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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

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

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Robert McCammon is the author of A 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.

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