Fascinating lists!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Hop-Frog: A Story of Reversals

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

As a rule of thumb, a writer introduces his or her story’s protagonist before the antagonist makes an appearance. One reason for doing so is that people respond most strongly to the person they meet first, especially if the individual seems to be a decent sort of a soul, as protagonists, even self-conflicted ones, usually are, just as readers tend to most remember whatever they read first. After all, since the story is the story of the main character, it makes sense to introduce the protagonist first, before any other character takes the stage (or the page). Another reason for introducing the main character first is to establish clarity. Introducing the protagonist first makes it clear to the reader, from the outset, whose story is being read or told. Occasionally, however, this rule is violated, as is the case in “Hop-Frog,” Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of humiliation and revenge.

Poe starts his story by introducing its antagonist, or villain, a nameless, sadistic king who delights in abusing his fool, Hop-Frog. An example of the monarch’s cruelty is the jester’s nickname. His “seven ministers,” aware of his delight in unkindness, in an apparent attempt to curry favor with their liege, named the jester “Hop-Frog” to make fun of his peculiar style of locomotion: “it was conferred upon him, by general consent of the seven ministers, on account of his inability to walk as other men do. In fact, Hop-Frog could only get along by a sort of interjectional gait -- something between a leap and a wriggle -- a movement that afforded illimitable amusement, and of course consolation, to the king.” Such a problem would elicit pity and sympathy from a nobler person, but the king is obviously well pleased with the wittiness of his ministers’ naming the fool’s for the effect of his unfortunate disability.

The king also enjoys tormenting Hop-Frog directly. The dwarf and a fellow citizen, Tripetta, also a dwarf, were abducted from their homeland and given, as if they were but things, rather than people, “as presents to the king, by one of his ever-victorious generals.” Aware that Hop-Frog misses the friends he was forced to leave behind and aware, furthermore, that the fool is unable to drink wine without suffering from near madness as a result, the king directs him to drink to in the honor of his “absent friends.” When the wine and the thought of his “absent friends” has the effect upon Hop-Frog that the king has anticipated, the king thinks the jester’s grief and miserable state of intoxication amusing: “It happened to be the poor dwarf's birthday, and the command to drink to his 'absent friends' forced the tears to his eyes. Many large, bitter drops fell into the goblet as he took it, humbly, from the hand of the tyrant.” The king responds with cruel laughter: "'Ah! ha! ha! ha!' roared the latter, as the dwarf reluctantly drained the beaker. 'See what a glass of good wine can do! Why, your eyes are shining already!'"

The king’s malice is also seen in his abusive treatment of Tripetta. When she intercedes with the king on the behalf of Hop-Frog, upon whom the monarch seeks to force still more wine, the king “pushed her violently from him, and threw the contents of the brimming goblet in her face.”

The vulgarity of the king and his sycophantic courtiers, vis-à-vis the grace Hop-Frog and Tripetta, is a second reversal in the story. Not only has Poe introduced the villainous king before he’s introduced the heroic fool, but he has also traded the stereotypical natures of these two characters, making the noble king vulgar and the low fool courteous. These reversals effect much of the story’s irony. Customarily, a reader would suppose the king, rather than a jester, to be the refined and cultured sophisticate. In fact, the comedy of the fool is often ribald and crude, involving the same sort of humiliating practical jokes, at times, as those that the king performs.

The king’s humiliation of Tripetta is the story’s inciting moment, for it is this act of outrage upon her that inspires Hop-Frog’s plan for revenge, as, ironically, he tells the intended victim: “just after your majesty had struck the girl and thrown the wine in her face-- just after your majesty had done this. . . there came into my mind a capital diversion .” Thus, the king, in a sense, is undone by his own sadistic nature, for it is one of his acts of mindless cruelty that inspires Hop-Frog’s scheme to kill him in a fashion that is at once both spectacular and horrible.

Traditionally, regardless of the king’s character or the morality of his deeds, if he orders the execution of one of his subjects, for any (or no) reason, the subject would be killed, no questions asked. In “Hop-Frog,” however, it is the fool who, in another reversal, becomes the executioner of both the king himself and his toadying courtiers. What’s more, Hop-Frog not only accomplishes his vengeance of Tripetta’s honor with impunity, thereby further humiliating the monarch and his noble friends, since he escapes punishment for having, in essence, assassinated his and Tripetta’s tormentors. Each of these reversals heightens the story’s irony.

Hop-Frog’s revenge is extremely violent and horrible. Had Poe not prepared the reader to accept this act as just, albeit appalling, the reader’s sympathy for the crippled dwarf and his beloved Tripetta would likely not withstand the gruesome deaths that he causes the king and his courtiers to suffer. Instead, the immolation of the nobles would have been regarded, in all likelihood, as being too extreme and it would suggest that it is Hop-Frog who is the true monster, rather than his adversary, the king’s own cruelty notwithstanding.

The reader accepts the justice of Hop-Frog’s execution of his tormentors for several reasons. First, the odds are against Hop-Frog. He is a mere court jester. His adversary is a monarch who enjoys absolute power. Readers support an underdog. Second, the king is cruel. He is, in other words, a sadist. Many times, he has abused Hop-Frog simply for his own amusement and, perhaps, to show off in front of his courtiers. He is not above insulting even someone as beautiful, kind, and harmless as Tripetta, although he must know that doing so will both hurt her and offend Hop-Frog. He has no regard for their feelings. Third, Hop-Frog outsmarts the powerful king, and readers favor one who, through the use of nothing more than his or her wits, can outsmart another, especially if the other occupies a position of far greater social status, authority, and power. If one such ordinary person can accomplish such a feat, perhaps others--the reader included--can do likewise. Certainly, many will have harbored fantasies of doing just such a thing. Fourth, Hop-Frog, like Tripetta, is a dwarf. He is literally smaller than the king, and, figuratively, he is a common person, one of the many little guys, so to speak, who comprise the ordinary person. Hop-Frog is physically weaker, too, than his larger tormentors. Nevertheless, he uses his brain to overcome their brawn, a feat that always gains admiration and respect among those in similar circumstances. Fifth, Hop-Frog is crippled. His severe handicap, the object of the king’s scorn and ridicule, make him ill-matched to take on the king. Nevertheless, the intrepid dwarf does so--and wins. Sixth, Hop-Frog is shown to be a sensitive and caring person. He loves Tripetta, and, when she is insulted, he is also hurt, and he vows revenge, even at the risk of his life. Perhaps the reader would not overlook Hop-Frog’s murder of the king and his courtiers in a such a horrible manner if only one of these conditions or characteristics mitigated against the horror of the deed, but there are at least six extenuating facts, as enumerated herein. Together, they seem to be warrant enough for the reader to ignore the stupendous horror of the dwarf’s immolation of his live victims.

Other horror stories often include a reversal, usually in the form of the surprise, O. Henry-type ending. A good example is “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs and “The Red Room” by H. G. Wells, both of which have been posted in Chillers and Thrillers. In these stories, the plot suggests a certain type of ending as likely, or even as seemingly inevitable, but then surprises the reader with the substitution of a different ending but one that is, nevertheless, logical and satisfying. For example, in Wells’ story, (which, incidentally, is a clear precursor to Stephen King’s story, “1048”) a skeptic stays overnight in an allegedly haunted room. Despite his doubt as to the reality of the supernatural, he experiences increasingly frightening incidents until, bursting from the room, he strikes the doorframe. He turns, confused, and reels into various furniture until he knocks himself unconscious. The reader is led to assume that the room truly is haunted, and then Wells offers what, in effect, is a punch line of sorts: the room is haunted by the fear of those who, believing the chamber to be haunted, occupy the place: “Fear that will not have light nor sound, that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms.” The Others, a horror film, also has such a twist: the residents of a haunted house turn out to be the ghosts, just as the apparent ghosts turn out to be the house’s human inhabitants. Such reversals are still marginally effective, if rather overdone, but stories such as “Hop-Frog” are rare in their sophisticated employment of plot reversals, and such stories are correspondingly enriched

“Heavy-Set”: Learning from the Masters

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

"Heavy-Set" is, in fact, a lesson in how to use understatement to heighten suspense, terror, and horror.

It starts by identifying the main character, who is not Heavy-Set, but his mother, thus orienting the story to follow from her perspective, although the narrative itself is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. The opening sentence also establishes an everyday setting, which will sharply contrast with the tale’s understated terror: “The woman stepped to the kitchen window and looked out.” In doing so, she sees her son, Leonard, among the many weights with which he works out on a regular basis:
There in the twilight yard a man stood surrounded by barbells and dumbbells and dark iron weights of all kinds and slung jump ropes and elastic and coiled-spring exercisors. He wore a sweat suit and tennis shoes. . . .
This was her son, and everyone called him Heavy-Set.
By continuing to insert “and” between the items in the series in which he identifies the equipment that Heavy-Set uses, Bradbury stretches out the list of items, thereby impressing upon his readers how many items of equipment Heavy-Set has on hand. “A man stood surrounded by barbells and dumbbells and dark iron weights of all kinds and slung jump ropes and elastic and coiled-spring exercisors [bold added]” is more effective, for this reason, than “a man stood surrounded by barbells, dumbbells, dark iron weights of all kinds, slung jump ropes, and elastic and coiled-spring exercisors [bold added]” would be. It’s rhythm is also more melodious. It is in these seemingly small matters of diction and style that the truly great writers take pains to shine, and Bradbury, even among other established writers of his genre, is known for his perfection in this regard.

