Here we are in the first installment of this year’s book club. A quick note: there will be spoilers throughout the whole series. On the other hand, maybe that’s why you’re here. You want me to read the book, so you don’t have to. That’s fair.
The first book we’ll be looking at this year is The Women of Weird Tales: Stories by Everil Worrell, Eli Colter, Mary Elizabeth Counselman and Greye La Spina with an introduction by Melanie Anderson. It is the second book in Valancourt Books’s Monster She Wrote series, and the stories in it range from the 1920s to 1940s.
It must have been wild to see Weird Tales sitting on a newsstand back in the day. The stories collected in this book regularly play chicken with necrophilia, murder, and torture, but there the magazine was sitting right next to the evening news. Or so I imagine. Maybe they had a top shelf for all the smut adjacent magazines from the 1930s, you know the ones with weightlifters and beauty pageant models on the covers. The stories here are feverish and lurid in the best ways. Vampire children, soul extraction devices, misplaced desire (AKA the “they are dead but they’re still hella sexy” genre), and the occasional classic elder god from beyond space and time come to feed on humanity. Fun stuff!
Anderson’s introduction gives a good overview of Weird Tales as both a magazine and an institution. She also counters the persistent myth that women didn’t write for the pulps, or if they did, they needed to use male pseudonyms or mimic the style of male writers. Instead, she traces the different style and authors each of the magazine’s editors published, highlighting how popular the writers collected in this book were with the magazine’s original readers.
Everil Worrell worked as a stenographer and secretary for the US Department of the Treasury. Her work was still being adapted by Rod Serling in the 1970s. Mary Elizabeth Counselman was a writer, poet, and teacher who taught college in Alabama. Eli Colter was the pseudonym for May Eliza Frost who had a career writing across multiple genres. And lastly, Greye La Spina was from Massachusetts and worked as a photographer and stenographer in New York City before settling in small town Pennsylvania. It’s Greye La Spina’s “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” from January 1925 that we’ll be looking at this week.
“The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” by Greye La Spina (January 1925)
Filippo and Giuseppe are a pair of scientists. Elena’s Filippo’s wife and lab assistant. Giuseppe’s stopped by Filippo’s lab to check out his latest experiment. It’s a series of glass globes and bells designed to capture the souls of the deceased. (In my head, I imagine this as a sort of soul-juicing machine.) Giuseppe’s also there because he has the hots for Elena. Filippo recounts how he and Elena have been trying to capture a human soul, but it’s so hard to find people who will agree to die for science and the authorities aren’t being helpful.
Now Elena is devoted to Filippo. In fact, she is obsessed with him. She might be his lab assistant, but she assists in gowns and is always trying to allure him with “loveliness of her splendid body”. Despite that, she might also be dying. There are mentions of her fever-flushed face and the fact that she appears to be wasting away. Giuseppe’s concerned about this. But Filippo, of course, notices nothing. He is all about the mind and not the pleasures of the body.
Elena realizes that whatever soul ends up in the machine, it’ll be worshipped by Filippo, so she offers herself. Giuseppe’s shocked, but Filippo is excited. Giuseppe does his best to put a stop to things but neither Elena nor Filippo listens to him. Instead, Filippo calls the authorities and local scientific community to come by and see the experiment. He brings Elena over to table under the machine and prepares for the juicing. But first Elena wants to smooch for a bit, which they do in front of Giuseppe who is still saying things like “This is infamous.” And it is. But no one cares.
While the scientific community and authorities arrive outside, Filippo stabs Elena with a knife and zoop her soul gets sucked into the machine. Filippo triumphantly lets the authorities in, eager to show them his wife’s soul in its glass tomb. But poor Filippo got so distracted by the smooching that he forgot to close some valve and instead of capturing his wife’s soul, he’s instead let it leak away into the ether. All the authorities see is an infernal machine, a dead woman, a knife wielding husband, and a shocked scientist. Arrests get made. Filippo’s last monolog is basically a condemnation of his wife for distracting him. His remorse is not that he killed her, but that he could not resist her kiss. The end.
I don’t think anyone would call this a good story. That said it’s certainly delicious in a lurid way—full of mad science, all-consuming desires, and shocking crimes. This will be a common theme I’ll keep coming back to throughout this series: the pleasure of lurid fiction. Many of the stories in this book lean into the bad thoughts, obsessiveness, and cruel bits the id likes to throw up for laughs. And that’s their charm. They aren’t simply giving vent to fear but depicting fear and horror as seductive. It’s maybe that quality that makes them “weird”. The fact that we don’t know where to stand as we read them.
Next week, DEATH.
And lo, the deed has been done. The beast vanquished. The dragon slain. The old anthology read. I skipped last week, because …*cough*mutter*mumble*… but finished the book this week as planned. So here we are, the last three stories.
“An Invitation to the Hunt” by George Hitchcock
The problem with this story is that it’s not Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” It’s an okay story, but it reminds you enough of the Jackson story that you realize her absence from the collection is one of the worst marks against the entire book.
