I have rediscovered my time management skills and organized my executive function disorder to bring you two, count’em, TWO short-story synopsis. First we have that two-fisted purveyor of screw turning, Henry James. After that will follow that treacly plumber of psycho-sexual phantasmorgia, Hans Christian Andersen.
Let’s get to it!
“The Friends of the Friends” by Henry James
This story’s premise was great and hooked me from the start. An editor is going over a deceased writer’s papers and wonders what to do with this strange story she tells. She had two acquaintances who each had true premonitions of a loved one’s death while still both children. Being the society-minded person she is the woman decides wouldn’t it be great if these two people met each other. However every time she or anyone else tries to bring them together some thing happens to keep them apart This becomes a running joke in her social group, and so it goes on for years. Another peculiarity of the pair is that each refuses to be photographed, which is currently all in vogue among high society.
Some years pass, the old joke continues to remain, but by now the woman telling the story has fallen in love with the man and has decided to marry him. Around this time the woman of the fated pair is finally freed from her marriage (she’d been living separate from her abusive husband), and this sparks a crisis in the narrator because she has just hatched a full proof plan to get the two to meet. The narrator fears that these two are so much alike that she’d be tempting fate by having them meet each other. So she lies and has the woman of the pair visit while the man’s away. However, the narrator had compelled the man to get his picture taken, and the picture now sits on her mantle. The woman of the pair spends some time studying the picture and the back on which the man’s address is printed. She then leaves. The next day the narrator feels terrible and goes to confess everything to the woman, but when she arrives she discovers the woman died the night before. More guilt-ridden than ever, the narrator confesses all to the man, her fiancé, and admits that she had played a cruel trick on her friend out of fear at what might happen if the two should meet. The man laughs telling the narrator that the woman appeared to him in the night and stood some time in his chambers watching him. This startles the narrator, who turns detective to piece together the woman’s actions before her death. All she can learn is that the woman spent some time dozing at her club and everyone saw her there. However enough doubt remains in the narrator’s mind that she ends her betrothal to the man. For his part, he feels he has done nothing wrong and that the narrator is being silly. Six years later, the narrator tells us the man dies, probably from suicide, although she believes he had done it to be reunited with the dead woman who had haunted him. The End.
So, yeah. Like I said I fell in love with the seed of this story and the weird mumblecore smallness of it. Sadly, James’s ultra-thick but ultra-pasteurized prose works to suck all the life out of the idea and bury it beneath expositive introspection and I’m not so much a fan of that.
But, that seed of two people in an extended social group having strange experiences so all their mutual friends work to have them meet each other? Lordy, I would love to have a dozen different writers take it up and use it to write a story. Imagining a Victor LaValle version alongside a Kelly Link version alongside a Laird Barron version gives the old skull-nut chills.
Now, on to Hans Christian Andersen
“The Traveling Companion” by Hans Christian Andersen
Parents love Hans Christian Andersen for his Christian imagery and moral instruction. Children like his because the princess has her own private pleasure garden where she can torture the unworthy and feed their eyes to her wizard mentor-pet.
Truth told, I had never read Andersen before, discounting him as simply a moralistic fairy tale writer. And while that’s partially right, it overlooks the heaping fruit-loopy tower of psycho-sexual WTFry he offers.
John is a good protestant boy left alone in the world after the death of his father. But he’s a devote lad full of inherent goodness and has no fear as he sets out into the wide world. Soon he finds himself homeless and forced to shelter in a chapel where he comes upon a pair of Bad Men getting ready to defile the recently deceased body of their debtor. John stops this by giving the Bad Men all his money and then sets off poorer in the morning. Soon he is joined by a jolly traveling companion and the two decide to stick together from now on. As they journey the companion exhibits many strange powers and makes odd bargains with payment.
In time the two reach a city where a king is sad because his daughter is a beautiful witch monster that delights in torture. She will marry whichever man can answer her question “What am I thinking?” three days in a row. Those that fail get impales in her torture garden. Since John had a vision that this woman would be his bride early in the story he falls head over heels in love with her despite all warnings. Figuring John’s dead unless he does something the companion sets about using his magic to spy on the princess. Soon enough we learn she’s in league with an evil wizard who gives her all manner of material comforts. This wizard tells her what to think on the morrow, and the companion hears this and tells John in the morning. Later when John answers the princess’s question correctly everyone starts rejoicing wondering if the end of the curse is at hand.