Next, Bradbury stresses the size and strength of the antagonist:

Heavy-Set squeezed the little bunched, coiled springs in his big fists. They were lost in his fingers, like magic tricks; then they reappeared. He crushed them. They vanished. He let them go. They came back.
Bradbury is such a skilled craftsman that he easily accomplishes several objectives at once--or, at least, like all true masters, he makes doing so look easy. In the short paragraph just quoted, for example, he emphasizes Heavy-Set’s size and strength with such phrases as “big fists” and “lost in his fingers,” but his description of Heavy-Set exercising with the “coiled springs,” employing the simile “like magic tricks” and short sentences (“He crushed them. They vanished. He let them go. They came back.”), also makes readers see this character exercising and, more than this, makes them see, also, how Heavy-Set exercises: slowly, methodically, purposefully. For him, exercise is more than merely exercise; it is ritualistic, perhaps even therapeutic. His devotion to his workouts is reinforced by the single-sentence paragraph that follows the description of Heavy-Set at work with the “coiled springs”: “He did this for ten minutes, otherwise motionless.” It is obvious that he is focused. Indeed, it is almost as if he is one with the springs that he crushes and lets go.

Readers see, next, that lifting a one-hundred-pound set of barbells is easy for Heavy-Set; he does so without effort:

“Then he bent down and hoisted up the one-hundred-pound barbells, noiselessly, not breathing. He motioned it a number of times over his head, then abandoned it” for a punching bag, which he punched. . . easily, swiftly, steadily,” working it over the same way he worked the weights.
He is proud of his size and strength; his physical prowess is the basis of his self-image and, perhaps, his self-esteem. As he finishes his evening’s exercise regimen, he fills “his lungs until his chest” inflates to “fifty inches” and stands “eyes closed, seeing himself in an invisible mirror poised and tremendous, two hundred and twenty muscled pounds, tanned by the sun, salted by the sea wind and his own sweat.”

Having established the size and strength of his story’s antagonist, Bradbury next establishes Heavy-Set’s “childlike” nature by having him carve Halloween pumpkins, as if it were a “job” in which to take pride, rather than a few moments’ pastime:

He had gone out earlier in the day and bought the pumpkins and carved most of them and did a fine job: they were beauties and he was proud of them. Now, looking childlike in the kitchen, he started carving the last of them. You would never suspect he was thirty years old. . . .
There is the suggestion that Heavy-Set may be mentally handicapped. His mother, who is very much aware of how much her son exercises, hearing “him every night drubbing the punching bag outside, or squeezing the little metal springs in his hands or grunted as he lifted his world of his weights,” seems to dote upon him for this very reason. She is extremely solicitous of his comfort and enjoyment, asking him whether he liked the dinner she prepared for him and telling him that she bought “special steak” and “fresh” asparagus. When he says that “it was good,” she replies, “I’m glad you liked it, I always like to have you like it.” The strange syntax stresses her desire to please her son, and readers wonder whether her solicitude is meaningful beyond itself.

Although girls and “eighteen-year-old boys” are attracted to him, for different reasons--the girls wanting to date him and the boys looking up to him--Heavy-Set avoids their company, and his mother is “used, by now, to hearing Heavy-Set each night on the phone saying he was tired to girls and. . . no, no he had to wax the car tonight or do his exercises to the. . . boys.” He seems to have trouble with relationships with others and avoids situations that could lead to such associations, whether of a dating or of a more general and casual sort, his difficulty reinforcing the suggestion that he may be mentally handicapped.

He seems better able to interact with young people in a group, for a limited amount of time, as he plans to attend a Halloween party to which he‘s been invited indicate. He has “bought two jugs of cider,” he tells his mother, in case “they all show up,” although, he worries, “they might not show up.”

As the story progresses, Bradbury’s narrator continually inserts references to Heavy-Set’s weightlifting and his squeezing of the exercisors. Bradbury also repeatedly alludes to his antagonist’s size. Such repetition has the effect of highlighting these actions and characteristics.

The narrator next associates the character’s physical prowess with his immaturity. After Heavy-Set finishes carving the last of his pumpkins, he moves “into his bedroom, quietly massive, his shoulders filling the door and beyond,” from whence he returns dressed in a very childlike costume, indeed, consisting of “a pair of short black pants, a little boy’s shirt with a ruff collar, and a Buster Brown hat” and “licking a gigantic peppermint-striped lollipop.” To his mother, he announces, “I’m the mean little kid!” If there were any question as to the antagonist’s being mentally handicapped, his dressing, at age thirty, in such an outfit eliminates all such doubt. His mother humors him as he parades before her, pretending to lead “a big dog on a rope,” exclaiming, “You’ll be the life of the party!” Nevertheless, she finds his antics “exhausting.” Readers suspect that putting up with the immature thirty-year-old man is no easy task for her.

Heavy-Set’s “childlike” nature becomes more apparent as one of the “eighteen-year-old boys” with whom he sometimes interacts calls to tell him that many of them won’t be attending the party. Unlike Heavy-Set, who avoids girls, the boys, although twelve years his junior, are more interested in dating than they are in attending a Halloween costume party, and “half the guys,” he learns, “aren’t showing up at the party” because they have “other dates.” Tommy, the boy who’s called to relay this news, says he himself has “a date with a girl.”

When, dejected, Heavy-Set says, “I ought to throw the pumpkins in the garbage,” his mother encourages him to go to the party, anyway, assuring him that “there’ll be enough for a party” and that he should “go on and have a good time,” especially since he hasn’t “been out in weeks.”

The narrator informs the readers that Heavy-Set has dated two girls during the past decade, neither of which date went well. His more customary way of spending his days is in solitary pursuits such as playing “a game of basketball with himself. . . in the backyard,” swimming, surfing, or, of course, working out with his weights and punching bag. In such activities (all of which are typical of men younger than he), Heavy-Set finds momentary release from the tension and stress that results from his loneliness and his inability to establish or maintain adult relationships. They are also a means for him to repress his sex drive, as the following description, with its almost-subliminal metaphorical allusion to orgasm, indicates:

Some nights he stood around like this and then suddenly vanished and you saw him way out in the ocean swimming long and strong and quiet as a seal under the full moon or you could not see him those nights the moon was gone and only the stars lay over the water but you heard him there, on occasion, a faint splash as he went under and stayed under a long time and came up, or he went out [as if on a date] sometimes with his surfboard as smooth as a girl’s cheek, sandpapered to a softness, and came riding in, huge and alone on . . . [an ejaculatory] white and ghastly wave that creamed along the shore. . . .
Although he has opportunities to date, he passes on them, and the boys who admire his physique, once they turn twenty-one, abandon him, to be replaced by a new set of youthful admirers who shall also abandon him in due time.

As the protagonist thinks of her son, Leonard, whom his youthful friends call “Heavy-Set” or “Sammy,” which is “short for Samson,” or “Butch” or “Atlas” or “Hercules,” her exhaustion comes through, and readers get a sense of her own desperation. Earlier, while she’d been watching her son parade in his Buster Brown costume, Heavy-Set’s mother felt “exhausted.” Now, readers learn that her son’s condition affects her in other ways, too. She is also lonely. Her son is uncommunicative and regards her not so much as his mother but as a generic female, “the woman,” who waits on him hand and foot and is always solicitous of his happiness and comfort:

He went into the kitchen. “I guess there’ll be enough guys there,” he said. “Sure there will,” she said, smiling again. She always smiled again. Sometimes when she talked to him, night after night, she looked as if she were lifting weights, too. When he walked through the rooms she looked like she was doing the walking for him. . . .
Having reassured him, again, that plenty of his acquaintances will be present at the party, his mother shoos him out the door, saying, “Fly away.” These words are as much a hope for herself as they are an encouragement to him. She hopes that he will do just this, like a bird that has been too long in the nest. His presence prevents her from living a full and independent life, for her own is devoted, almost entirely, to caring for him, despite the fact that Heavy-Set does, indeed, have a job of sorts, working “on the high power lines all day, up in the sky, alone.”

As the evening grows later, she keeps an eye out for her son’s return, hoping against hope, all the while, that, at last, he may have met “someone” and won’t be coming home, in which case, she herself will be free:

What if, she thought, he found someone tonight, found someone down there, and just never came back, never came home. No telephone call. No letter, that was the way it could be. No word. Just go off away and never come back again. What if? What if?
However, her desperate hope is short-lived, as she thinks, “No!. . . there’s no one, no one there, no one anywhere. There’s just this place. This is the only place.”

