Chances are, you know Kathryn Ormsbee’s name. And if you don’t, head to your local bookstore and scoop up Lucky Few and last year’s unbelievable Tash Hearts Tolstoy. Her novels are layered and beautiful, tackling challenging themes from cover to cover. So it’s no surprise that Ormsbee’s next book, The Great Unknowable End, addresses suicide, complicated families and… cults?
Here’s the scoop on the novel from the publisher, Simon & Schuster:
Slater, Kansas is a small town where not much seems to happen.
Stella dreams of being a space engineer. After Stella’s mom dies by suicide and her brother runs off to Red Sun, the local hippie commune, Stella is forced to bring her dreams down to Earth to care for her sister Jill.
Galliard has only ever known life inside Red Sun. There, people accept his tics, his Tourette’s. But when he’s denied Red Sun’s resident artist role he believed he was destined for, he starts to imagine a life beyond the gates of the compound…
The day Stella and Galliard meet, there is something in the air in their small town. Literally. So begins weeks of pink lightning, blood red rain, unexplained storms… And a countdown clock appears mysteriously above the town hall. With time ticking down to some great, unknowable end they’ll each have to make a choice.
If this is really the end of the world, who do they want to be when they face it?
We can’t wait! There’s something about novels that explore communes and cults, from Bryan Bliss’ No Parking at End Times to Stephanie Oake’s The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, that captivate us. Why? Something about those stories, those frightening micro communities, just pulls the reader in.
We’re thrilled to reveal the gorgeous cover, designed by Chloe Foglia (Art Director) and Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor (Artist), as well as share Ormsbee’s thoughts on the art below.
“When I first saw this cover, I gasped,” Ormsbee tells Paste. “It captures the feel of Stella’s and Galliard’s stories so perfectly, from the abandoned bikes to the foreboding wood to the blood red sun to the characters’ upward glances. Carolina Rodriguez Funemayor’s art is stunning, and it conveys so well that this story is told from a dual point of view, all with the Twilight Zone-esque sense of eeriness that first inspired the book. I’m equally in love with the gorgeous jacket design by Chloe Foglia and the unique hand lettering by Danielle Davis. Though the story takes place in 1977, the cover has a timeless quality to it, and I couldn’t be more excited to see it on bookshelves!”
You can click on the cover to enlarge it.
Simon & Schuster will release The Great Unknowable End on February 19, 2019, but you can check out an excerpt from Chapter 3 below!
Sunday, July 31
I was six years old on the day of the Almost Apocalypse.
It was the first and only time Ruby hugged me. Normally, the commune doesn’t stand for that kind of thing: We kids belong to everyone, and biological parents aren’t supposed to coddle their offspring. That encourages particular familial bonds, and particular familial bonds create division within the community familial bond that unifies Red Sun. That day, though, Ruby coddled the hell out of me, holding me close to her damp shirt and clutching my hair in her fingers. I’m sure she meant to be comforting, but since she had never hugged me before, the closeness only freaked me out more. I felt suffocated in her arms, drowning in the smell of sweat and turmeric. I felt her heart beating fast against my ear, a sure sign she was terrified. And I knew that if the adults had a reason to be scared, I absolutely did.
The whole time it was happening, Ruby whispered these words in my ear, like a chant: “We were right. We were right. This is why we came.”
She clutched J. J.’s hand as we sat huddled among the other commune members, inside Common House. I remember the feeling in that place. The way you feel in the microsecond before a sneeze, when all your energy is focused and your thoughts hang suspended—that’s what it was like. I felt the fear in the room. We were afraid, because the world was ending.
But the world didn’t end. That’s the Almost part of the Almost Apocalypse.
At three o’clock that afternoon, the commune siren went off. It was tied to an alert system that the Council had installed in their offices, meant to inform us if a nuclear attack was imminent.
When that siren went off, the Council ordered everyone to pile into Common House. We waited until a little after seven o’clock that night, at which point Opal came in and told us that we were safe and would not, in fact, be blown off the face of the earth.
Thus ended the Almost Apocalypse.
We later found out that there had never been any threat. The alarm had been the result of a technical error. The next morning, the Council brought in an electrician. They also began construction of a fallout shelter.