The second night is a repeat of the first with the princess going to her bad wizard friend and the traveling companion overhearing all. John succeeds in answering the second question, and now things are getting serious. On the third night, the bad wizard tells the princess to think of his head, and this the traveling companion chops off once alone with the bad wizard, giving it to John in a bundle and telling him not to open it until the princess asks her third question. When the time comes and the question is put to John, the head astounds everyone. Since John guessed all three questions correct the princess is his and there’s much rejoicing.
Except for the princess who has to say goodbye to her magic powers and private mountain torture palace. A witch is still a witch after all.
The companion tells John how he might wash the witch out of the Princess by dunking her in a bath with swan feathers in it, and this John does washing the princess who changes into a black swan then a white swan. Now a prince John wants to reward his companion, but the fellow says no, he was but repaying a debt and reveals he’s the dead guy whose corpse John protected at the start of his journey. And so, they all lived happily ever after.
This story was a trip and my experience of it ran opposite to what I felt reading the Henry
Miller James* story. “The Friends of the Friends” had a great premise but meh execution. “The Traveling Companion,” on the other hand, had a meh premise but great execution. Both are worth the time it takes to read them.
If you do, let me know what you think.
Next week… a story by someone the editor refers to as “not a very good poet.” Until then, may all your yesterdays be weird.
* I always get these two confused.
I don’t know what to think of this week’s story.
Walter de la Mare’s one of those obscure weird English writers you sometimes hear about, influential and lauded by others, but whom you feel time has left behind or at least buried beneath other more recent obscure weird English writers. “Seaton’s Aunt” is considered one of de la Mare’s best, and it’s very much one of those Weird English stories that leans heavily into its 5.5ness instead of trying to go all the way up to 11. Is this good? Is this bad? I can’t say, but it’s certainly a puzzler and I’m not sure if the bits that I do find unsettling are the bits De La Mare intends.
“Seaton’s Aunt” by Walter de la Mare
This is the bit where I give a rundown of the story’s plot, but there’s not really much of one.
Withers and Seaton were schoolmates, even if Withers denies that they were ever friends. On three occasions Withers has a chance to visit Seaton at home and encounter his aunt. The first occasion is when they’re schoolboys and Seaton makes his aunt sound like she has supernatural powers, compelling ghosts and spirits to visit her. Withers refuses to believe this and claims Seaton is only trying to make a fool of him. And so the visit ends. The second visit comes some years later when both men are in their twenties, and a random meeting rekindles their acquaintance. Seaton’s about to marry and ask Withers to visit as a way to distract his aunt. Against his better judgment Withers agrees to this second visit, and like the first it is awkward. Seaton’s aunt says many arch and ominous things and seems to delight in needling her nephew and his fiancé. The third visit occurs some months after the second when Withers realizes he never heard from Seaton about the wedding, so he decides to make the trip to the house. When he gets there though he can’t find any sign of Seaton and the aunt seems much diminished, or possibly more resident in the netherworld where she exists. She mistakes Withers for Seaton then grows angry when she realizes her mistake. Withers leaves, only to learn from the village newsagent that Seaton died a few months back.
And that’s it.
There’s a thing M. John Harrison does in The Sunken Lands Begin to Rise Again where the whole of the novels seems to taking place in orbit around this void where a mystery may or may not exist. Apparently that must be a trope in weird British fiction, because that’s what’s going on here. On one hand there’s the mundane nature of the mystery: an unliked and lonely schoolboy, the “mysteries” of an elderly women, and the slow decay of lost wealth. On the other hand there are all manner of ominous hints and questions raised that get no answers: the Aunt’s appetite and callous views of death, the strange way Seaton speaks of her being one of “the first lot” and his relationship to her coming from his father’s first marriage, the fear that spurs the narrator to make his third visit.
Does it all point to something or nothing?
I can’t say.