Earlier, she wondered what happened in her son’s life to retard his emotional development and to make him want nothing to do with girls, with sex, with marriage, or a normal life. Her questions show that she does not know much about her son, despite having lived with him for thirty years. He doesn’t communicate much, except when he is angry or disgruntled. There may not be much depth to him, and he certainly does seem to be mentally handicapped. He may harbor latent homosexual tendencies, as he is more concerned with what teenage boys think of him than he is with the marginal women who dote upon him. He seems, in a way, to court the teenage boys’ favor and admiration, rather than to avail himself of the pitiable women who display an interest in him, and his mother appears to attribute his behavior to a past traumatic event, possibly molestation, that he’s never mentioned to her:

Leonard, my good boy. . . . just where, in all the years, did the thing happen that put him up that pole alone and working out alone every night? Certainly there had been enough women, here and there, now and then, through his life. Little scrubby ones, of course, fools, yes, by the look of them, but women, or girls, rather, and none worth glancing at a second time. Still, when a boy gets past thirty. . . .
Readers also learn that much of the mother’s solicitude has to do with her fear of her oversize, mentally handicapped son rather than with her concern for his comfort and pleasure. She seeks to keep him content, as much as possible, to prevent his losing his temper and becoming violent with her, “the woman.”

Heavy-Set comes home from the party early and upset. He explains to his mother that only a few people showed up, and no one but him wore a costume. Despite his efforts to amuse them, the other partygoers simply stood around. The boys were more interested in their dates than they were in the party, and “just stood around” before, in couples, they went off to the beach together, leaving Heavy-Set alone:

“They had their girls with them and they just stood around with them and wouldn’t do anything, no games, nothing. Some of them went off with the girls. . . . They went off up the beach and didn’t come back. . . . I felt like a fool, the only one there dressed like this, and them all different, and only eight out of twenty there, and most of them gone in a half an hour. Vi was there. She tried to get me to walk up the beach, too. I was mad by then. I was really mad. I said no thanks. And here I am. You can have the lollipop. . . . Pour the cider down the sink, drink it, I don’t care.”

The narrator has suggested that Heavy-Set alleviates tension by exercising and working with his weights. Heavy-Set does so again, now, his mother watching and listening to her son punch the bag. Assessing the level of his anger by the time that he works the bag, she concludes that he is especially angry tonight:

He must have drubbed the punching bag until three in the morning. Three, she thought, wide awake, listening to the concussions. He’s always stopped at twelve before.
When he finally stops punching the bag, he comes into the house, and his mother has “a feeling he still” wears “the little boy suit,” but she doesn’t “want to know if this were true.”

She retired for the night long ago. Now, her son joins her in bed, lying beside her, “not touching her.” She feigns sleep, aware that her son’s body is “rigid,” and feels the “bed shake as if he were laughing.” More likely, he is weeping soundlessly, disheartened by the brokenness of his personality and the fiasco of the party at which he’s humiliated himself, and then he begins to work the “coiled spring exercisors,” and she wants to “slap them out of his fingers”--until a disturbing thought occurs to her: “What would he do with his hands? What could he put in them? What would he, yes, what would he do with his hands?” Her only recourse, she believes, is prayer, so she prays:

So she did the only thing she could do, she held her breath, she shut her eyes, listened, and prayed, O God, let it go on, let him keep squeezing those things, let him keep squeezing those things, oh, let him, let him keep squeezing. . . let. . . let. . .

It was like lying in bed with a great dark cricket.

And a long way before dawn.
Perhaps, readers may suppose, Heavy-Set has gotten into bed beside his mother to assault her, both sexually and physically, and perhaps to kill her. She certainly seems frightened enough to warrant such an interpretation. However, it seems more likely that he has gotten into bed next to her because he seeks comfort. He has experienced a traumatic humiliation, and he understands, perhaps, on some level, conscious or otherwise, that he is not normal, that he does not behave as even younger males do, and that his interests are immature and “childlike,” rather than manly. At thirty, he is single and still lives at home, with his mother. He may even still wear “the little boy suit” over his man-size body, she thinks.

Physically, Heavy-Set is strong and powerful. He appears to be manly, but he lacks virility, and, intellectually and emotionally, he is weak and boyish. These qualities, and his latent homosexuality, seem to suggest that he sees his mother, as “the woman”--an alien, but, nevertheless, comforting, presence. He does not relate to her sexually but as a dependent and inadequate youth relates to an independent and self-sufficient adult provider and caregiver. He seems to want comfort, not sex. At the same time, however, as he gets older, she is apt to become less and less able to provide the maternal nurture and comfort that she more easily supplied him in his younger days. If she stops giving the reassurances he needs, she is afraid that she will no longer be necessary to him, and he may, in a pique of uncontrolled temper, take out his frustrations and fears, his disappointments and helplessness, his defeat and impotence upon her. As an aging Atlas, he longer carries the world as easily upon his shoulders as his younger admirers, male and female, may suppose.

Although he’s known more for science fiction or fantasy than he is for horror, Bradbury’s “Heavy-Set” proves that the master is capable of writing superb horror fiction as well.

Horror stories typically start with an everyday situation, as “Heavy-Set” does, gradually introducing an element of the bizarre. In this case, this element is the discrepancy between the thirty-year-old, fit and muscular antagonist and his minimal intellect, emotional maturity, and social skills which, becoming clearer and clearer as the antagonist ages, traps both him and his victim, his own mother, in an existential trap that narrows more each year, threatening, ever, to spring shut upon them. Because of Bradbury’s masterful, understated storytelling, this subtle story of a man’s interrupted development is horrific, indeed. Readers are likely to say, along with the protagonist, “Let him keep squeezing those things!”

Learning from the Masters: Robert McCammon's "The Thang" and "Black Boots"

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Robert McCammon is the author of Boy’s Life, Stinger, Swan Song, Gone South, and several other highly readable horror novels. He has also written his share of short stories, and it is to one of these that we turn in this post, that we may learn from another master of the genre in its rather abbreviated form.

For those who have not read his short story, “The Thang,” which originally appeared in Hot Blood (1989), a volume of erotic horror, a summary is in order:
Dave Nielson has traveled 700 miles to visit a magic shop in New Orleans, where he hopes to find a solution to his problem (nature was not generous in endowing him with the essentials of masculinity). He hopes a voodoo practitioner may be able to help him. He meets one, Miss Fallon, at the shop, who offers to remedy his anatomical deficiency, asking for half her $300 fee up front and the rest after Dave has seen the results. She mixes him a drink, replying to his query as to its ingredients, “You don’t want to know.”
After he manages to drink the potion, Miss Fallon orders him to return to her after the weekend, eating nothing, meanwhile, but gumbo and oysters. Dave rents a room in a nearby motel.
He feels “different” almost immediately, and is able--or imagines himself to be able--to hear “the blood racing in his veins.” However, when he checks himself, he is distressed to see that his problem remains. He sees a gentleman’s club across the street from his motel, and he decides that, since he’s unable to sleep, he may as well enjoy the show. “Without thinking,” he orders a beer.
Aroused by a dancer, his manhood springs free, now “the size of a small artillery piece,” his testicles as large as “cannonballs.”
Horrified, Dave flees the club, its patrons terrified of him. He returns to his motel room, where, after having reached a length of 17 inches, Dave’s “thang” returns to its former puny size. He struggles to prevent himself from having erotic thoughts, but a woman’s announcement, on the street below, that she seeks immediate intimacy with a man causes him to lose control over his libido. As the woman, Ginger, continues to voice her need, Dave struggles with his monstrous organ, causing enough noise to capture the attention of his neighbors, an elderly couple, who, having appeared in the doorway, witness “what appeared to be a naked man fighting a pale python.”
Apparently, they call the desk clerk, because he and a security guard arrive within moments. The clerk declaring, “We don’t permit. . . this kind of behavior in our establishment,” and Dave is summarily evicted. When he arrives to open the magic shop, the shop’s owner, Malcolm, takes one look at Dave, “suitcase in his hand and his shirttail out,” waiting “on deserted Bourbon Street,” and concludes, “You done screwed up, didn’t you?”
When Miss Fallon arrives at the shop, Dave confesses to having drunk a beer, learning the bad news that there is no antidote to the potion that has extended him--not, that is, unless he is willing to allow Miss Fallon and her Aunt Flavia to “experiment” on him by concocting various elixirs. In three months or so, she says, the two women might be able to produce an antidote.
However, there is one not-so-small catch. Dave must agree to become Aunt Flavia’s boarder. She is an unattractive woman, a husky octoroon woman with copper eyes, her long-jawed face like a wrinkled prune,” whose feminine parts are as oversize as Dave’s masculine counterparts--so large, in fact, that Dave is horrified to see “something loose and fleshy was brushing against the front of her caftan, down between her thighs. . . Something very large.”
This story is almost entirely situational. There is little development of character. It is similar to a medieval fabliaux, in which the foolishness of a protagonist is highlighted and exemplified by his or her behavior, which is motivated by a simple desire to engage in sex. This desire is, in turn, usually frustrated or complicated by another character, often with the result that the protagonist is humbled, if no wiser. These cautionary tales sometimes end with the statement of an explicit moral, but, just as often, they conclude without making their messages clear. It is difficult to imagine how a reader could not conclude for him- or herself the moral of a story like “The Thang.”