Here at Red Sun, we believe in signs, and the Council believed this false alarm of ours to be a warning of real danger—a call for us to prepare a better hiding place, should we be well and truly nuked. Because, had we been nuked while crammed into Common House, it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d survived the blast—we’d still have been exposed to a shitload of radiation.
I wouldn’t understand any of this until years later, but I never forgot Ruby’s chant: “We were right. We were right. This is why we came.”
And I agree with that. She and J. J. were right: The US government, like all governments, is corrupt. The Outside is a scary place. Modern folks care more about the latest kitchen appliance than they do about their next-door neighbors. That’s why Ruby and J. J. came to Red Sun. That’s why they stayed. Even so, at the age of twelve, I came to a grim little conclusion:
My parents were right to come to Red Sun. But had the Almost Apocalypse been an Actual Apocalypse, we would’ve been dead with the rest of the wrong, wrong world.
There’s a strong wind blowing outside when I leave Council House. Even though the sky is a perfect, cloudless blue, a damp gust knocks into me like it’s bringing on a storm. An unfastened shutter slams loudly against Sage House, like a drumbeat keeping unsteady time. In the nearby chicken coops, the birds cluck and chortle uneasily. At more of a distance, a dog is howling. I back up, shielding my eyes against the burning summer sun, to look at the weather vane atop Common House. There, a proud copper rooster is spinning from east to west, then west to north, then north to south, changing direction with every new surge of wind.
A gust whips up around me, unsettling the red dirt at my shoes, and then something smacks into my face, clinging to my cheeks with agitation. I grab at it, and my hand comes away with a crumpled white sheet of paper. Working against the hard wind, I open the paper to reveal black-ink words:
DON’T MISS THE MOVIE SENSATION OF THE SUMMER
STAR WARS—EXTENDED SHOWING, BY POPULAR DEMAND
AT THE DREAMLIGHT, SLATER’S ONE & ONLY DRIVE-IN THEATRE
MOVIE TIMES AT 9 & 11:30 PM
EVERY NIGHT TILL LABOR DAY
It’s an advertisement from the Outside. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it found its way in here, with winds like these. Still, a chill shoots down my spine, and I drop the flyer like it’s diseased, and like that disease might infect me.
I clear my throat, again and again, in low, guttural heaves. My tics haven’t let up since I left the Council.
I don’t want to think about the Outside right now. I don’t want to think at all. That’s why I head straight to work.
The Moonglow kitchen is in a lull when I arrive. It’s late for lunch, early for dinner. As I walk in, Dawn, our sous-chef, sends me a wave with her paring knife. J. J. cocks his head and says, “Get started on the peppers. Then onions and beets.”
No welcome. No acknowledgment that I have arrived a half hour early for my shift. No superfluous instruction.
Just how I like it.
From a nearby counter I grab the crate of green bell peppers, delivered this morning from Red Sun’s gardens. I haul it to my station, grab my board and knife, and set to work. With the pepper head down, I make quick vertical strokes across its center. I’d be lying if I said I’m not mentally substituting this pepper for a certain part of Phoenix’s anatomy.
My mouth tic is acting up, and I’m glad my back is to J. J. and Dawn so they can’t see me rapidly stretch open my lips—a yawn that never comes. Not that they care. J. J. knows I do good work, regardless. And, as he told me on my first day on the job, that is what matters in the kitchen: quality work and communication. I do quality work, though not because I care about the culinary reputation of the Moonglow Café. I do it because I know, even if I’m currently pissed about it, that I’m lucky to have gotten a slot in the kitchen.
There are some bad assignments. Like working the gardens in mid-July’s heat and humidity, building layers of callus on sunburn on callus on sunburn. Like cooking at Dining Hall, which is little more than a mindless conveyor belt churning out variations of a dozen recipes on a strict schedule of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for our four hundred commune members. The Moonglow Café, on the other hand, is a professional kitchen. The café’s diners are outsiders, mainly from Slater, though sometimes from as far as Wichita and Kansas City.