The bit that hit me the hardest was in the way Withers treats Seaton. From the first he makes much of his dislike for Seaton for being in some vague way different and throughout the story Withers never shows any great affection for his classmate. Even when sparring with Seaton’s Aunt it’s all a bit of a game for Withers, up until the end when he walks away from the mansion, somehow judged by the Aunt and found lacking. And that’s the thing that gets me, not whatever question I want answered about the Aunt’s nature, but whether things might have turned out differently if Withers had deigned to care about his classmate at all.
Ultimately, this is the kind of story I enjoy having read even if I didn’t enjoy reading it, the sort of story you could see updated and made compelling by some contemporary creator mining that ambiguity that lies at its heart.
Next week, another purveyor of two-fisted prose. . . Henry James!
This week’s story was the first that made me explicitly look up whether the author was known as an anti-Semite or not. A quick peek at Wikipedia and I discovered it wasn’t Jews the author hated but the Irish. So that’s fun.
“The Grey Ones” by JB Priestley
Our narrator is seeing a psychiatrist because he worries he might be cracking up. You see he’s figured out that there’s some active force of Evil at work in the world and it seeks to destroy all humankind. But first it must crush all our joys and emotions and make insects of us, so that’s what has happened. These Grey Ones have moved into key places of local government and are making things awful for the rest of us, and it’s all part of their awful plan.
Interesting that in the first paragraphs our narrator chooses Smith over Meyenstein, because he doesn’t think he could possibly speak freely to one of “those people”. Whether we are to read this as Priestly raising the anti-Semitic specter to poke fun at it, or to reinforce it by linking the story to it I don’t know. I read the narrator as a crank and think the presentation of the Grey Ones themselves is a bit trash. They’re basically seven-eyed frog-demons, at least if they actually “exist” and aren’t a hallucination of the narrator. And this story comes down on the side of “Ha. Ha. What if this inhuman conspiracy was true and only you knew it?” That said there are some funny bits dealing with how the Grey Ones cloak themselves in dullness to hide and protect themselves. It reminded me of the convention of witches in Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Would you actually attend a conference of the New Era Community Planning Association?
But, honestly? The story’s trash, and unless you accept the narrator’s delusions as real, then any way you cut them his scary THEM that controls everything are either Jews, Socialists, or Neurological Atypical People.
The best read you can make is that they’re vampires of the Colin Robinson type.
The Feather Pillow by Horatio Quiroga
This one’s more old-fashioned, but it’s still in revolting bug territory. What’s best about it is that it’s short and relies on a single gross image to supply its chills. A young bride slowly succumbs to anemia, but before she dies she sees a horrible anthropoid monster moving unseen throughout her house. She also becomes obsessed with no one coming near to her bed. Eventually she dies, and after she does her husband and servants go to straighten her bed. It’s here that a servant discovers the feather pillow’s heavier than usual. Opening it up, the husband and servant find a hideous monster creature, a bloated specimen of a common parasite that lives on feathers. Unbeknownst to anyone it had been feeding on the wife, using its needle-like proboscis to pierce the skin of her temples while she slept.
Next Week, a chonky one from Walter De La Mare.
Don’t forget to wash your pillow cases!
This week’s story is “The Lemmings” by Alex Comfort. Comfort’s most famous as the author of the 1970s era bestseller, The Joy of Sex. Maybe you peeked at it when you were a child? He was also a pacifist and a nudist. And while “The Lemmings” is a solidly okay story. But it does gain something by imagining it being screamed at you by a naked man carrying a sign that reads, “Wake up Sheeple!”
“The Lemmings” by Alex Comfort
Our nameless narrator travels to an island where he meets The Keeper whose job it is to tend the lemming colony on the island. Curiously, outside the title and the fact that the creatures are harvested for their fur, Comfort never refers to them as lemmings in the story. And while these creatures seem to match the Walt Disney fabrication of lemmings they’re also creatures with a sort of society. They form social groups and make laws and take pride in their appearance, and at a sign they march en masse into the sea to die. And that’s exactly what happens.
The narrator and the keeper chat about the creatures. The Keeper has affection for the creatures, but more as a curious dispassionate observer than as someone who will make any large changes to their existence. He crafts the creatures little medals that they award each other on their suicidal swim, and he dresses like a priest because it makes them more relaxed. A few lemmings refuse to take part in the mass suicide and suffer violence as a consequence, but by and large the suicide is approached as a necessary carnival mixed with a patriotic duty. Afterwards the Keeper and the narrator skin the drowned bodies once they start washing up on the island’s shore.
