[Fiction Issue] ‘Filled with blood. She blinked. She closed the book, sighed’—Read an excerpt from James Han Mattson’s Reprieve

The JRB presents an excerpt from Reprieve, the new novel from James Han Mattson.

James Han Mattson
Bloomsbury, 2021

Read the excerpt:


Cory Stout

Cross-Examination Excerpt
September 16, 1997

Q. When you got to Cell Five, what did you see?

A. The defendant was holding a knife to Bryan Douglas’s throat and screaming for John.

Q. Just to clarify, he was screaming for John Forrester, the owner of the Quigley House?

A. Yep.

Q. Was John there that night?

A. Nope.

Q. Did you recognize the man with the knife?

A. Recognized his voice. Dude was on our blacklist.

Q. Can you clarify, please, your blacklist?

A. It’s a list of people who’ve threatened us.

Q. Is this list reserved for people who live in Lincoln, Nebraska?

A. Not at all. It’s got people from all over the world, but mostly from Nebraska, I guess, since the biggest pains are usually local.

Q. Is the list long?

A. Yep. Hundreds.

Q. But let me get this straight, you recognized his voice? You’d never actually met my client in person.

A. Yeah. I knew his voice well. He left messages almost every day all crazed.

Q. Okay, so you saw the defendant with a knife to Bryan’s throat, then what?

A. Everyone rushed down to Cell Five—the crew, the cast, people in the control room, everyone. Nuts. I didn’t want ’em to crowd like that, but sometimes people aren’t too bright.

Q. So the entire cast and crew witnessed the defendant holding a knife to Bryan’s throat?

A. Yeah. And the other contestants, they witnessed it too. They’d been competing in that cell.

Q. And who were the other contestants?

A. Victor Dunlap, Jane Roth, and Jaidee Charoensuk.

Q. And Kendra Brown, the one who’d initially CB’d you, was she there?

A. No, not in the cell. She was in the control room.

Q. Why was she there?

A. She’d been in the parking lot, ’cause that’s where … She’d run to the house for help. She thought I’d be in the control room, but I wasn’t. I was in Cell Five, like I said. So, she saw it.

Q. Saw what?

A. Well, she saw what happened.

Q. And what exactly did she see?


After her father’s funeral, in a bright, green-carpeted reception hall, Kendra Brown, age fifteen, sat in a corner by herself, flipping quickly through the pages of Pet Sematary. She was at the part where Louis Creed, protagonist and ideal father, witnesses his child’s death-by-truck, noticing, sickeningly, that his son’s baseball cap is filled with blood. Filled with blood. That’s what it said. Filled with blood. Kendra shook her head, thought: How would a baseball cap, presumably cloth, fill with blood? Wouldn’t the blood just soak in? Wouldn’t the cap deflate? Wouldn’t there have to be a ton of blood for the cap to fill? If so: gross! She looked up.

In the center of the room, her extended family—most from the DC metro, but a few from elsewhere—mingled. They carried baked goods held upright by red and yellow napkins. Some nibbled; others devoured. Her cousin Iris, whom she hadn’t seen in five years, stuffed half a chocolate-chip cookie in her mouth, chewed vigorously. Her jaw dislocated left, then right, then left, then right. She slouched, her free arm reaching for the floor, her stomach flowing over her pants, her breasts free and pendulous against her rib cage. Kendra swallowed. Look at her, crying like that, she thought. Like she was close to him.

Kendra opened her book again. The words ran into one another. Filled with blood. She blinked. She closed the book, sighed.

‘Kendra, baby, come over here,’ her mother, Lynette, called from behind the food table.

Kendra set her book down, went to her. Her mother had been furiously rearranging the dishes, making sure the baked goods, the fried goods, the desserts were all in their proper places. She set down a plate of brownies, strode around to the front of the table, met her daughter.

‘Mom,’ Kendra said.

‘What a mess,’ Lynette said, unwrapping a mint, popping it into her mouth. ‘I told them to keep it orderly.’ The harsh light enlarged her weariness. Her cheeks were drawn, her forehead deeply grooved. Kendra had always found her mother striking—long-limbed, large-eyed, smooth-faced, a direct contrast to her own short-limbed, small-eyed, freckled self—but there, in front of all that food, she looked rabid and ancient, a woman in need of a month of hot meals and warm showers. She wore a pair of rumpled black pants, creased and bunched in odd places, and a flowy red button-down that opened slightly at the top, exposing a dark, rigid clavicle. Kendra reached out, grabbed the collar, pulled it closer to her mother’s neck. ‘All of this,’ Lynette said, shaking her head. ‘A mess.’

‘Mom,’ Kendra said.

‘I know,’ Lynette said. ‘I know. But why are you over there by yourself? Don’t do that. Don’t you do that to me today.’

‘What do you want?’

‘Kendra,’ Lynette said. ‘We talked about this.’

‘We did?’ Kendra said.

‘For one damn day,’ Lynette said.

‘Fine, fine, fine,’ Kendra said, feeling prickly, turning slowly toward the clump of family in the middle of the room. ‘Fine, fine, fine,’ she said. She walked.


  • James Han Mattson is the acclaimed author of The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has taught writing at the University of Iowa, the University of Cape Town, the George Washington University, the University of Maryland, Murray State University, and the University of California–Berkeley. He is currently the fiction editor of Hyphen magazine. He was born in Seoul, Korea, and raised in North Dakota, United States.


Publisher information

Most people didn’t make it to Cell Six, he said. Most called out the safe word—reprieve—after the first Cell. It was that intense.

When Bryan, Jaidee, Victor and Jane team up to compete at a full-contact escape room, it seems simple. Hold your nerve through six terrifying challenges; collect all the red envelopes; win a huge cash prize.

But the real horror is unfolding outside of the game, in a series of deceits and misunderstandings fuelled by obsession and prejudice. And by the end of the night, one of the contestants will be dead.

A startlingly soulful exploration of complicity and masquerade, Reprieve combines the psychological tension of classic horror with searing social criticism, and seamlessly threads together trial transcripts, evidence descriptions, and deeply layered individual narratives to present a chilling portrait of American life.

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