The Job of the Wasp, the sixth novel from Colin Winnette, slips under your skin. When corpses begin to appear in a strange state-run school for orphaned boys, the novel’s unnamed narrator begins an investigation that steadily builds in surrealist horror. Winnette takes us back to his own creepy school, where a buzzing menace laid the groundwork for what would eventually become this twisted, experimental tale.
In The Job of the Wasp, a new arrival at a facility for orphan boys discovers several dead bodies hidden around the campus. He quickly begins the obsessive work of piecing together what’s happened and why, and along the way, he encounters the possibility of ghosts—and the wasps of my childhood.
The layout of the facility in the novel is drawn from the middle school I attended in Denton, Texas—although one wouldn’t necessarily know it to see the place. The gauze of memory, and the scant details included in the book itself, set the world of the novel at a slight distance, making it hazy and uncertain for the reader at times, just as it is for the narrator. But in order for that to work, to be more than just confusing, I needed a reliable foundation on which to build the dream. I needed a fixed sense of how the facility was laid out—how the yards looked, the lunch hall, where the lake was or the headmaster’s home—and my childhood memories made for a handy map.
My middle school sat on a series of rounded hills on the edge of town. It was an old facility, designed by a local architect long dead. The campus consisted of a series of long, narrow buildings, built almost entirely from red bricks, large panes of glass and some kind of splinter-prone wood. And in the eaves of almost every building, you could find a wasp’s nest.
A groundskeeper was always fighting them, hosing down the nests with chemicals or knocking them with a broom. And they always came back. The kids bolted through doorways, our books held above our heads. We stood warily in the halls, watching the wasps rebuild on the other side of a pane of glass. At lunch, they swooped down to our tables. At recess, they drifted into our field of play. They were everywhere. This constant, unpredictable threat.
These wasp nests were like a viral growth in the joints of our school’s buildings, and I couldn’t imagine the campus without imagining them. They were just always there. And because I was afraid of them then, and writing about fear, I knew I couldn’t ignore them now. The wasps became an integral part of the novel—a story about a young boy living at the heart of a dark and violent secret. Unsure how he fits into it all. Unsure what’s happening or why. Only confident in the presence of the threat, leading him to one of the novel’s central questions: What’s to be done with a threat that will not go away?
Author photo by Jennifer Yin