Wake up Sheeple! Etc.
Overall this is a barely off the nose sort of allegory with enough flourishes to make it rise above the straightforward. Like I said it’s solidly okay and doesn’t at all overstay its premise, and it’s jagged enough to have hooks that might even make it stay with you.
An odd aside, this story reminded me a little of Jack Vance. Except Vance would have either made it a footnote to a larger story or put an intergalactic casino nearby where jaded gamblers come to bet on the event and which would serve as the backdrop to some adventure short story.
Next week, another “Definitive Article Adjective Noun” short story.
I have a friend who has a theory. According to him every animal is one of four types: a bug, a slug, a rat, or a lizard. These are categories are less to do with the animal’s biology than how they interact with humans.
Slugs generate disgust, bugs generate extreme terror at their alien nature, lizards a more familiar terror (we might not like it but we can recognize their desire to eat us), and rats are familiar and knowable. Fish and birds are lizards, wolf and deer are rats, jellyfish and manatees would be slugs, and spiders, shrimp and hornets are all bugs. A test would be what would your reaction if you were to encounter a large one of these creatures.
So by this theory, any normal person who meets a large bug, no matter how peaceful its intentions, will default to abject terror at such an alien monstrosity.
And such is the exact premise of this week’s story.
“The Large Ant” by Howard Fast
Fast might be most famous as the guy who wrote Spartacus, which he did while in prison for contempt of congress since he wouldn’t give names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His output spans decades and I remember him largely through stumbling on his books in discount bins alongside Herman Wouk, James Michener, and Leon Uris. Those sort of Cold War era potboilers that had BIG THEMES. Or so I gather. This story’s actually the first thing I read by him. Like all decent writers he wrote genre.
Our narrator is a normal guy and knows humanity doesn’t have much longer to survive, not least because we’re violent murderous animals with A-bombs. You see one day our guy was on vacation at a cabin in the Adirondacks improving his golf swing. After a busy day of strenuous relaxation he’s sitting in bed reading, when he spies something monstrous in the room. It’s an ant but one that’s a bit over a foot long.
Being the normal guy that he is our guy instinctively grabs his putting iron and beats the thing to death the moment after he sees it. He then packs the corpse up and drives all night back home where he promptly gets in touch with an entomologist at the natural history museum. When he gets to the museum he finds the entomologist is not alone but has a number of government types waiting with him, scientists and military personnel. Our narrator then learns that these ants have appeared repeatedly, and seem to mean no one any harm, but unfortunately humans instinctively hate them and kill on sight. The scientists don’t know what to do, but they suspect the ants will stop being peaceful at some point and decide they need to get rid of us. All because we’re apes that can’t get over our terror response at the sight of bugs.
I feel like Fast here is playing in the Bug-Eyed Monster genre famous in the pulps and used by such as Heinlein, Haldeman, and countless others, only Fast posits that it will likely be us rats that prove the aggressor because we can’t imagine a bug that might come in peace. Or at least we couldn’t during the Cold War. This is one of those stories that posit that this is what normal people are like when it assumes that Post-War Americans are the human baseline. Removed from that era when I read, “this is what people are like,” I understand it more as “this is what we are like”.
It’s like The Lord of the Flies. That book’s commonly viewed as a universal statement on the human condition when it’s very specifically a critique of the British ruling class and their educational system. When a group of six schoolboys actually got stranded on an island their adventure proved very different than the book’s. My point being that these scientists and generals are like “humans will always kill bugs” when any perusal of #bugtwitter will prove otherwise.
Which is all me bringing too much reality to this story. “The Large Ant” is another fable in science fiction clothes that asks how can we expect to discover intelligent life when our very biological wiring might prevent us from recognizing it? Which is an interesting question to ponder and learn from, rather than viewing the story as a puzzle that needs to be solved.
Next week, a story by the guy who wrote The Joy of Sex.
This week has been a week as has every week before it this year except more so. It’s possible back in 2018 we had a week that wasn’t a week extra than a week, but if we did I don’t remember it. Not only has it been a week, but also I’ve suddenly become very busy at work and am likely to remain so until November.
