Final Thoughts: Night in the Woods & Sharp Objects

Welcome to the first edition of Final Thoughts! In the past, we have shared discussion videos where we dissect the book and video game pairing, discussing similarities and differences between the two experiences. Since starting the podcast, we realized we are able to get more in depth in our conversations about the book and game. Beginning with this pairing, we are going to move away from discussion videos and towards a weekly pairing segment on the podcast. We’ll introduce the pairing, update you on our progress and experience throughout our reading and playing, and then launch into a spoiler-heavy conclusion. Final Thoughts is our place to summarize our pairing and share any last points before moving on.

Pairing: “Night in the Woods” and Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

At first glance, “Night in the Woods” and Sharp Objects may not seem to have much in common. Gillian Flynn is known for writing disturbing, twisted stories and the aesthetic of “Night in the Woods” is far less scary, with anthropomorphic animals and teenage “crimes”. Yet while there are many differences (which we will highlight), there are also commonalities that bring these two experiences together. For our Final Thoughts we want to touch on three key aspects: protagonists, the supporting cast of characters, and the setting of small towns.

The protagonists of this pairing are Camille Preaker (Sharp Objects) and Mae Borowski (“Night in the Woods”). They share a semi-forced return to their hometowns: Camille is sent by her editor to cover a murder while Mae moves back home after dropping out of college. Neither particularly want to be there, and this displeasure with being home can be seen in the women’s attitudes towards the towns they’re in, though the intensity of the displeasure varies, perhaps due in part to the difference in time between visits: Mae was last in Possum Springs in the year before while Camille hadn’t been to Wind Gap in eight years.

Along with a reluctant return home, Camille and Mae share a history of mental illness. “Night in the Woods” and Sharp Objects both place mental illness in the center of the story: for Camille, her struggle with self-harm and destructive self-medication is ever present as she investigates the killings of the young girls in Wind Gap, and the player learns about Mae’s depression, anxiety, and anger as time goes on. Yet while mental health is at the center of the two stories, the ways the women cope with their mental illnesses are vastly different. When the reader meets Camille, they learn fairly quickly that Camille experienced some pretty terrible things and at one point engaged in extensive acts of self-harm. Though Camille seems to have moved past self-harm as a way to deal with her trauma and resulting mental health, it also becomes abundantly clear that Camille uses alcohol to self-medicate. Throughout the book Camille’s self-medication can be viewed as destructive, endangering not only herself (scenes of her drinking and driving occur more than once) but also others around her.

On the other hand, Mae is twenty and, having moved back home after dropping out of college, doesn’t seem to know how to handle what is going on inside her head. She wanders the town of Possum Springs, steering conversations away from her reason for dropping out and avoiding even her supportive parents’ questions about how she is doing. Where Camille consciously abuses alcohol in an attempt to cope with her mental illness, Mae’s avoidance is the result of a young woman who doesn’t know what to do.

Though the stories of “Night in the Woods” and Sharp Objects focus on our main protagonists, both are surrounded by a significant cast of characters. “Night in the Woods” has a large number of secondary characters, though there are five that are particularly important: Mr. and Mrs. Borowski, Gregg, Angus, and Bea. Mae has been best friends with Gregg and Bea for many years, and becomes close to Angus (Gregg’s boyfriend). Though these characters are far from perfect, and there are multiple awkward arguments between Mae and her friends, and her parents, the relationships grow stronger and everyone tries to be there to support each other.

The positive relationship between Mae and the residents of Possum Springs stands in stark contrast to Wind Gap, Missouri. As narrator, Camille lets the reader into the history of Wind Gap and the town’s paranoia in the midst of the unsolved murders, and there is little to no positivity to be found. Everyone in the town is suspicious and on edge, circling the wagons against outsiders and perceived threats. Yet even in this time of tragedy, the men and women of Wind Gap continue to hold grudges, gossip, and spread nasty rumors around town. Camille’s mother, Adora, exudes disdain for her daughter, and Camille’s half-sister Amma falls firmly into the “manipulative mean girl” category. Camille’s one positive relationship is with her editor, who is not associated with Wind Gap in any way and is only present during sparse phone calls. The systemic abuse described throughout Sharp Objects underscores the toxicity of Wind Gap and its residents and helps put Camille’s mental illness and coping mechanisms into glaring perspective.

Woven throughout the stories of Camille and Mae are the quirks and experiences of living in a small town. In some ways, Possum Springs can be seen as Wind Gap’s future: a town that used to boom with factories and blue collar jobs but that was left to decline in a post-industrial American society. It is unsurprising that the residents of both Wind Gap and Possum Springs, including Camille and Mae themselves, struggle with a loyalty or obligation to their hometown while at the same time resenting the small town they call(ed) home.

Where Wind Gap and Possum Spring diverge is in the role they play in their stories. Possum Springs is a typical small town, and although there are some strange occurrences, it is a fairly generic setting. Mae’s memories don’t seem to be tied strongly to place, and thus Possum Springs is a passive setting for Mae’s story. On the other hand, Wind Gap in an active character in Sharp Objects, in part because of Camille’s traumatic experience of growing up there. The town of Wind Gap is a sinister companion of Camille, and pulls Camille further and further in to the manipulative underbelly of small town living. Camille’s lifeline (her editor) is far removed from Wind Gap and pulls her out of the blackhole of Wind Gap to finally begin to heal.

While there are some major discrepancies between “Night in the Woods” and Sharp Objects, both stories follow a woman attempting to cope with her mental illness as she navigates the dysfunction of returning to her hometown. Camille in Wind Gap and Mae in Possum Springs offer two experiences of small towns and mental health, each highlighting different aspects of a shifting society. These stories are complicated, messy, and not always that happy, but both offer a glimmer at the end of the tunnel for the protagonists.

-Erin

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