This is it.
The penultimate story. And it’s a story that asks an important question: What if Weird Tale writers didn’t have so many sex hang-ups?
“Great Pan is Here” by Greye La Spina (November 1943)
Our narrator’s driving along after having five cocktails with his cousin Cecily and their chaperone, Aunt Kate. They are on their way to the symphony. Now Craig, our narrator, has the hots for cousin Cecily and fears that her upbringing under the old-fashioned Aunt Kate is making her too reserved. He wishes something would wake the girl up to the world of love and emotions. Especially his emotions for her. Then side the road he glimpses a pan pipe. It’s just lying.
Was it real? Was it not?
He hesitates to bring it up. Aunt Kate hates missing the opening movements of a symphony. But he does, and no one believes him.
Later back at home our narrator drinks some more and appraises the effects of moonlight on his garden. He’s got a new nymph statue he brought back from Italy, and it’s pretty sweet. Musing such, he’s surprised when he glimpses someone in his garden. He goes to investigate and finds no one but hears the faint piping of a pan flute.
Was someone taunting him?
But no matter how desperately he searches he can’t find anyone, so eventually he goes back to the house.
The next morning Cecily’s dressed for yachting and our narrator’s thinking thoughts of love and goddesses and basically being a lusty horndog except in an Edith Wharton sort of way. He’s about annoyed when she suggests inviting along a friend, Tom Leatherman, they bump into. They all pile into the boat and our narrator fumes as he gets the yacht going. Meanwhile Tom’s talking about the pan pipes he found on the road the day before. Cecily hears that and apologizes to our narrator for not believing him the day before. Craig accuses Tom of sneaking into the garden and playing the pipes. But Tom denies it was him. Then Cecily startles everyone by saying she heard the piping too, and if it wasn’t Tom who was it then?
If only they had read the title of the story they are in.
There’s more sailing. More brooding over pan pipes. More talk of strange notes being played in the air. They go back to shore and ditch Tom Leatherman. Then Craig and Cecily go in the garden for a picnic. They’re starting to warm to each other. The mystery of the pan pipes has made a bond between them. But as they walk they find they’re not alone in the garden. A strange man is there.
Strange and foreign looking.
It’s the Great God Pan.
He then gives them the pitch. He’s an old god making his way in the new world and he’s looking for gardens that bear something of the old ways about them. Craig’s garden with the imported nymph statue is one such place. And Pan wants it. In exchange he offers to give Craig what he desires (Cecily).
This is where something interesting happens. First there’s talk of haggling and buying affection with gold, but Craig says that’s not how it’s done these days. Now it’s love that seals the deal and love that is exchanged freely between individuals. Cecily needs to give her consent in order for there to be a deal. And she does much to Craig’s delight.
Pan’s pleased and says he’ll be back later that night.
Now Craig and Cecily start to wonder what exactly they’ve done. They’ve invited an old god into the garden. That’s not something you can just admit to the yacht club. However they do decide to get married and when back inside they tell Aunt Kate and she’s happy, but still doesn’t want them to be alone together.
Night arrives. Time for bed. Once the house is asleep Cecily and Craig sneak out into the garden. The music starts. The Great God Pan is there.
Ecstasy, dance, sex, etc.
And it was all okay.
I’m not quite certain at the level of consanguineous between Craig and Cecily. I’m thinking they’re like third cousins, which strikes me as weird but not awful. There’s a bit more the next morning where Aunt Kate mentions the nymph statue seems to have lost her scarf, but that’s pretty much the end. But overall, nothing awful happens.
At least nothing awful relative to your views of conjugal relations between distantly consanguine relatives and Paganism taking root in the USA. If you’re cool with all that this story is simply The White Goddess meets Edith Wharton. Premarital sexy times are had and no one is hurt who isn’t already more than a little bit dead inside, and they’re only hurt by having a bad night’s sleep.
La Spina likes her purple prose and manages to dress all her words in such a way that they wear diaphanous gowns. Sure, it reads a bit stilted and melodramatic, but it’s not without its charms. And the sex positivism and enthusiastic consent ideas are refreshing. Like why would I be outraged that two young adults who are obviously into each other sleep together? Is it because they do it under the influence of strange rites conducted by a swarthy foreign man? That’s silly.
Of course, it’s possible that I missed some sinister element in the story. But I don’t think so.