And I do not like this.
Apologies in advance if things show up later or are slimmer than usual. I’ll likely default to slim over delayed, but there you go. It’s a bummer too, because I had plans… ambitions even. All those are on the back-burner for now. Or until I get more people on my patreon, because nothing motivates me more than feeling like I owe people “content”.
On to the story…
“A Dog in Durer’s Etching” by Marco Denevi
This is a story by someone I had never heard of before. From the introduction Denevi appears to have been a favorite of Manguel’s and this story comes from an unsuccessful anthology series Manguel edited. His idea was to give writers a prompt and tell them to write whatever they want on it. Denevi’s story comes from the volume where that Durer print above (The Knight, Death, and the Devil) served as the prompt.
I’ve written about Durer and Weird Knight Shit before and will happily declare that I am a fan of both. I’m also a fan of dense but flash-length, stream of consciousness rambling short stories. And this story delivers that too. It’s a single sentence. A near two thousand-word sentence.
The Knight is returning from the war. Which war? All wars, because every war is the same war when it is lived through. The Knight left home for the war as an innocent youth. He’s now returning a battle-hardened (and psychologically damaged) soldier. But it’s home, and as he rides towards it he reflects on war, and the schemes of princes and popes, and death, and God’s judgment, and the memories flow – memories of carnage, pillaging, and the like. Maybe he’s no longer a man at all but some desiccated husk of calloused flesh withering in a suit of armor. Maybe no man remains at all, and he’s only his armor. He rides on. He muses. He wonders at the webs woven by popes, princes, and emperors, and wonders about God. And then he sees a dog, and he realizes the dog doesn’t see at all the webs that rule its world. It has no way of working out the plots of pope, prince, or emperor. It is free from God’s judgment, but this in no way makes it safe. Or so the Knight muses. The dog does a bit of its own musing. It sees not the Knight, but the Death that rides with the Knight in the form of Plague. It knows this truth that the Knight doesn’t and barks, but the Knight can’t hear Death barking, and only hears the dog.
This isn’t so much a story as a trip. Denevi’s written a story with a virtuoso’s flourish that you read to experience the act of reading it. And I love that.
Next week: another writer I’ve only ever seen in the discount dollar bins.
Here are some recent books reads. Maybe you will find them interesting, or maybe you’d like to recommend something you’ve enjoyed.
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells (Murderbot #3): I am a fan of the Murderbot series and this one delivered the usual murderbot goodness even if it wasn’t my favorite of the series. One thing was Murderbot didn’t seem to have any new shows to watch and obsess over so that quark in their voice wasn’t present as much as it had been in the first two books. And another confession is that I’m less into the conspiracy thread that links all these stories together and only have vague memories of who people are from the earlier books. All that said, if you like Murderbot, then this is good Murderbot. And if you haven’t read Murderbot then this is a recommendation that you should start. It’s a fine series about a security bot that has gained autonomy and found itself the protector of some humans in a very corporate nightmare interstellar science fiction setting. Each book delivers a good few hours of smart action entertainment.
The Sunken Lands Begin to Rise Again by M. John Harrison: This is a book where the bit that moves the plot has been intentionally left out, so you’re left reading about damaged people on the edge of a mystery that they can’t quite discern or even confirm exists at all. I can understand how anyone might hate that, but in the hands of a stylist like Harrison you get something else that looks closer to our lives as we live them within systems too large for us to comprehend. Nostalgia, conspiracy theories, grand paradigm shifts – it’s all here, while also being about a relationship between a man recovering from a breakdown and a woman mourning the death of her mother.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock: This book’s what the old folks call “a trip”. The setting’s England in the late 40s and Steven Huxley has come back home from the war to find his father dead and his brother growing ever more obsessed with the nearby woods. From there it’s a psycho-symbolic Jungian quest story as Steven and his brother uncover the mysteries of Ryhope Woods. The Woods serve as something like a mythic resonator and draw archetypes from those near to it. When I say this is a trip, I mean it. Before long the brothers are in the infinite wood, questing for the center while locked in a struggle that hearkens back millenia to the end of the Ice Age.