Men are as obsessed with the size of their genitals, it seems, as women appear to be preoccupied with the dimensions of their breasts. Those of both sexes who find themselves dissatisfied with their endowments in these particulars often seek to enlarge them, whether through the use of chemicals, instruments, or surgery. For many, the results are satisfactory, but, occasionally, something goes wrong, as it certainly does in McCammon’s story. Reducing the whole of himself to a part (or parts) is dehumanizing, and, therefore, absurd. Dave is a grotesque character, because his overriding concern with the size of his manhood in particular and with sexual considerations in general reduce him to silly dimensions as a human being. He is ruled by his libido, which makes, for him, the matter of his endowment of extreme importance. He discovers, only after the trauma of getting what he has wished for, that his dream, having come true, is a nightmare. His having to live with and satisfy the fleshly appetites of a woman who is as self-absorbed with sex as he himself is--or has been--is an ironic penance. However, matters could be much worse, for Dave’s apparent promiscuity obviously makes him susceptible to risks that far outweigh even a nearly uncontrollable phallus the size of a “python.” The gargantuan member seems to symbolize Dave’s own infatuation with sex and size. As the story’s title suggests, Dave’s gargantuan member is itself a manifestation of his obsessive interest in such matters. The story shows--literally--that his obsession with sex and size is monstrous.

He seems more in need of a psychologist than of a pair of voodoo priestesses. McCammon’s bawdy story pokes fun at the proclivity of men in general to be ruled, in sexual matters, by their passions. Dave, for better or for worse, is an everyman, whose sexual obsessions amuse, annoy, mystify, and anger women who can’t understand why a man can’t simply be satisfied with what nature has given to him (even if, in their own cases, they may seek to “enhance” their breasts with surgical implants.) Perhaps McCammon will pen a sequel that focuses upon such damsels in distress.

There is, at times, a fine line between humor and horror, and, in “The Thang,” McCammon has found, if not crossed, this line.

* * *

For those who have not read his short story, “Black Boots,” which originally appeared in Razored Saddles (1989), a summary is in order:
Davy Slaughter is running from his nemesis, Black Boots, whom he has killed eight times. The problem is that his enemy keeps coming back, from the dead, and, Davy believes, he’s on his trail again now. The young gunfighter becomes so keyed up with the thought that he is being stalked by Black Boots that he challenges a distant figure, firing several bullets in its direction, before he realizes that “he was shooting at a cactus.” Davy also finds that his gun hand is stiff, the fingers aching. As he crosses the desert for Zionville, he spits and plucks white worms from his mouth. He runs out of water and drools blood.

In Zionville, Davy is greeted by a two-headed dog that runs circles around his mount, both mouths yapping, and Davy observes that the sheriff has been “long gone,” leaving the bank and its meager holdings easy pickings should Davy decide to go to the trouble of robbing it.

He bellies up to the bar in the town’s saloon and exchanges a few words with the bartender, Carl Haines, whose face, one moment seems covered in flies but the next moment is “clear again, not a single fly on it.” Davy asks whether the town has a sheriff. One is on the way, from El Paso, Carl tells him, asking whether Davy intends to cause any trouble.

Davy is disturbed to see the “snout of a rattlesnake” appear inside the “black, empty socket” of the one-eyed bartender’s face. Carl assures Davy that the Zionville populace are “peaceful folk” who “don’t quarrel with nobody.” As Carl speaks, Davy is “fascinated” to see that the rattlesnake’s head now completely extends from Carl’s eye socket. Davy feels as if his own skull may explode. The next moment, the snake is gone and Carl has two eyes again.

Davy asks whether anyone has been asking for him, and Carl assures him that no one has. He describes Black Boots, asking whether Carl has seen him in particular. When the bartender says he has not, and that no one else has been asking for Davy, the young gunfighter confides in Carl that he has killed Black Boots eight times and that Black Boots is, nevertheless, stalking him at the moment.

The saloon’s swinging doors open behind him, and Davy spins, gun drawn, and nearly shoots Joey, a youth who’s followed him to the saloon, fascinated by Davy’s appearance and demeanor. Carl and Davy tell Joey to go home, but the youth asks whether Davy knows how to use his gun. Davy sees Carl’s brain matter seeping through a wound in the bartender’s brow and thinks it an “interesting sight.” Davy asks, “Don’t that hurt?” and ventures to poke the wound with his finger when Davy discerns that Joey is really Black Boots in disguise, “wearing a kid’s skin.”

Davy kills Black Boots, watching him die as Joey’s mother, having come in search of her wayward son, finds Joey dying in front of the saloon and Davy standing over him. Where Black Boots had been, Davy sees, the body of a youth lies, dead.

From behind him, Black Boots, now armed with a rifle, shoots at the same time that Davy, alerted by the sound of the weapon being cocked, wheels and fires his own weapon, and Black Boots goes down, behind the bar. Davy shoots his adversary again, but, as he stares down at the body behind the bar, he sees that it is not Black Boots anymore; it is the bartender, Carl.

Davy staggers outside, where his horse is a skeleton, its heart and lungs visible and alive within its ribcage. He mounts the steed, but it resists his effort to turn it, and Black Boots dashes out of a store, gun in hand, and he shoots Davy three times, one of the bullets knocking him from his skeletal steed. Davy tries to return fire, but he’s out of ammunition. Black Boots shoots Davy twice more, killing him.

Davy is declared to have been “crazy as hell” and to have shot Joey for no reason.

Davy’s body is wrapped in a canvas sheet, stood against the wall and photographed for the new sheriff to examine upon his arrival from El Paso, and buried without benefit of a pine box, and “the man who,” burying his corpse, “threw dirt on the gunfighter's face wore black boots.”
Like others in McCammon’s body of short stories, “Black Boots” is based upon a stereotypical character, that of the itinerant young gunfighter who is haunted by the reputation that his speed and deadly accuracy have earned him. An obviously paranoid character, Davy’s fear of being killed by another gunfighter who is seeking a reputation of his own seems to have given form to his fear, creating Black Boots as a representative of the predatory wannabe killer who stalks him--in his own mind, if nowhere else. Davy claims to have killed Black Boots “eight times,” to no avail. His nemesis returns, a revenant reborn of his own imagination and fear. Black Boots cannot be killed, because he is a product of Davy’s own paranoia.

The opening paragraphs of the story show the reader that Davy’s thoughts are focused upon death. He imagines that his mouth is full of worms. Perhaps they are maggots. If so, their presence suggests that he is in a state of decay, and the blood in his mouth suggests that he has been wounded or injured, perhaps severely. However, his nonchalant demeanor suggests that he has suffered this condition for some time. Since his response--or near-non-response--to his discovery of worms and blood inside his mouth is not normal, he also appears to be, well, abnormal. Likewise, his belief that a dead man has returned to life (not once, but eight times) marks him as being a seriously disturbed individual--unless, that is, the context of the story, which is of the horror genre, after all, subsequently validates his belief as being, in the horrific and bizarre world that he seems to inhabit, possible. However, the reader, awaiting further evidence, as it were, is certainly apt to reserve his or her judgment concerning Davy’s sanity or the lack thereof. His thoughts about the mysterious Black Boots, whom he believes is stalking him with the intent to kill him, also establishes Davy’s fixation with death and dying.

Davy mistakes a cactus for Black Boots, firing several bullets at it, but this error can be attributed to his fear and need not mean that he is insane. However, when he arrives in Zionville and sees a two-headed dog, the reader is likely to place another tick mark in the “Insane” column. Still, it may be that the story takes place in a world of mutants, perhaps, for all one can know at the moment, following a nuclear holocaust. One thing is clear, though: Davy definitely bears watching!

The bizarre incidents keep coming, as Davy observes--or, hallucinating, imagines--the bartender’s face to change, undergoing extreme--indeed, impossible--transformations. First, it is covered in flies, next he loses an eye and a rattlesnake inhabits the vacant socket, and then his brain tissue starts to seep through a wound in his skull. Finally, he believes that his nemesis, Black Boots, can “wear a kid’s skin,” thereby disguising himself as someone else by actually becoming another person. The jury, in the form of the reader, is no longer out; the verdict is in: Davy is a stark, raving lunatic, completely established as an unreliable narrator. Much, if not all, of what he believes is the product of hallucinations, caused, it seems, by his psychotic paranoia.