Next week, our last story from The Women of Weird Tales. It’s another from Greye La Spina, and it’s called “The Antimacassar”.
Until then stay well.
We have entered the Virgil Finlay era. Look at this cover. Isn’t it great?
Imagine seeing that on a newsstand. I am going to go out on a limb and assume the issue had a reprint of Everil Worrell’s “Vulture Crag” in it. So, technically, this is our second story that received a cover illustration. It’s just not the story we’re here to talk about right now.
“Web of Silence” by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (November 1939)
The scene is Everytown, USA. Sinister things are afoot. Threatening letters have appeared. They are triangular. The script oddly “foreign”. The letter writer, a Dr. Ubique, foretells disaster on a given day at a certain hour. They demand money. At first the town leaders laugh this off as a harmless crank. But then the day and hour arrive and the disaster strikes: Silence. Silence so deep so impenetrable that the whole town comes to a standstill. And that’s the story. What we read is the day by day as people try to go about their lives in the zone of silence. There are tragedies and misunderstandings, comic scenes, and lots of confusion. In a neat touch outsiders start visiting the town as tourists and the highways get gnarled up as people travel into and out of the “sound limit”.
This is one of those odd disaster stories where something bad happens, but it’s not too bad and no one is to blame really. Even when Dr. Ubique reveals himself (a foreign scientist), he admits his letters were all a prank. He’d learned about some rare metals beneath the town and predicted how they would interact with certain approaching environmental conditions (cosmic rays from a nova). He wasn’t the cause, but only the observer. So you can’t blame him. Here’s your money back. Thank you very much and sorry for the trouble.
Overall this story’s fairly ho-hum and never goes full throttle. I mean “The Week It Got Really Quiet” isn’t much of a catastrophe, is it? But what it does depict is some of that 1930s sensawunda. The world is full of scientific marvels and natural laws we barely understand, and they are occurring directly beneath our feet and above our heads. Our Dr. Ubique is both mad scientist and harmless eccentric. In the end nothing will be irreversibly broken and everything will be okay.
Honestly, I felt a bit cheated.
If you’re a Philip K. Dick fan your eyes will likely have lit up at the name of Ubique. Not that there are many connections between this story and Dick’s novel Ubik, but it shows he had no problems reiterating on decades older work. What I am saying is no one should feel ashamed for riffing on old stories. Philip K. Dick did it all the time.
A story I have absolutely zero memory of reading. I must have, because I finished the book, but what this particular story was about I have no clue. I guess we’ll find out next week, won’t we?
We have entered 1930s era Weird Tales. Gone are the fever dreams of Everil Worrell. The next set of stories have a much different and more recognizable tone. In a less charitable mood I might even describe them as “meh”.
However, the covers, as you can see, remain saucy.
“The Black Stone Statue” by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (December 1937)
My name is Very Successful Artist. I am writing this first hand account of how I became so successful. It all started in my rooming house where I encountered my long missing friend, Famous Explorer.
Now, as you can imagine, I was surprised to find Famous Explorer in such a low boarding house with such a meddlesome landlady. She spoke in this dialect of English that uses many apostrophes when I transcribe it. Overall, she was awful and wouldn’t even allow her boarders to keep a radio. I bring this up because there was a high-pitched sound coming from Famous Explorer’s room. Now I managed to corner my friend and through some arm-twisting I got him to relate his story. I will now pause my first-hand account to let Famous Explorer give his first-hand account of what happened.
Hello, my name is Famous Explorer.
I was deep in the jungles of South America. It was exactly like all those pictures of jungles people show in those movie serials. One day, my assistant, Ethnic Stereotype, went missing and I had to go find him. When I did find him it was in this strange part of the jungle where everything had been transformed into vividly detailed black stone. Needless to say he had been transformed as well. Poor, Ethnic Stereotype. Now it turns out in this jungle was this very beautiful snail-slug-orchid-thing and it turned everything it touched into this black stone. It also makes a high-pitched sound. Believe you me, it took all manner of derring-do to not get turned to stone myself, but I managed to capture the thing. Now I’ve brought it back to civilization where I plan on exploiting the thing for industrial purposes.
Very Successful Artist has pushed me on top of the snail-slug-orchid-thing. I am now dead.
Yes, that is correct sirs, I, Very Successful Artist, turned Famous Explorer into a statue and stole the snail-slug-orchid thing. I did the same to the landlady and a bunch of other people. All my statues have been created using the snail-slug-orchid thing. My whole career is a sham. I am going to throw the snail-slug-orchid thing into the ocean and kill myself now.