Vast by Linda Nagata: Far future hard SF about a band of explorers onboard a spacecraft that’s seeking the origin of a threat to their civilization. It’s also a rather long extended chase scene as the explorer’s spacecraft is being pursued by an enemy spacecraft. While this does have some of the cringe of 1990s SF, it’s also undeniably a book that inspired a lot of books that came after it. It’s hard not to read Alastair Reynolds and not see the debt he owes Nagata’s work. (And he admits this, so that’s no slight on Reynolds.) There’s also a weird Cthulhu mythos vibe here that I find fascinating, and which I might write more about at some point in its own post. I’ll just say that vast is an apt title for this book, and Nagata makes you feel how life might be lived across such vast gulfs of space and time.
Silver by Linda Nagata: I read Vast so I could read Silver, which is a sequel to Edges which was a sequel to Vast, but Silver is also a sequel to Nagata’s novel Memory which had a completely different setting, so we’re in that territory where an author is trying to merge the streams, and it… works. One thing I loved is that all the characters inhabit technologically advanced civilizations, but interact with the technology in different ways, so at first both sides look down on each other before recognizing their similarities. I’ll also say I think Nagata has become more accessible since the 1990s, and this feels less like the Vast setting and more like her Memory setting.
Let’s jump right into it.
“In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka
I’m sure we’ve all read this story, but in case you haven’t and are cribbing from this blog to complete your English assignments (a foolish course of action, if I may say so), I’ll give you the particulars here:
In a penal colony, a traveler is present at an execution. An ingenious machine designed by the colony’s former commandant performs the execution. This commandant is dead now, but the machine’s current operator attends to the machine and the commandant’s memory with a near-religious devotion. Besides the traveler and the operator are a soldier and the convict awaiting execution. The convict doesn’t know his crime, or verdict, but it makes no difference to the operator since all this follows the former commandant’s designs. Much of the first half of the story is the operator describing the machine, its function, and operation in minute, pain-staking detail. (In my head I envision the device as something like a printing press mixed with some farm device that makes hay bails.)
When in top form, the machine’s intended to write the victim’s crime into their body over hours flipping and bandaging them this way and that until the convict’s attain the enlightenment of their guilt, die, and have their inscribed corpses dropped into a pit. But the current commandant is not a fan of the machine, seeking instead to be a reformer, and has allowed the machine to fall into neglect. This has made the operator increasingly annoyed at the current commandant as well as made the operator spend all his energies maintaining this slowly deteriorating machine.
A quick aside here: there’s a part of the machine that’s a bit of felt fabric used by the condemned to bite down on as the machine goes about its hour long inscription work. This felt is supposed to be replaced each time the machine is used, but the current commandant’s indifference has meant that the felt hasn’t been replaced in a while and has been reused over and over again despite being stained with the blood, vomit, and saliva of those that have been executed. Kafka can really paint a picture.
The operator finishes up his demonstration and then he and the soldier strap the convict down (with detail given to the filthy felt nubbin they need to force into the convict’s mouth). The whole while the traveler has wondered if he should somehow stop this procedure from happening. The fact that the condemned doesn’t even know their crime is particularly upsetting to him. Noticing something of the traveler’s discomfort the operator tries to recruit the traveler to his side against the new commandant, since he assumes the traveler is there as a “spy” for the commandant. The traveler refuses to take a side, but makes no point hiding the fact that the machine and the whole procedure disgusts him. The operator is shocked to hear this and makes a last effort to convince the traveler of the righteousness of the machine. The traveler won’t budge, at which point the operator realizes there’s no point trying to make people understand the beauty of the former commandant’s vision. He orders the convict freed from the machine, then strips himself down and takes the criminal’s place in the machine. Everyone is too shocked or distracted to stop him, but once the machine starts all eyes look to the machine and watch as it carries out its function. But neglect has taken its toll and very quickly the machine starts to breakdown and no longer function in the sublime fashion the operator described. Instead it just makes a complete mess of its inscription as it tears the man apart. In the end it botches the job so much that the corpse gets stuck to the device and the traveler is required to pull the bloody body off the spikes.