I’ve got a good assignment here, though I’m pretty sure it has less to do with luck and more to do with being J. J.’s son. While parental bonding isn’t encouraged at Red Sun, no one denies certain biological factors. It’s clear that I have J. J.’s dark, curly hair and Ruby’s high cheekbones, and the Council must have also figured that if J. J. was good in the kitchen, his offspring would be too. What they didn’t consider was what J. J.’s offspring might be feeling. Sure, I work hard enough in the kitchen, but I don’t want to cook for the rest of my life. I don’t want to do anything for the rest of my life save play the commune’s Yamaha. It was only a dream before. Then Gregor left Red Sun at the beginning of the year, and I knew this was a sign for me. A sign that I could fill the Outside with my music.
As it turns out, I was wrong. It wasn’t a sign. It was false hope, and I’ve now been sentenced to a decade of cutting and sweating in this kitchen. I won’t be up for reassignment until I’m twenty-six, and at that point I might as well be dead. Real musicians—musicians who make a difference, the way my gods did—burn bright and early, way before they ever reach twenty-fucking-six.
Archer shows up with the rest of the team: Sunshine, Eduardo, Lola, and Heath. Though my enthusiastic chopping has deprived him of the usual prep work, he grabs a few remaining beets and takes his place beside me.
Unlike me, my best friend, Archer, likes kitchen work. For a couple of years he and I have been on prep and dishwashing—typical preassignment jobs. Now that we’ve been officially assigned here, we’ll replace workers who’ve been reassigned to other jobs in Red Sun. My guess is that we’ll be taking on saucier, since it’s the most commonly vacated role in the kitchen. Until the commune-wide changes go into effect tomorrow, though, it’s more prep work for us.
I feel Archer’s eyes on me, even as he cuts.
“Watch yourself.” I nod to his rapid knife strokes before returning to my own. Then I scrape a diced beet from the board and into the steel bowl between us.
Archer sets down his knife. He’s staring at me like a dumb fish, and he looks especially dumb because his long red curls are bunched up under a hairnet.
“Holy shit, man,” he says. “Just . . . holy shit. Why didn’t you say something?”
He knows. Someone told him about my assignment. Bright, maybe. Or even Phoenix himself.
I grab a new beet, severing the roots in one clean cut. As I do, I stretch my lips wide. Then I speak.
“It happened this morning,” I say. “When would I have said something?”
“Did he tell you beforehand, or was it . . . BAM. Surprise!”
Archer waves his knife in a manner that’s not at all in keeping with J. J.’s kitchen safety regulations.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Fuck that, Galliard. I’m not gonna have you sniveling over there the rest of the day. Out with it.”
I tic again, opening my mouth. It’s comical timing, really, like I’m letting out the silent scream I feel deep inside.
I set down my knife and say, “He didn’t tell me. I knew there were some other members who’d applied, but I thought I was a shoo-in. I didn’t know until Rod was going on about how they’d already commissioned paintings from Phoenix.”
“Holy shit,” Archer says, this time in a whisper. Then he shrugs. “You were the one who wanted to be his friend.”
I glare. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“All I’m saying is I never liked the guy much. I told you the day he came here that he was a pompous ass. He’s an outsider. What did you expect?”
My jaw jerks rightward. I stretch my lips apart. “Yeah, that’s not helping right now.”
“What would help? Now’s the time I’d expect all-out fisticuffs, but we both know you would lose. Hard.”
I slice away at my beet, uncovering its red heart with angry strokes. “I don’t want to fight him. The Council made their decision. A fight’s not going to change that.”
I feel noble for saying this, and also kind of nauseated.
“Well, yeah, sure, but . . .” Archer hems for a moment, then says, “Phoenix knew better.”
And there it is. Archer has named it: Phoenix—Red Sun outsider, friend, and role model—knows better. He knows I’ve wanted to be resident artist since way before he ever met me. He knows what it means to me. None of that stopped him, though. He did what he wanted, because he’s a selfish prick.
I stop there and ask myself, Is that fair?
I give it some thought. I think back two years, to when I first met Phoenix. I think of a crumpled letter in a wastebasket—a memory I can’t shake. I scrape the chopped beet from my cutting board. Then I decide: Yes. That’s an entirely fair assessment. Phoenix is, without a doubt, a selfish prick.
“Okay,” says Archer. “Here’s what’ll make it better: Dreamlight season.”