This story goes like this: striving suburbanite thinks he has made it into the big leagues when he gets an invitation to the annual hunt held by all the town’s swank upper crust types. At first, he’s reluctant to go because he wants nothing to do with those people, but his friends, spouse, and neighbors all prevail upon him to accept. So, he finally does and for a bit everyone’s happy. Even his boss, who’s going to be at the hunt, stops by his desk to chat with him. All’s great, right up until the early hours before the hunt when two game keepers break into his house, drag him from his bed, and force him to run, as far off in the distance the hounds catch his scent and begin to howl.
Don’t get me wrong. “Invitation to the Hunt” is a strong, visceral read, but it’s too structurally unsound. If you think about it for two seconds it falls apart completely. The size of the conspiracy required to keep the hunt’s nature secret is too large. Better to mire it in the weird familiarity of ritual, like in Jackson’s “The Lottery”, or shrink the conspiracy to the size of a family like in the film Ready or Not.
Verdict: Okay, but not Shirley Jackson.
“From the ‘American Notebooks’” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
This is a collection of writing prompts taken from Hawthorne’s journals. They make for interesting reading and have been used by other writers to provide the kernel for their own works. Poe certainly swiped from here. “The Notebooks” themselves I hope to check out at some point.
“The Dream” by O. Henry
I did not know O. Henry was serving a jail sentence when he started seriously getting published. In my mind I had him filed in the cornball corner, but I will be the first to admit to being wrong on that score. A glance at his Wikipedia page paints a portrait of someone more at home in an episode of The Knick. Also, dead from alcoholism at forty-six… like holy hells. How much do you have to drink to die from it at age forty-six?
Anyway, “The Dream” is O. Henry’s last story. It was found unfinished on his desk when he died and his editor wrote a meta-style ending and published it. The story is about a guy on Death Row awaiting his execution and the relationships he has with those around him. It’s a bit Runyonesque in its dialect and characterization, which is not a problem for me. Then it ends, right in the middle as the guy’s entering the chamber, with the editor pulling back to summarize the ending in broad strokes that O. Henry had not yet finished writing. This invitation to finish the story, along with the brief list of Hawthorne ideas that preceded it, are kind of the perfect finale to the collection. It’s like the stories have been a courtship and now at the book’s end you’re invited to take a turn and tell a tale.
That’s it. The strangeness and mystery are yours now.
This has been a year. Next month is a different one. I will continue to blog like a dinosaur. I suffer under the misguided notion that this gives structure to my life. This was a fun ride and I really enjoyed the collection. I’ll list my favorite ten stories in a patreon exclusive post. Next year’s book club will start in January 2021 with the recent Women of Weird Tales collection from Valancourt.
Thank you for reading.
This week’s story is an example of a skilled writer writing an unlikable character well. That the character is as unlikable as he is may or may not have been Forster’s intention. After all, my patience for Upper Class British men hectoring adolescent boys to make men out of them so they might continue to shoulder Empire and all that is not really what it once was.
“The Story of a Panic” by EM Forster
Our narrator is a very proper British gentleman on vacation with his family in Italy. They’re staying at a pension alongside some other English tourists: an artist, a doctor, a pair of widowed sisters, and the sisters’ fourteen-year-old nephew Eustace. Our very proper British gentleman takes a quick disliking to the artist and to Eustace. Much of the story’s beginning is mostly our narrator complaining about the sullen teen who isn’t manly enough to shoulder Empire. Honestly, it’s a bit funny.
Then one day while all the tourists are out hiking, Eustace dragged along with the rest, there’s a bit of talk about nature and the worship of Pan. This conversation gets cut short when a sudden storm sweeps down the mountainside and sends everyone running for shelter. Everyone except Eustace. He’s left behind, and it’s only after the storm that the characters realize this, so there’s another expedition up the mountain to search for the odious child.
When Eustace is found, it’s in a swoon with goat tracks all around him. This is curious and the doctor remarks on there being no goats on the mountain, but the narrator finds such talk too disturbing and expects a rational explanation for what happened. Eustace recovers, but has been altered. Where before he showed little interest in nature, he now is overwhelmed and captivated with it, so much so that he refuses to go back to the pension.
Of course, this won’t do, not for proper young English lads, and the boy is dragged inside where the Italian waiter, another teen the narrator dislikes, calms Eustace somewhat since the two boys are friends. This waiter says that it will mean the boy’s death to stay in the house, and once the wind calls to one, they can never be cooped up without risking their life. But the Italian waiter is improper and the narrator gives him a stern talking to, dismissing all talk of anything out of the ordinary happening. It’s all nonsense to our Proper English Fellow.
Eustace then breaks out of his room and runs for the countryside, communing with all the wilderness and nature he can see. As he runs about the Proper English Fellows bribe the Italian waiter to assist them in capturing Eustace. They manage to do so, but not for long. Eustace escapes again, the narrator wants the bribe he paid the Italian back, but the Italian refuses to return it and attempts to run away, but instead he falls and dies. At which point the landlady arrives and screams while Eustace runs through the trees and that’s it: THE END.