Afterwards the traveler prepares to leave, but makes a quick stop to visit the former commandant’s grave which is located at the back of a tea house. An inscription there tells how the commandant will one day return to bring order and glory to the colony. This upsets the traveler even more and he flees the colony as quickly as he can while preventing both the soldier and the convict from escaping with him. The end.
What can I say? That Kafka, right? Upbeat guy.
Now, I do find Kafka to be a bit too morbid and reading him at times feels like being stuck next to an eleven year old going on about the worms crawling out of a dead kitten’s skull, but for all this story’s excruciating absurdity, it’s all excruciatingly absurd in a way that you recognize as an accurate depiction of reality.
And there’s depth here, a vast undercurrent of critical commentary on colonialism, religion, and technological “progress”. The operator treats the original commandant with a devotion that gives the machine and the commandant’s notes on its operation a religious aspect. This is underscored by the convict’s ignorance of why he must be punished. The traveler’s presence, as a perceived agent of civilization, is seen as a powerful tool to validate or destroy the colony’s practices. You can swim around in this story’s depths. And the reversal at the climax, where the operator switches places with the convict, gives us some sense of relief, despite this story still being torture porn.
I mean, at least it’s some top shelf torture porn.
Next week, stories by people I’ve never heard of!
There’s a lot going on in the world and every week it feels like there’s more of it.
Sometimes I feel like it may not the best time to ramble about fiction. But, we’re all leaning into self-care, and some more than others. Putting out these (near-) weekly blog post makes me feel some accomplishment. Is it selfish of me to foist that upon you? Maybe. Certainly I think so in the gloom of whatever negativity gets its clutches on me, but at those times I know better than to trust my thoughts or take them seriously. If I did I know I’d be more miserable.
This week we have two stories, both classics but one more so than the other.
First up, the lesser classic:
“The Bureau d’Exchange de Maux” by Edward Plunkett Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany AKA Lord Dunsany
This one felt like a Twilight Zone episode, and who knows, maybe it is.
Somewhere on a shady street in Paris there is a store and in that store sits the most evil man. This man operates a peculiar sort of stock exchange where one person can exchange their evil for another’s. Too many children got you down? Why not exchange that with someone who’s down because they have none? Fear losing all your money? Why not exchange that fear with someone who fears making more money?
People come to the exchange pay their dues, and the evil man matches clients together. The narrator has stumbled into the place and at first is an observer. But after awhile the concept of the place pulls him in. He wants to know how it works and decides to test the place by getting rid of some inconsequential evil, his fear of boats. He exchanges this with a man who’s afraid of elevators and the narrator goes away thinking he got the better of the deal. Of course when he gets back to the hotel, his new fear hits him hard and he realizes he’s doomed himself to a life of always taking the stairs. The next day he goes back to the Bureau to see if he can cancel the exchange, but when he reaches the street the store’s not there. It’s like it never existed at all. The end.
I won’t lie. I like Lord Dunsany, especially when he works in this contemporary weird mode, as opposed to his mythic Orientalist. You can give it a read here.
Next is our classic story, a philosophical tale that I’m sure you all know.
“Those Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
I will confess that at uncharitable moments I’ve viewed this story as “The Cold Equations” for the woke. If you’re not familiar with “The Cold Equations”, you can read the Wikipedia page here. It’s the type of story lauded for its adherence to a grim hard techno-objectivism and is as contrived as any other moral fairy tale. Omelas has some of that, except Le Guin’s more honest in what she’s doing. She tells us at the start that she isn’t writing a story, but writing a thought experiment dressed up as a story. And as the one in charge of the experiment she is tilting the field against us, the reader.
Omelas is a beautiful place and we come to it on the first day of its summer festival. In every way it is utopian and delightful with Le Guin pointing out that it has none of the usual utopian corniness. And so paragraph after paragraph we wander Omelas and admire all that it offers and we see the games and delights, and Le Guin lets us enjoy all that, until she decides that Omelas needs a taint for us to believe it is real. And the taint is where the moral puzzle rests.
In some building’s dark basement there is a child who lives abused and uncared for. All adults in Omelas know the child is there and all know if the child wasn’t there the utopia could not exist, and if it wasn’t this child it would likely have to be another, possibly even one of the beautiful ones we saw in the earlier paragraphs. Everyone knows the child is there. But some, those who walk away, see the child and can’t afterwards return to their idyllic existence in Omelas. In time they abandon utopia and leave to find a better place.