The reader who guesses the plot twist is not surprised by the story‘s ending. McCammon offers many clues that all is not as it seems with the protagonist. However, the reader may, nevertheless, be amused by the tale. The same technique that piques the reader’s curiosity--Davy’s bizarre visions--gives away its secret. Still, it is interesting to hallucinate along with him. Like many other stories in the horror genre, “Black Boots” relies upon a confusion of the normal and the abnormal, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the everyday and the astonishing. The duality soon exhausts itself, though, and it would not work at all in a longer piece. Surprisingly, this split between the sane and the insane that results from a life lived in fear of a one-upmanship that is not merely unpleasant but, in fact, fatal, is slim, indeed, pointing, perhaps, to the inadvisability--the foolishness--of living one’s life on such terms. The thin plot ploy supports the narrative’s much deeper theme, making this slight tale worthwhile reading, after all.

There is one more thing to say about this story, too, which shows McCammon’s inventiveness all the more, especially since he relies upon such a slim story line: the last line of the story, referring to the “black boots” worn by the nameless, faceless man who buries Davy, suggests that Black Boots was not, perhaps, a phantom of his victim’s madness, after all. He may be, as Davy believed him to be, a supernatural being, capable not only of raising himself from the dead and assuming the forms of others but also of warping reality itself, making Davy believe that a cactus was his stalker, that a dog had two heads, that Joey and Carl and the shopkeeper were other incarnations of the predatory gunfighter whom Davy feared and fled, and that his horse had become a living skeleton. Perhaps in his shootouts with other gunfighters, Davy had, at last, met his match in a monster that is as much beyond life and death as he is beyond good and evil, a monster that wears black boots.

"Man Overboard": Questioning Nature and Its Creator

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

It is not generally known, but Sir Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain during World War II, not only painted landscapes and other paintings, but he also wrote short stories, one of which, “Man Overboard” (1899), is the subject of this post.
 * * *
In “Man Overboard,” the anonymous protagonist falls overboard from a “mail steamer” that is sailing east through the Red Sea. It is “a little after half-past nine,” the omniscient narrator informs us, “when the man fell overboard.” He’d left the ship’s “companion-house,” where a concert was in progress, to “smoke a cigarette and enjoy a breath of the wind,” when, leaning back upon a railing which gave way, he “fell backwards into the warm water of the sea amid a great splash.”

The story’s second paragraph describes sights, sounds, and tactile sensations that could be discerned from either the deck or the sea itself, and is, therefore, ambiguous as to the man’s whereabouts. Is he still aboard at this time or has he already fallen overboard? The story shifts back and forth, between the interior and the deck of the ship and the water:
The night was clear, though the moon was hidden behind clouds. The warm air was laden with moisture. The still surface of the waters was broken by the movement of the great ship, from whose quarter the long, slanting undulations struck out like feathers from an arrow shaft, and in whose wake the froth and air bubbles churned up by the propellers trailed in a narrowing line to the darkness of the horizon.
The painter’s eye is discernable in the writer’s imagery; Churchill paints a clear picture, terrible in its simplicity. This paragraph is an example of something that literature can do that would be difficult, if not impossible, for film to accomplish. Its ambiguity provides a double perspective, allowing the reader to see and hear and feel the sky, the air, and the water both from the ship and from the sea at the same time. These shifts between the cozy comfort of the ship and “the blackness of the waters” heightens the horror of the story, producing uncertainty as to the man’s location and representing both the possibility of his safety as well as that of his peril.

Although his fall produces “a great splash,” the noise is not enough, over the distance and the sound of the musical instruments, to be heard, and the concert to which he’d been listening, mere moments ago, with pleasure now becomes something of a mocking and terrible reminder of his separation from the ship and its passengers and crew. Separated from the group, he is all alone in the sea. His absence goes unnoticed as the band plays “a lively tune,” the first verse of which is, rather ominously, “accompanied” by “the measure pulsations of the screw,” or ship’s propeller.

Churchill employs the passive voice throughout much of his story, an unusual technique, which heightens the impersonal character of the sea and the shock of the protagonist who has fallen overboard. His actions are automatic, desperate, and “inarticulate.” His terror has robbed him of his ability to think or to speak in an articulate fashion:
For a moment he was physically too much astonished to think. Then he realised he must shout. He began to do this even before he rose to the surface. He achieved a hoarse, inarticulate, half-choked scream. A startled brain suggested the word, “Help!” and he bawled this out lustily and with frantic effort six or seven times without stopping. Then he listened.
He listens, but he hears only the chorus of the song that the ship’s distant passengers and crew sing, their very singing proof that they are as unaware of the man overboard as if he didn’t exist.
Nor does the sea respond to his desperate cries for help. Nature has no heart, no mind, no soul; it is utterly indifferent, so to speak, to the fate of the man overboard, and he is more acted upon, both by nature and his own instinctive drives, than he is active. Free will means little when one is alone in an impersonal ocean.

Technology, as represented by the mail steamer--a ship that carries human correspondence, representing connection and communication among men and women--is of no avail in the world of nature. The narrator, stripped, as it were, of humanity’s technological capabilities and armor, is mere flotsam, no better or more valuable than any other detritus afloat upon the seas. Men may value themselves and one another; the sea, a synecdoche of nature as a whole, does not, a theme that “The Open Boat” and Open Water share with Churchill’s story and which is well expressed by Crane in a short poem, “A Man Said to the Universe,” that could stand as the epigraph to any of these stories:
A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."
As the ship continues to steam away from the man, the music and the vessel’s lights dim, the ship seeming to get smaller and smaller in the distance, heightening the horror of the protagonist's situation and the terror he feels, even as the increasing silence and the lengthening gap emphasizes his aloneness, his vulnerability, and his desperation:
The chorus floated back to him across the smooth water for the ship had already completely passed by. And as he heard the music a long stab of terror drove through his heart. The possibility that he would not be picked up dawned for the first time in his consciousness.
As he hears, again, the chorus, he screams again for help, “now in desperate fear,” only to hear, as if it is mocking him, the chorus’ refrain, its “last words drawled out fainter and fainter.”

The instinct for self-preservation is strong within him--at first; however, his desire to live soon weakens as, after setting “out to swim after it [the ship] with furious energy, pausing every dozen strokes to shout long wild shouts,” he stops, as “full realisation” comes to him that he is “alone--abandoned.” This “understanding” of his predicament, the narrator remarks, causes his brain to reel, and he has a second burst of determination to save himself, praying, this time, rather than shouting. Instead of depending upon his fellow human beings for assistance, he has turned to God, pleading for divine assistance.

Almost immediately, as if Churchill intends his story’s theme to be that God helps those who ask for his help, after the steamer’s having become nothing more than “a single fading light on the blackness of the waters and a dark shadow against the paler sky,” the ship seems to stop so that it might return. His prayer, it seems, has been answered. God, it appears, has heard him, and “a surge of joy and hope” flashes “through his mind” as he gives thanks to the deity.

A moment later, his hopes are dashed, and he despairs as he sees the ship’s light become “gradually but steadily smaller,” and, where, before, he’d given voice to his gratitude, he now curses his fate: “Beating the water with his arms, he raved impotently. Foul oaths burst from him, as broken as his prayers--and as unheeded.” It seems clear that, whether he pleas for deliverance, gives thanks, or curses God, neither nature nor its Creator hear or respond. They are as indifferent to his gratitude as they are to his need and his thanksgiving. As he becomes exhausted, his “passion” gives way to “fear,” and after only “twenty minutes” have “passed,” he resigns to his fate. Rather than attempt to “swim all the way to Suez,” he decides to drown, and he throws “up his hands impulsively,” sinking, only to find that his instinct to survive takes over, preventing him from committing suicide:
Down, down he went through the warm water. The physical death took hold of him and he began to drown. The pain of that savage grip recalled his anger. He fought with it furiously. Striking out with his arms and legs he sought to get back to the air. It was a hard struggle, but he escaped victorious and gasping to the surface.
He has fought the sea and won. Nature has been vanquished. Even without God’s help, he has managed to escape the “savage grip” of “physical death,” but his is a short-lived, hollow victory, for, as he bursts through the surface of the water, “despair awaited him.” He realizes that it is futile for him to struggle, that his fate is sealed. He pleads, once more, to God, praying, “Let me die.”

The narrator describes the appearance of a shark, a maritime angel of death, as it were, as beautiful and awesome as any other terrible messenger of God. The creature’s beauty seems, from a human perspective, incongruous and inappropriate, but the story is being told from the omnipotent point of view, as if it were God himself who tells the tale of the man overboard, and human attitudes are irrelevant. As the moon drifts out from the cover of the night’s cloud, symbolizing divine revelation, an epiphany occurs, for the reader, if not for the man overboard, courtesy of the narrator’s concluding observation concerning the significance of the shark’s appearance:
The moon, then in her third quarter, pushed out from the concealing clouds and shed a pale, soft glimmer upon the sea. Upright in the water, fifty yards away,was a black triangular object. It was a fin. It approached him slowly.
His last appeal had been answered.
Significantly, it is the man’s “last appeal” that has “been answered.” He had made an earlier appeal, praying that God would deliver him, but those pleas had fallen, as it were, upon deaf ears. Only his prayer that he be allowed to die is answered. He will be allowed to die, but not by drowning. Instead, he will be ripped apart, alive, and devoured. The moon, shedding the light of revelation, as it were, upon this final incident of the story, suggests that, if God is not altogether indifferent to man’s fate, he is, if anything, a sadist.