Thank you and goodbye.
Very Successful Artist
And there you have it: “The Black Stone Statue”.
It was okay, very much the ur-cliché of a cliché. I feel like this strange creature that transforms/mimics things was a staple in a Philip K. Dick’s work. I don’t know if he took the idea from this Counselman story, but it’s not hard to imagine that he did. Which is fine. He ran with it and made it his own.
A web of silence.
Now comes the good trash.
Last week’s Everil Worrell story was a bit of a bust, but this week’s story (and next week’s) has her back playing to her lurid, morbid best. They are exactly the sort of stories I imagine when I think of weird pulp fiction: pure id mixed with feverish psychological drama all blended to a frothy mess that is both inviting and intoxicating. Does it need to make sense? No. All it needs to do is get under your skin and make you squirm. This week’s story is one of those with strong torn-from-a-tabloid’s-headlines qualities.
And so, with copious exclamation points…
“The Rays of the Moon” by Everil Worrell (Weird Tales, September 1928)
Our nameless narrator is a medical student and he’s in a graveyard – because he needs a cadaver!
He is a madman and a genius, you see, not at all like those other medical students giving their lives to help humanity. No way. Our narrator and his buddy, Browne, are geniuses, and they know humanity ought to give up their lives to serve them! So our boys get into the murder business to fuel their research, but it doesn’t go well and the buddy accidentally kills himself when his hand slips during an incision on one of his victims and he accidentally poisons himself. But our narrator hardly cares. At the time of the story’s start he has only one love in the world, morphine drugs! He used to have another love: a nervous high-strung girl he was courting, but when she “pledged” her affections to him, he promptly dumped her. The girl had a brother, and he begged our narrator to make a better end of the relationship, but no doing. Our narrator has no time for simple sentiment. He tells the brother that any girl who would kill herself over a break-up would be better off dead than alive.
And so, our narrator sits in a graveyard spying on a new-made grave, and since he’s a junkie, he’s shooting up. The morphine helps the time pass. Finally, all is darkness, save for the light of the moon, and our narrator sets to digging. But moonlight makes him see strange things. The eerie half-light makes a chill crawl up his spine. No matter how much he tries to laugh it off, his nerves won’t quit and he’s worried he might get hysterical, when THUNK! his shovel hits the casket. The hard work of dragging the casket out calms his mind.
But full moons, open graves, and heroin don’t mix and once the casket’s out of the ground there’s only the pit behind it, and that pit under this light with those drugs in his vein, all of it puts our narrator’s mind to boiling. He pulls himself together and opens the casket. Inside is the body of a young woman, and our narrator can’t bear the sight of her. He quickly covers her head with a sack.
But in the moonlight the whole scene shifts. The hooded corpse, the open pit of the grave, the eerie light?
The great cosmic vastness blossoms greater than all the morphine in the world. And his soul leaves the body to take a trip to the moon where judgement awaits! There the narrator stands beside the hooded corpse before a tribunal of all Earth’s dead! He trembles in fear because he knows he has defiled their place. What to do but pass out, at which point the trial for his soul begins! The hooded corpse calls forth a character witness. It’s Browne his old partner who died from the infected cut. The narrator hears how Browne might have lived if not for the narrator’s evil influence on him. But there is a yet a chance for our narrator’s soul. Once more, the hooded corpse and the narrator descend into the grave.
The narrator wakes now, no longer on the moon, but in the cemetery with the vile hooded corpse of the young woman beside him. Only now, the corpse is no longer a corpse. The body breathes! Our narrator’s first impulse is to flee, but the girl has taken hold of him and grips him fast. She even speaks his name. Morton! Who is it there in the grave with him with a hood hiding her head, but the girl he jilted and left for dead! And then she starts to scream. What to do, our narrator thinks, but kill her again. So, he strangles her and gets away. Only now he knows, his soul lost its trial. He is now forever damned!
This story has everything: mad scientists, heroin, grave robbing, hints of necrophilia. It’s a lurid stew of rehashed Poe served up with a side of trash, but it’s old trash and that’s always interesting to look at. Does this story have any redeeming qualities? Nope. None at all. And that’s okay.
Next week, another lurid mess from Everil Worrell (and my favorite from the collection): the Gray Killer!
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.
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.
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.
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!