A chill runs through me, same as it did before, when I tossed that paper from my hand—an advertisement for the Dreamlight itself. Thanks to Archer, I know all about that Outside attraction.
No Red Sun member is allowed to leave the commune for any reason other than a medical emergency. That’s a foundational rule of commune life. Every set of rules has its exception, though, and Red Sun rules are . . . no exception. What Archer calls Dreamlight Season is more formally known as Crossing.
The thinking behind Crossing goes like this: Adolescents are bound to experiment, act out, and push boundaries. That’s the natural order of things. For this reason, the Council instituted Crossing—a period of bending rules. From the age of fourteen to sixteen, for three summers, the first day of June through the last day of August, Red Sun members can leave the commune and explore the outside world, provided they return by a nightly curfew. At the end of those three summers, should an adolescent wish to leave Red Sun, they’re free to do so. If not, they’ll settle into adult life here and work their assigned job. The point is, no one here at Red Sun is forcing us younger members to stick around. If we want to leave, we can. The only hitch is this: Once you leave, you don’t come back. You’ve broken with Red Sun’s energy, and you’re on your own. The same holds true for any adults who choose to leave. There haven’t been many, but there have been some—Gregor, our former resident artist, among them.
Archer is a big fan of Crossing. His first summer, he went to Slater’s drive-in theatre, the Dreamlight, and watched every new release the Dreamlight showed. I can recite the full list of movies he’s seen, because he would not and will not shut up about them:
That’s not all Archer does. He and the other crossers head into Slater and go to parties with actual outsiders our age. They explore the town and eat and drink and generally mess around. He says it’s great.
I’ve never left the commune.
I don’t feel what Archer calls “the itch”—an undeniable desire to get out and see what I’ve been missing. I’ve heard enough from Ruby and J. J. and met enough Red Sun newcomers to satisfy my curiosity. I know what I’m missing out on. But I don’t miss it.
For my three summers of Crossing, I’ve stayed in the commune, working extra hours in the kitchen and spending nights alone at the piano or talking to Phoenix. For these three summers, I’ve been fine.
I guess Phoenix is responsible for a lot of that. He made me feel like the commune’s favored son. I sneered at the shameless way Archer and the other crossers threw themselves at the Outside, as though it could offer them anything they hadn’t already been given. I made a vow to never step outside the commune fence. Because to step outside means to admit Red Sun is missing something.
And it’s not.
“Galliard. Did you hear me?”
Archer’s fingers dig into my forearm, and I reel back into reality.
“Yeah, I heard you.” I shrug off the grip, and my mouth tic picks up again. Perfect. The last thing I need right now.
“It’s getting old, man.”
“The holier-than-thou phase. You know you’re not getting a medal for keeping yourself penned in here, right?”
“I’m not after a medal.”
“Then what? Just scared?”
I open my mouth, then press my lips back together, forming a seal. I know Archer is trying to rile me up, but I don’t have the fortitude to rise above it. Not now. After this morning, my fortitude is completely shot.
“I’m not scared of anything,” I snap.
Which is a magnificent heap of bullshit.
Sure, I’m scared.
I’m scared Phoenix has been wrong.
I’m scared the Outside might be as obscenely good as Archer and the others make it out to be.
And what scares me the most? It’s that after this summer, Archer won’t come back from the Outside; he’ll be one of the few Red Sun members who cross straight out of the commune.
“Boys!” J. J. barks from across the kitchen. “This isn’t teatime.”
“Yes, sir,” Archer and I say, and, thoroughly chastised, we return to our beets.
I’m thinking now, not of my fears but of a piece of paper that a strange wind blew my way. That advertisement was for the Dreamlight, and now here is Archer, urging me to go to that very Dreamlight with him. I can’t help wondering if this means something.
It might be that Janis or Jimi or Buddy is trying to send me a message.
It might be that I’ve been thinking of that flyer since it first hit my face.
It might be that I’m angry at the Council and Phoenix and every stupid dream I had about being resident artist.
Whatever the reason, I speak.
“I’ll do it,” I say, slicing with hot energy. “Tomorrow night, I’ll do it.”
Archer doesn’t look up from his work, but he doesn’t have to. I can feel the triumph radiating off his pink skin.