Just as the ship is a synecdoche for technology; music, for art and the pleasures it brings; the mail, for human contact and communication; and the sea, for nature itself, the anonymous man is a synecdoche for humanity itself. Not only is the nameless, faceless man of the story alone and abandoned by God in an uncaring and impersonal universe which is equally indifferent to the man’s happiness and welfare, but, in him, all humanity is overboard, awash in a sea of cosmic unconcern and disregard.

Is the tone of the story (and, therefore, of the narrator’s final observation, that “his last appeal had been answered”) sincere, ironic, or cynical? There is some ambiguity in the story’s wording, as there is in its structure and its incidents--and enough uncertainty, perhaps, to make all three interpretations of the tone possibilities. The answer to the question of whether the tone is ultimately sincere, ironic, or cynical is up to each reader to decide, and his or her answer will be determined by the views that he or she holds concerning nature and its Creator.

The Christian might consider the shark’s appearance, in answer to the man’s prayer that he be allowed to die, to be a sincere response on the part of God; the Deist might suppose the shark’s appearance to be mere coincidence, since God, although he exists and did create the universe, takes no current interest in his creation; the atheist might consider the shark’s appearance also a matter of nothing more than mere blind chance, since there is no God to hear or respond to the man’s--or anyone else’s--prayer.

The story is marvelously short, just as it is marvelously uncanny. Despite its brevity, it presents amazingly complex questions concerning the character of nature, the problem of evil, and the nature of God. Although one opinion concerning the story’s tone and the narrator’s final observation may seem more likely than others, each remains a possibility, and God may not be the sadist he at first appears to be. Death by shark would be horrible, to be certain, but would drowning be any quicker, more merciful, or dignified? On the other hand, if God exists, maybe he is as capricious and even as sadistic as the story can be interpreted to imply. For that matter, why did the man fall overboard?

To universalize the question, we might ask, instead, Why did humanity, in the Garden of Eden, take a similar fall? Is there a grace behind both “falls,” discernable only to the eye of faith, as Job suggests? Is the fall overboard a test of one’s trust in God, even when one faces his own mortality? Is the story a repudiation of the very idea of a merciful and loving God? Is he, instead, merely just and inscrutable? Does he exist at all?

Ray Bradbury's "Love Potion": Learning from the Masters

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman 

Ray Bradbury’s “Love Potion,” one of the flowers of evil in his Summer Morning, Summer Night anthology, is a deceptively simple tale, the unexpected twist at the end of which not only horrifies, but also delights.

Reclusive sisters, “large as sofas. . . and stuffed with time,” Miss Nancy Jillet and her sister Julia take “the air at four in the morning,” when there is no one in the sleeping town in which they live to see them except the policeman walking his beat. While the two old ladies are rocking in the chairs on their front porch at two o’clock in the morning, eighteen-year-old Alice Ferguson, unable to sleep, “happened upon the Jillets.”

The women, after identifying their visitor, both by name and by age, tell her that she’s in love but that “he doesn’t love you,” which is why Alice is “unhappy and out walking late.” Nancy, however, assures her that she has come “to the right place.” Alice says that she “didn’t come,” but the woman shush her, saying that they will help her by giving her a “love potion.” They give her a green bottle, the contents of which Nancy describes as harmless ingredients:
“White flowers for the moon, summer-myrtle for the stars, lilacs for the rain, a red rose for the heart, a walnut for the mind. . . . Some clear water from the well to make all run well, and a sprig of pepper-leaf to warm his blood. Alum to make his fear grow small. And a drop of white cream so that he sees your skin like a moonstone.”
When Alice asks whether such a potion will “work,” Nancy assures her that it will; she and Julia have spent many years determining “why we never courted and never married,” and the results of their long investigation into these matters “boils down to” the potion they’ve given to her. Alice will be the first ever to try the potion, Nancy assures their visitor, because “it’s not just something you give to everyone or make and bottle all the time.” The sisters have too many interests, Nancy implies, for them to spend all their time on any single pursuit, even the manufacture and bottling of a love potion:
“We’ve done a lot of things in our life, the house is full of antimacassars we’ve knitted, framed mottos, bedspreads, stamp collections, coins, we’ve done everything, we’ve painted and sculpted and gardened by night so no one would bother us.”
It was while they were gardening, in fact, that they’d first seen Alice, “looking sad,” and had surmised that she was so “because of a man.” That was the moment that the sisters had resolved to try to help Alice, and they’d straightaway picked flowers from among the plants of their garden. All Alice needs to do to win her beloved is to add three drops to a beverage, “soda pop, lemonade or iced-tea.”

Visiting the man of her dreams, he tells her, “I do love you.” Alice replies, “Now I won’t need this,” and shows him the green bottle which contains the sisters’ love potion. Perhaps she has already mentioned the topic, in a joke, to him, because he is not surprised by her production of the bottle and even advises her to “pour a little out. . .before you take it back, so it won’t hurt their feelings.”

She does so, returning the rest to the Jillet sisters, assuring them, in answer to their question, that she administered a dose to her beloved. The women surprise Alice by announcing that they themselves will sample the potion, so that they will “have beautiful dreams and dream we’re young again.”

The next morning, sirens awaken Alice, and she runs to her window, looks out, and sees “Miss Nancy and Miss Julia Jillet sitting on their front porch, not moving, in broad daylight, a thing they had never done before, their eyes closed; their hands dangling at their sides, their mouths gaping strangely.” They have about them the look of death, and the green bottle is set before them:
There was something about them, something that suggested sheaths from which the iron blade is gone. This, Alice Ferguson saw, and the crowd moving in, and the police, and the coroner, putting his hand up for the green bottle that glittered brightly in the sunlight, sitting on the rail.
Because of the apparent kindliness of the aged sisters and their seemingly sincere desire to “help” their beautiful, young, lovelorn neighbor, Bradbury deceives his reader, as it were, into believing the elderly sisters to be harmless. Reclusive spinsters, the may seem a bit eccentric, believing, as they do, in love potions, but they are also apparently harmless, even lovable, old women. However, the reader’s realization that the “love potion” that they gave Alice was really the same poison that they drank as a means of committing suicide shows that the women were anything but the kindly old ladies they appeared to be. Believing themselves to have committed murder, by killing the young man for whom Alice mooned, but who did not love her in return, the women next kill themselves, apparently to put themselves beyond the reach of the law.

Bradbury’s story ends upon an eerie note, and the shock of the ending makes the reader reread the short story for clues as to what would motivate two seemingly nice old ladies to take their own lives after attempting to murder a stranger.

It would be disappointing if Bradbury had taken the cheap way out by leaving the story a mystery, but he is too good a writer to rely upon a dues ex machina. His story does, indeed, contain clues that make the sisters’ monstrous deeds intelligible. The women are reclusive. They avoid others, keeping company only with one another. When they go outside their house, it is early in the morning, when the town is “undercover.” Upon meeting them, “in the milky dark of 2 a.m.,” Alice recalls “the tales of their solitary confinement in life,” a phrase which suggests not only isolation, but also punishment.

If their self-imposed isolation from others is a form of punishment, for what offense are they enforcing it? Their intuitive understanding of the cause of Alice’s unhappiness is a clue. Upon seeing Alice walking past their garden, “looking sad,” they recognize the cause of her unhappiness, as being “a man,” perhaps because a man, in their past, had caused one or both of them to feel similar sorrow. They have spent a good many years, Nancy tells Alice, trying to “figure out why we never courted and never married,” and, having done so, they have concocted their “love potion.” Although it may be “too late” for them to “help” themselves, they can “help” Alice, who seems to suffer from the same heartache that had such a devastating effect upon their own lives.

Whatever the reason for the failure of romance in the days of their youth, it seems that the spinsterish sisters blame themselves, for they have, as it were, sentenced themselves to “solitary confinement in life,” becoming recluses whose only company they keep is one another’s. They have spent the long years, “since 1910,” as they confide to Alice, when, possibly, their hopes for love were dashed, in activities that seem to have been designed to sublimate their sexual drives:
“We’ve done a lot of things in our life, the house is full of antimacassars we’ve knitted, framed mottos, bedspreads, stamp collections, coins, we’ve done everything, we’ve painted and sculpted and gardened by night so no one would bother us.”
Possibly to spare Alice such a lonely and unfulfilling life as theirs has been, despite the many hobbies and pastimes with which they’ve attempted to fill their lives--lives which, nevertheless, the narrator characterizes as “stuffed with time and dust and snow”--they gave her a potent poison to administer to the object of her unrequited love. It is a gesture of kindness that is anything but kind, but the spinsters have apparently long since passed beyond rationality, supposing that the murder of the young man who doesn’t share Alice’s love would be justifiable if it brings Alice relief after her initial grief.