Unlike “The Cold Equations”, Le Guin doesn’t present her moral puzzle as a story. (Nor is she working with an editor that seems particularly set on having the sentimental teenage girl die.) Le Guin builds her moral puzzle in every paragraph, putting the pieces together just so. It’s a good read and a testament to Le Guin’s craft. When we get to the dark basement, she depicts the taint in Omelas in very clear terms. There is no way to negotiate with this evil. It simply is. And Le Guin gives us only two potential outs: do we live in Omelas, enjoying all it has to offer while knowing the only way it can exist is by gross cruelty or do we abandon it and walk away?
Most everyone likes to think they would walk away from Omelas, but would you still, if it meant you’d likely die from starvation on some mountain slope? Le Guin leaves unsaid any mention of the walkers’ fate. She doesn’t tell us there’s a better place, only that there’s a place more unimaginable than Omelas, and it’s one she can’t describe. My take is that those who walk away from Omelas die, but their rejection of Omelas is what makes that place change.
But here I am negotiating with a contrived moral puzzle. The most interesting moral puzzle is how to live when every place is Omelas, only of a differing shades. In that situation is it even possible to walk away?
Put your solution in the comments below.
Everyone’s favorite two-fisted pulp action superstar: Franz Kafka!
“The Fisherman and His Soul” by Oscar Wilde
This is one of Wilde’s not-for-children fairy tales that touch upon hiss interest in doppelgangers, morality, and redemption. All while never being dogmatic in the morality it presents, and allowing instead for an argument that’s a bit more nuanced. It’s the kind of story that invites you in to work over and decipher what it might mean.
Here’s how it goes.
It’s obviously about a fisherman. He falls in love with a mermaid, but can’t live with her under the sea because he has a soul. So he decides to get rid of his soul and sees the priest. The priest tells him his soul is precious and not to be traded away for the pleasures of the body. But the fisherman doesn’t care and tries to sell his soul, but all the merchants tell him it’s worthless. So he sees the sexy witch, and she wants him to worship Satan, but the fisherman’s too focused on his mermaid love and doesn’t fall for no witch’s Sabbath. He forces the soul-severing rite from the witch, does the deed, and goes under the sea to live with his mermaid. His soul however goes off and wanders finding itself in Arabian Night’s adventures. Before long through guile and ruthlessness, the soul’s amassed fabulous treasures. However the soul has no heart and each year it visits the fisherman trying to lure him away from the mermaid, but the fisherman’s too much in love, until the soul tells him about a nearby dancing girl, and since mermaids can’t dance, and the dancer’s nearby, the fisherman agrees to go with the soul. Of course along the way the soul makes the fisherman commit a number of crimes, and when the dancing girl doesn’t materialize, the fisherman returns to the ocean, but can’t be reunited with the mermaid because he has a soul now and is no longer innocent.
But, wait, there’s more!
The fisherman becomes a hermit and time passes. The mermaid dies and her body washes up on the beach. The fisherman finds the body and dies alongside it, and then the priest shows up.
He didn’t condone this whole mermaid business, so he refuses to bury the dead lovers in church grounds. Instead they get dumped in an unmarked grave in the Fuller’s Field. More time passes. The priest’s going to give a big sermon on hellfire and brimstone, but the altar is decorated with such beautiful flowers that he decides to preach on god’s mercy and love for all creatures. After mass he asks where the flowers came from and learns they came from the lovers’ unmarked grave. This prompts a change of heart in the priest and he goes out to bless the waters of the bay. But by then all the merfolk had moved away, and the flowers never again grew on the lovers’ grave.
Seriously, this is good stuff. It’s that style of story that is less straightforwardly allegorical and more fraught with meaning and implications. You want to dig in and puzzle over it. Things happen in threes and there’s magic and mermaids, but a sadness too that comes from society, social conventions, and the knowledge we have of right and wrong.
I suspect there’s at least one Penguin Classics style collection of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales out there, and I suspect I’ll have to buy it at some point, because after reading “The Fisherman and His Soul” I want to read more.
Next week, Lord Dunsany and Le Guin!