Harry Bale is a perfectly ordinary fellow. His lives in the suburbs with his wife and two children, works in his attic studio, and indulges in gardening when the season is right. His neighbors are an eclectic but friendly collection, and the Bales often spend time socializing at neighborhood parties.
All of this changes when Harry comes home to find an enigmatic envelope on the mantlepiece. Inside is a typed message of only two words: “Stand by.”
Harry Bale, a sleeper agent for an unknown power, has been activated.
So begins Thomas Hinde’s 1964 novel The Day the Call Came, recently reprinted by Valancourt Books and long unavailable.
What follows is a story of what can only be called suburban paranoia: as the time of Bale’s mission draws near (a mission of which he is still ignorant), his tension increases and he begins to wonder who he can trust around him. Quiet laughter among his neighbors at dinner parties become sinister; every action out of the ordinary becomes suspicious. Additional cryptic messages arrive from Bale’s faceless employers, putting him even further on alert and forcing him to take increasingly drastic action. Eventually, the final call comes and Harry will perform a horrific and irrevocable task.
The Day the Call Came starts somewhat slowly, as Harry’s narration sets the stage of a seemingly peaceful community that he will reassess quickly. Once the background is set, though, the novel moves quickly, as we follow Harry’s activities and his musings on what his cryptic instructions mean.
It is somewhat interesting to note that “suburban paranoia” is almost its own subgenre of horror and thrillers; I have previously talked about Thomas Berger’s (much more recent) novel Neighbors, about a man whose quiet life is turned upside-down by new residents next-door to him. Such tales have appeal because they suggest that idyllic suburban communities are really too quiet, in the same way that a forest becomes absolutely silent just before a predator strikes.
My attention was drawn to Hinde’s novel not only for the strange plot, but because it was a great influence on horror master Ramsey Campbell, who is one of my favorite authors and of whom I have spoken quite often on this blog. Campbell wrote a new introduction for the Valancourt edition, and he brings great insight to Hinde’s work, especially considering that Campbell himself is a true master of stories of madness and paranoia.
I didn’t find that The Day the Call Came held many surprises for me. To some extent, the story played out as I suspected it would. However, the story is almost irrelevant when compared to the remarkable atmosphere of menace that Hinde sets up. Every action, every occurrence, every person in a happy sunlit community become ominous and sinister. For this reason, I found The Day the Call Came to be well worth reading.