judgmental, with some shallow critiques and other more meaningful ones randomly popping into her head. She doesn’t mean to be and doesn’t want to be judgmental like this, but she can’t help it either.
Because, after all, you can’t fake a thought.
Even so, it worries her.
There’s also the way she thinks about things out of the blue – just like with the judgments of character. So too do scary memories of her childhood come back into her mind for no reason. Or profound, even frightening conversation topics, that she sometimes blurts out, then regrets straight after.
All of these things combined mean that not only is the POV character’s anxiety palpable and clear, but in the same way, the book feels like an excellent allegory for anxiety. Depression too, in some instances, but primarily that anxiety.
Another good example of this comes a little later, when we finally get out of the car and arrive at the parents’ farmhouse. There’s more of that implacable unsettling atmosphere, and other parts which are more understandably frightening – but then, in those cases, perhaps it is the reactions of those around her that feel more implacably unsettling.
Meeting the parents themselves takes up a surprisingly small amount of the book, but in that amount of time, manages to perfectly represent the anxiety of meeting new people. Once again, nothing is really going wrong, if you were to dive deep and analyse the events in and of themselves, but the perceptions of these events paints a different picture. You can say, maybe even see, that nothing is going wrong. But the gathering is tense and overwhelming nevertheless – just like anxiety really manifests.
There also seems to be a purposeful lack of consistency. It could just be the way I read the book, but there are subtle things that made me wonder if they made sense, or if they contradicted something from before – just subtle enough that I was questioning if it was really the case. Maybe it is just me, but it created an unsure feeling in myself that was manifesting in the POV character at the same time, and it made me think of her lack of self-confidence, the way she is always so unsure of herself.
Whether this was really a part of the book or not, it fit perfectly in my eyes, and added just that extra little bit of depth that can add so much to a story.
I’ve alluded to this next point already, but it’s worth elaborating on it further. The little things in this book, that seem ever so slightly off, effectively builds an unsettling atmosphere you’re never totally sure about. And it does this throughout the story. Plus, the way most of the story’s divides end with something… uncanny.
Something that never seems to lead to much, yet somehow, that makes it worse.
It might be this constant lack of comfort and familiarity that primarily builds that allegory for anxiety within the book.
If that’s true, the later sections of the book (the events of which I won’t spoil, because I think that’s important) are pure panic attack – the thing your anxiety has been building to all along. Importantly though, the book you’ve been invested in this whole time hasn’t shifted to something else. It hasn’t become an intense slasher or more traditional gore-filled horror. It’s simply become a more frightening version of its own kind of horror, the kind of fear it’s been exploring consistently since page one. Still working in those half-wrong unsettling sentences. Only now you also have longer and more intense iterations of those fears too. Building upon and continually crafting that horror of mundanity and modern life.
Okay, there’s two things I’m going to get into now and both need a warning. First of all, I’m going to get into more spoiler territory as we explore the book’s ending. And I’m also going to start talking about more triggering elements of mental health that I think are pertinent to the story’s themes and narratives.
If you want to stop reading here and/or read the book and come back, needless to say I recommend ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things.’
Now, let’s get into the ending.
*There will be spoilers ahead*
The only other major element of the book I haven’t mentioned yet is the weird, italicised conversations embedded between each chapter. Personally I guessed what these pertained to almost immediately, but even if it takes one reader a little longer to guess, you will find out pretty soon – they are discussing a suicide.
These sections would be affecting enough purely based on that, but it feels worse. We don’t really know who these people talking to each other in those sections are, nor do we know who the suicide victim is, or their relationship to the speakers. It doesn’t feel like the two people having the conversation are responding to the suicide the way they should be. They come across, to me at least, judgmental, uncaring, even critical.
They don’t seem to have any empathy for the victim.
This aspect of the story becomes more clear at the end of the book, and recontextualises its title.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
See, the real narrator is Jake – the boyfriend – not the woman. He has died by suicide and as he slowly bleeds out, writes the possibilities he could have experienced with the woman who narrates the book.
There are all kinds of ways this part messed with my head. On an emotional level, obviously. But also on a narrative level.
So much of the book becomes so confusing, so open to interpretation.
Characters, events. Everything is a possibility. I was left unsure what happened, and what didn’t. The only thing the book let me be sure of was the suicide, and the diary Jake left behind.
Or maybe not. Maybe you can’t be sure of that either.
But pairing this finale, and the interspersed conversations, with the ‘mundane’ anxieties of the book’s greater narrative feels very profound to me. The ending affected me.
It’s fear, but not the kind of fear I’m used to feeling from horror stories.
What is it?
Perhaps existential. Or maybe it’s just because of how significantly mental health topics personally hit me in stories. All I really know is that the ending was powerful, and tragic, and frightening. Probably in equal measure. But also, that it hits so differently.
This ending, on one hand, represents the final shock that horror stories often like to end on. On the other hand though, it’s seen through a totally different lens, and takes on a very different form – a more ‘ordinary’ form? Maybe. It’s real. It’s raw. It’s still a sort of ‘other’ though, isn’t it? For most of us, at least.
This kind of duality between the book’s ‘microcosm of horror’ angle, and its more toned down, real-world kind of anxiety, is one of the first things I noticed about the story. This ending, while it still takes on that duality in my opinion, also morphs it into something else.
I don’t know that I’ve entirely understood this book, but even that feels fitting, and profound, given the subject matter. Even so, this is definitely a book that will require a second reading in the near future. Whether I re-read it or not though, there’s something powerful here, and something different yet representative of the horror genre as a whole.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking about ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things.’