Believing themselves to have accomplished their mission, they drink the poison themselves, thus adding the crime and sin of suicide to that those of murder. Their own unrequited or failed love, it seems, has twisted them, and, over the years, the lonely spinsters, unable to find fulfillment in one another’s company or in the many activities they have tried to pass the time over the years during their self-imposed “solitary confinement,” have come to see their young neighbor’s own unrequited love as a long-lasting torment which may give some purpose to their lives if they can deliver Alice from the hell that they have had to endure since 1910.

Instead, they would have caused Alice untold grief by such an action, since, as the young man confides, he already does love Alice. Their romance, which could lead to marriage, almost ended before it began, in the death of the man of Alice’s dreams, and, blinded by their own torment and grief, neither of the sisters were capable of imagining that their reading of Alice’s unhappiness and its cause was a result not of special insight, as they might have supposed, but of a projection of their own experience onto the life of another person. Their solipsistic self-exile from life and the irrationality that preceded and follows from such “solitary confinement” is the horror that makes them monstrous and villainous, despite their appearances as harmless old ladies to the contrary.

Bradbury’s masterful writing allows the horror and the delight that rear, shockingly, at the end of this compact, deceptively simple story of heartache, madness, and seclusion. By emulating Bradbury’s technique, other writers can accomplish similar results.

Bentley Little: Aberrant Sex as Symbolic of the Nature of Sin

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Among other things, Bentley Little is known for his ability to create, maintain, and intensify suspense through his narrative and descriptive skills; his inability to end his novels in a satisfactory (that is, satisfying) manner; and his inclusion of aberrant sex in his stories.

In this post, I take up the aberrant sex that is a recurring element in his fiction, citing a few examples from one of his more recent novels, The Vanishing (Signet, 2007); parenthetical numbers refer to the pages from which text is summarized or quoted. I also offer my take as to why Little is wont to include such material in his fiction. (Yes, it’s salacious and helps to sell his novels, but there’s more to it than that, I think.)

Little loses no time in describing his novel’s first instance of aberrant sex. Victor Lowry, the ne’er-do-well son of a self-made millionaire, picks up his sometime-girlfriend, Sharline. Although the couple has just had an argument (“they’d parted on bad terms last week after a very public fight”), Sharline seems as content to use Victor’s money as he is to use her body (she lives in an apartment, he in a mansion).

After their date, the narrator confides to the reader, Victor “took Sharline back to her apartment and did her quick and hard on the floor of the living room, finishing in” a fashion that he knows she does not “like.” Victor is more than inconsiderate. He uses women (as Sharline also uses him), and he does so in a contemptuous fashion, without regard to their feelings. When Sharline calls him a “bastard,” he smiles; her anger amuses and delights him, and the narrator declares that “he felt good, happy,” explaining that Victor’s sadistic streak is something of a sexual, if not marital, aid to him: “It helped him get off, doing things to women they didn’t like” (8).

Victor’s sadism makes him an unsympathetic character, so that when, a few pages later, he is murdered by his psychotic father, the reader may not condone the madman’s behavior, but he or she isn’t likely to feel much remorse for Victor, the “bastard” who has used his girlfriend with such indifference a few pages earlier. (Sharline is somewhat unsympathetic, too, for she is using Victor for his money, even as he is using her for sex, but she doesn’t deserve to be treated with the disdain and cruelty with which Victor treats her. He is the bigger culprit, so, when his father dispatches him, the reader is apt to feel that the sadistic son’s dispatch is not all that unfortunate an event.)

In chapter three of the novel, the reader is introduced to Arlene and her husband Stephen, who may or may not be having an affair; if he is, Arlene decides, she may or may not care: “Stephen called a few minutes later, promising to be home by dinnertime, but she knew that ‘dinnertime’ could mean anything between six and nine o’clock. She wondered idly if he was having an affair--then wondered if she cared” (24).

Although Little doesn’t go into detail about Stephen’s extramarital sexual escapades (if there are, indeed, any extramarital sexual escapades into which to go), but the suggestion of infidelity is another allusion to aberrant sexuality. It would be despicable if Stephen is cheating on his wife, but her casual indifference also rankles the reader, suggesting that she doesn’t have much regard for their marriage, for her husband, or for herself, her apathy painting her as a somewhat unsympathetic character. Perhaps she--or both she and her husband--will also be victims of whatever madness and mayhem Little has unleashed upon his characters.

Stephen returns home earlier than Arlene had expected, and, after dinner and a bit of television, he suggests that they “have a golden shower.” Although she offers token resistance to engaging in the act, it is obvious that “golden showers” are a routine part of the aberrant sex lives they share, and “Arlene,” the reader is told, “gave in, as she always did, and she drank water until she had to pee,” thereafter discharging the contents of her bladder over her husband “until he was completely soaked” and sexually excited. After he satisfies her by other means, she seats herself upon him, to “finish him off” with “a few quick, hard thrusts” which cause them to climax “together,” one in their ecstasy as they are in their degeneracy (27).

Their devil-may-care attitudes toward sex and one another are reflected in their son Kirk’s interest in casual, even anonymous, sex, as is seen by his attempt to pick up a woman in a nightclub rather than to stay for dinner at his parents’ house, despite the fact that his mother, having just returned from two weeks of vacation in France, has invited him to celebrate her return: “He scanned the bar and then positioned himself next to a tall dark beauty who was either alone, abandoned, or waiting for a friend.” (One almost fails to see the nonchalant way that the narrator includes “abandoned” in the list of possible explanations for the woman’s being by herself, a casualness that underscores the attitude that Kirk himself has toward casual sexual encounters with strangers.)

Unfortunately for the opportunistic Kirk, the woman is awaiting her boyfriend’s return: “Before he could get up the nerve to speak to her. . . her date returned from the bathroom and the two of them wandered off ins search of a table” (29). Had Kirk been able to “get up the nerve” sooner, the narrator suggests, perhaps he would have been able to persuade the “tall dark beauty” to leave with him rather than with her date. Faithfulness between lovers is not any more likely in a Little novel than it is in the actual world of American society, in which half of marriages end in divorce.

Kirk’s mother, far from being disappointed in her son’s decision to skip dinner with his parents, is delighted, because she suspects that he is skipping their dinner engagement in favor of keeping a rendezvous with a new lover:
“You knew your mother was coming home,” his dad said sternly.

“I know, but it’s--”

“Someone new?” his mother asked, barely concealing her delight at the prospect.

“Yeah,” he lied (29).
Kirk’s willingness to lie to his mother suggests, as does his willingness to pick up a woman who may be waiting for her date to return, the dishonesty at the core of his character, just as her participation in aberrant sexual behavior and her “delight” at the prospect that her son is meeting “someone new” may suggest Arlene’s own casual morality.

Carrie Daniels, a social worker, introduced in chapter four of the novel, seeks to obtain medical benefits for Juan, a furry boy whose head and facial features resemble those of a llama enough for the superstitious to attribute his birth to his mother Rosalie’s fornication with beasts. Carrie’s supervisor, Sanchez, informs her that he has heard “secondhand” that, “to get the money to come to America,” Rosalie “worked in a. . . llama show, back in Mexico,” where “she had sex with animals while people watched” and became “pregnant by one” as a result, conceiving her son (37).

Although Rosalie scoffs at the explanation, declaring it “impossible,” she is disturbed by the story, and, when she sees a tabloid’s headline about Holly, a prostitute who gave birth to a “rhino boy,” she and a colleague investigate the story, stumbling upon a murder scene in which they find the dead body of the decapitated “rhino boy” and his mother, causing Carrie to believe “there really was a rhino boy” (49-50) and to wonder whether Rosalie and her son are also in danger from the same killer (51).

In this chapter, Little adds voyeurism, prostitution, and possible bestiality to his list of aberrant sexual behaviors and ties them to poverty and a need for money on the part of unskilled, but (in Rosalie’s case, at least) attractive young women who aspire to better lives.

Almost every chapter of the novel contains either references to, or full-fledged scenes involving, one sort or another of aberrant sex. Chapter five is no exception: a reporter receives a voice message from an oil company CEO who says he is suffering from satyriasis. It’s hard to say whether the executive is bragging or complaining, but the message itself is communicated in vulgar, rather than clinical, terms (56).