Overall, it’s an entertaining enough story and I appreciate how petty the narrator is. Also, as someone who has taught middle school boys, I can say that there is something almost instinctual in the disgust that they can quite unwittingly provoke. It’s like everyone is angry at you for not sitting still, when it’s nearly impossible for you to sit still. Maybe this is a guy thing, and women don’t have the same response upon encountering teen girls. I certainly have memories from my teens of every older male in my family being angry at me for no reason. But no one ever suggested this disgust was anything but an individual teen’s moral failing, and not simply default wiring that can be dealt with.
Next week, I suspect we’ll be talking about hunting humans for sport.
See you then!
And we’re back… This week’s story is a funny, if nasty, one. At least, it’s a nasty one if you’re a religious sort.
“The State of Grace” by Marcel Ayme
M. Duperrier is a devout Christian, so much so that God has anointed him in this life with a halo. M. is incredibly happy about this, but his wife Mme. Duperrier a lot less so. She is the sort of person that finds it much more important to be esteemed by her concierge than her creator. Needless to say, she’s mortified, because the halo sets her husband outside the norm. Enter strife and conflict. Enter woe. At first, M. Duperrier tries to hide the halo under a hat, but soon events occur that cause the halo to become visible. (M. needs to remove his hat in church after all and there’s another time when a funeral passes.) It’s not long before the neighbors start gossiping and all Mme’s fears seem warranted. She can’t let this go on and confronts her husband. Soon the two strike upon the idea that the only way to get rid of the halo is for M. to start sinning. So that’s what he does, starting with Gluttony, then working his way down the rest. All for nothing because the halo seems to be unshakeable. Finally, the last sin is the one of Lust, and the Duperriers train for this by reading pornography, which only serves to revolt them. But M. stays the course. First, he visits prostitutes, then he becomes a pimp to a devout but poor young provincial woman. And so, our story ends, in a shadowy alley way with M. Duperrier trying to keep his halo hidden as he watches the poor girl work her trade, thanking God for his good fortune even in this trade.
And there you go. It’s a short one like I said and irreverent.
Marcel Ayme’s own Wikipedia page seems awfully sparse on details about his life during the 1940s. It doesn’t look like World War 2 or the occupation of France impacted his career in any way. He had stories published and scripts produced, all of which does make me pause a little. That said, the story’s an enjoyable one. And there’s much truth to the idea that for some (a lot of?) people the worst thing one can be is exceptional in any way.
Next week, E.M. Forster and “The Story of a Panic”.
Only four more stories to go!
If you want writers to be forgotten the easiest way to do it is to teach them to high school students. Case in point, Stephen Vincent Benet, Pulitzer winning poet, short story and play writer. He’s the guy who wrote “The Devil & Daniel Webster”. No, I haven’t read it either. But I recognize the name. Which I know is the equivalent of Toni Colette saying to Daniel Craig in Knives Out, “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you.”
But so, that’s this guy.
The writer of a story I should’ve read but didn’t, which is vaguely familiar in that it’s American Literature from a certain era, the same era as Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but which for some reason I assumed was Corny Hawthorne. After reading “The Curfew Tolls” I realize Benet’s much closer to Bradbury. If Benet’s been forgotten it’s probably more due to the fact that he died youngish in the decade before the advent of television.
“The Curfew Tolls” by Stephen Vincent Benet
It’s 1788 and the General Charles William Geoffrey Estcourt is in the south of France taking the waters. He’s writing to his sister complaining about how dull the town and his fellow patients are. The only person he finds of note is a retired artillery officer from the French army, a small, intense man with a reputation for banditry.
The two bond over old poets and the General writes his sister all the details of his conversations with this strangely intense little man. As they talk they engage in wargames and the artilleryman tells how he’d fight this or that battle. The General finds his friend’s strategies equally shocking and amusing, and despite himself becomes quite close to the little man.
For his part the man invites the general around to his house and shows him off to his large family. The two also discuss fate and time and how cruel genius can be when born into eras that have no use for it nor provide the right setting for it to flourish. Before long (or from the start, if you know a bit of history) you figure out the little man is Napoleon, except he was born a generation too early and so he has had no chance to attain the power he did because the French king and aristocracy are still on hand. And while that’s meant to be a big reveal, it’s to Benet’s credit that the story’s an enjoyable read even if you’ve already figured it out. The twist is also why I think of Benet as suffering the same fate. It’s curious to imagine what his impact would’ve been if he had been born a decade or two later and come of age alongside the advent of television.
I will admit I enjoy alt-history stories like this, and one of my favorites plays with this same idea of minds and time needing to be in sync for genius to be recognized. That story is “Steam Engine Time” by Lewis Shiner and you can read it here if you want.
Next week, a story by an actual French man.
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.