Whatever is happening in The Vanishing, the mystery of iniquity, as it were, involves sexual perversions, but these degenerate acts also serve other narrative purposes than simply setting up a mysterious chain of bizarre events. The allusions to sexual aberrations and the scenes that depict the characters involved in aberrant sexual behavior characterize the participants in such acts as unsympathetic, amoral, cruel, and unfaithful, just as such references and scenes depict contemporary American society and capitalism as unprincipled and indifferent to human suffering (indeed, businesses are depicted as seeking to capitalize upon human suffering, as in Rosalie’s and Holly’s cases)

For many modern men and women, sex has become something of a religion, and, in the perverted and degenerate forms that it takes in Little’s novels, The Vanishing included, such sex seems to symbolize the moral degeneracy and the spiritual dissolution out of which, ultimately, such behavior flows. It is a shorthand way of suggesting the sinfulness and impiety of modern humanity. The novel’s narrator suggests as much when he admits, concerning the conduct of one character, “This hadn’t been just a sex thing” (60), and, in reference to another character, explains:
Something was wrong with him. He didn’t know what it was, but he sensed that it was not something that could be cured by a psychiatrist. This was not the result of some childhood trauma or chemical imbalance [i. e., the problem’s etiology is neither environmental nor organic, or genetic]. It went deeper than that. This was something inexplicable and inhuman that had recently manifested itself from God-knew-where. And now was a permanent part of him (65).
As the Catholic Online Encyclopedia observes,
Lust is said to be a capital sin. The reason is obvious. The pleasure which this vice has as its object is at once so attractive and connatural to human nature as to whet keenly a man’s desire, and so lead him into the commission of many other disorders in the pursuit of it. Theologians ordinarily distinguish various forms of lust in so far as it is a consummated external sin, e. g., fornication, adultery, incest, criminal assault, abduction, and sodomy. Each of these has its own specific malice--a fact to borne in mind for purposes of safeguarding the integrity of sacramental confession.
Separated not only from God and nature, but also any sense of moral decency or even decorum, men and women are haunted, or even possessed, by idolatrous sensuality and demonic sexual deviance. Regardless of the shapes and appearances of the monsters in Little’s novels, sexual perversion--or, rather, what it symbolizes--the moral degeneracy that issues from the godlessness and idolatry of modern, secular society--is the true demon about which he writes, the nature of the human beast, unclothed by cultural pretenses and rhetorical rationalizations.

Shirley Jackson: Horror as a Slice of Life

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

I am reading The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, and, as I do so, I am struck, again and again, by the strong similarity between her style and that of Flannery O’Connor’s. There is a directness to their sentences, a no-nonsense, straightforward cadence that marches resolutely forward, even as it describes and narrates unlikely stories typically involving grotesque characters. Despite the improbable tales and the fantastic characters, Jackson’s narratives are frequently slice-of-life stories, or narratives that involve mere segments of their characters’ lives without exposition, with little overt action, with minimal conflict, and with an inconclusive denouement. Her stories start in media res, characterizing their protagonists and antagonists as they go, seemingly on the fly. The incongruity, and, often, the irony, that results from this bare-bones approach in which realistic portrayal is juxtaposed to, or is the vehicle for, the grotesque and eccentric, is jarring. To get a sense of the meaning of any of Jackson’s stories, one must reread them, usually several times. The reward for one’s time and effort, however, is well worth the trouble.

Since most of her stories start, progress, and end the same way, an analysis of one is a sufficient introduction to Jackson’s method. I choose to illustrate her approach with an examination of “Trial By Combat,” which originally appeared, in 1944, in The New Yorker.

The plot is deceptively simple. Emily Johnson, a young woman working in New York City, while her husband is away in the Army, possibly at war, lives in a rooming house, where, during the past two weeks of her six-weeks’ residence to date, she begins to notice that someone is pilfering her belongings. Handkerchiefs, costume jewelry, perfume, and “a set of china dogs” have disappeared from her room.

One day, when she is returning to her room from the roof, where she has been sunning herself, she sees “someone come out of her room and go down the stairs,” and Emily recognizes her “visitor” as her downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Allen. (It is “an old house,”wherein the tenants’ skeleton keys fit one another’s, as well as their own, rooms.) Emily goes to Mrs. Allen’s room, where the two women have a cordial conversation about their respective husbands and their fondness for flowers and plants before Emily makes oblique references to someone’s having come repeatedly into her room and pilfered her belongings, declaring that the trespassing and theft “has to stop” or she will be obliged to “do something about it.”

Emily sees that Mrs. Allen’s room is almost identical to her own in its furnishings: “the same narrow bed with the tan cover, the same maple dresser and armchair; the closet. . . on the opposite side of the room, but [with] the window. . . in the same relative position” (42). Although Mrs. Allen is twice her own age, the widow’s late husband, “dead for nearly five years,” was a soldier. The couple was childless, although photographs of “several” children cluster about his photograph, his “nephews and nieces,” Mrs. Allen explains. When Emily expresses her fondness for flowers as a means of brightening her room, lamenting that they “fade so quickly,” Mrs. Allen tells her that she can prolong their color by adding an aspirin to the water so that “they last much longer” and “make a room look. . . friendly.”

Despite her visit to Mrs. Allen’s room, the thefts continue: “The following evening, when Emily came home from work, a pair of cheap earrings was gone, along with two packages of cigarettes which had been in her dresser drawer” (45). Emily responds to these additional thefts by calling in sick to work and biding her time in her room until she hears Mrs. Allen go downstairs, at which point Emily goes to the elderly lady’s room. After looking “for a moment at the picture of Mrs. Allen’s husband,” Emily opens the top drawer of the widow’s dresser and finds her own belongings inside: “Her handkerchiefs were there, in a neat, small pile, and next to them the cigarettes and the earrings. In one corner the little china dog was sitting” (46).

Mrs. Allen returns, catching Emily in the act of rifling her drawers. And Emily tells herself, “now turn around and tell her,” but instead of accusing the widow of having stolen her belongings, Emily says that “I had a terrible headache and I came down to borrow some aspirin. . . . and when I found you were out I thought surely you wouldn’t mind if I borrowed some aspirin” (47). Mrs. Allen accepts Emily’s explanation, gives her the aspirin, and tells her that “I’ll run up later today. . . just to see how you feel” (47).
Much of the meaning of this seemingly simple, six-page story is derived from what is left unsaid rather than from what is directly stated. The similarities between Emily and Mrs. Allen bind them together. The widow is almost an older version of the protagonist, an embodiment of Emily’s own future. They both live in a rooming house, in Spartanly furnished, nearly identical rooms. Their husbands are both away--Emily’s in the Army, Mrs. Allen’s a soldier taken by death, perhaps (the story’s title suggests) as a casualty of war. They seem lonely (Mrs. Allen’s only “companion” is the Woman’s Home Companion she is reading when Emily visits her, and the widow tells the younger woman, “It’s so seldom one meets anyone really. . .nice. . . in a place like this” [42]).

The flowers and plants they purchase to “brighten up” their rooms and make them seem friendlier also suggest the loneliness and barrenness of their lives, as does Mrs. Allen’s (and, indeed, Emily’s own) childlessness, which is emphasized by the children’s photographs clustered around the dead soldier’s photograph, as if his nephews and nieces were his and Mrs. Allen’s surrogate children. As the story’s title indicates, both women have endured a “trial by combat,” and it is the commonality of their experience that appears to draw them to one another.

They lead pitiful lives, but their empathy allows them to pity each other. Moreover, both women are lonely and confide in one another that they have been eager to meet one another, which suggests that, in their misery, they seek company: “I’ve seen you, of course, several times,” Mrs. Allen tells Emily, “and thought how pleasant you looked.” Emily replies, “I’ve wanted to meet you, too” (42). Their common plight allows Emily to overlook Mrs. Allen’s thefts and to conspire with her in pretending that they are nothing more than neighbors, or even friends, not strangers, who are concerned about one another’s health and well being.

There seems to be a darker, somewhat horrific subtext to this story, too. It may be that Mrs. Allen practices a sort of symbolic cannibalism. Her kleptomania seems to be an attempt to secure for herself some of Emily’s “nice” and “pleasant” circumstances. By taking items that belong to Emily, the older widow seems intent upon becoming like Emily, at least in part, by performing a ritual similar to that of ancient and medieval warriors who ate the hearts of their vanquished foes in order to take into themselves their enemies’ courage and military prowess by literally ingesting the presumed seats of their souls. If such an interpretation is accepted (admittedly, it is controversial), the implication of Emily’s observation, addressed to Mrs. Allen, “You’ve made yours [i. e., Mrs. Allen’s room] look much nicer than mine” and Mrs. Allen’s rejoinder, “I’ve been here for three years. . . . You’ve only been here a month or so, haven’t you?” much more significant--and macabre--than this dialogue might seem otherwise. Has Mrs. Allen been stealing from other tenants’ rooms for “three years”? Are her thefts the reason that her room looks “much nicer” than Emily’s, and will Emily, who has already trespassed upon Mrs. Allen’s room, as Mrs. Allen has trespassed upon Emily’s, likewise become a kleptomaniac, whose thefts improve the appearance of her room, making it “nicer,” brighter looking, and friendlier? Will Mrs. Allen’s ways become Emily’s ways? Will the widow become the mentor and Emily the apprentice in cannibalizing the lives of other tenants, as it were, by stealing bits and pieces from their neighbors’ lives?

“Trial By Combat” is a much eerier story than the text which meets the reader’s eye, because its subtext opens itself to unusual, even grotesque, interpretations, largely because of the technique that Jackson employs in writing slice-of-life stories involving mere segments of their characters’ lives, told without exposition, with little overt action, with minimal conflict, and with an inconclusive denouement. Writers, aspiring or professional, can learn a lot by apprenticing themselves to such a master as Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House (which is one of the inspirations for Stephen King’s television miniseries Rose Red), and many other haunting tales.

Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982. Print.