short story

The End of the End of Everything by Dale Bailey

end of the end of everything

 The last time Ben and Lois Devine saw Veronica Glass, the noted mutilation artist, was at a suicide party in Cerulean Cliffs, an artist’s colony far beyond their means.

If you’re unfamiliar with artist/writer gatherings, the good ones usually include loads of booze, that one über-pretentious person, personal crises and looming entropy. This is all captured in Dale Bailey’s novelette/short story, “The End of the End of Everything.”

Ben and Lois Devine are invited by their close friend to an artists’ colony during the summertime. Ben is a poet, who readily admits that he is mediocre, but squeaks by doing the MFA circuit. He’s had a few publications, but doesn’t expect people to know him or his work.

They are unaware that the daily evening parties are actually suicide parties where guests mingle at a Gatsbyesque grotesque soiree not short on small talk, overly long readings of writers’ works, and finally, with the suicide of one of the guests. Their deaths are quite brutal, but somehow Dale Bailey has made them a work of art that exceeds their own assumed pedestrian output. The idea of art for art’s sake is repeated throughout, a rhetorical device that becomes even more realized when Ben meets the “mutilation artist,” Veronica Glass (her name, alone, invokes an image of an unreal and severe individual).

Anytime she bumps into him, Veronica continues to ask Ben how he will end his life. The poet is reluctant to the whole idea, even with the impending “ruin” that seems to be swallowing up the world around them. The term is used to elicit images of a battered world, but also to isolate the artists’ colony even more. Every day, ruin seems to roll closer, dispatching anyone who goes into it. The world feels suffocated. It’s almost as if the colony, which is aptly named Cerulean Cliffs, hangs on the edge of where earth meets the sky with any wrong misstep sending you over and into the abyss.

Somehow Bailey is able to write a story that feels more like a painting. The entire time, I felt like I was staring closely at a canvas, observing the individual brushstrokes and captivated at how they appear like textured expressions making up a whole. Even when Ben sees in person the type of art Veronica Glass creates, I couldn’t look away even though imagining it reminded me of all the layers of my own skin and the complicated system that lies beneath.

This is one of those stories that I hope to come back to again, so I can take in the rich and destructive world Dale Bailey has created. Part of me would like to see this as a novel, but I wonder if in doing so would negate the overwhelming feeling of anxiety and the richness of this grotesque situation.

***

“The End of the End of Everything” is available for free on Tor.com and can also be acquired as an e-book for .99 cents. As always, I am delighted by the publisher’s chosen artwork. Perhaps, it is odd of me to say that I want a blown up version of it, because of the subject matter, but New York-based Hong Kong artist Victo Ngai’s cover art is phenomenal.

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Short Film Adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery

Last week’s post about the new Shirley Jackson story that was just posthumously published had me thinking about this short film adaptation of her story, “The Lottery.” I couldn’t recall if I had actually ever seen it and with some minimal internet sleuthing I’ve found it. The short film also features an incredibly young Ed Begley Jr. in his first film role (he plays Jack Watson). Enjoy!

Additional Reading … Interesting article from Shirley Jackon’s biographer detailing the hundreds of hate letters she received after this story was published. Also, the biographer touches on the perplexed feelings some readers had. The New Yorker also has a digitized version of the story from the 1948 issue it first appeared in.

[PART 1]

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[PART 2]

The Skull by Philip K. Dick

TheSkullPKD

The 1952 short story, “The Skull” by Philip K. Dick, opens with some of the best lines in fiction,

Conger agreed to kill a stranger he had never seen. But he would make no mistakes because he had the stranger’s skull under his arm.

If that doesn’t draw you in, what will? “The Skull” is set a couple of centuries in the future (where we also live on Mars, of course) and a violent criminal named Conger is recruited to go back in time to dispose of the nameless man officials have concluded is the Founder of all of their problems. In this future world, the ominously lone religious institution called The Church holds the skeleton of the Founder and is ready to give over the skull to Conger so he can make a positive identification of the man who they have very little information about. All they have to go on was that he spoke a few sentences in a small town in Colorado in December 1960, which ignited The Movement, a thorn in the side of the authority. The Movement preaches that the greater technology applied to war will be the downfall of man and that with each new war breeds another more cataclysmic war. The authority needs the elusive Founder taken out before he is even able to speak those mysterious words in 1960 Colorado.

To enjoy anything to do with time travel, I think one must forget about dwelling on the fundamentals and paradoxes. Dick even makes a comment in the story that “[t]here’s some philosophical doubt as to whether one can alter the past.”  So don’t even bother with it and enjoy the story.

Of course, it couldn’t be as simple as the authority is making it out to be for Conger. The moment he arrives in the small town outside of Denver, the people know he’s an outsider (he is sporting a beard in a place where all men are clean-shaven) and because Dick is known for his paranoia, the Red scare is on many of the minds in the town (he was writing this in the 1950s). Conger tries to blend in while also trying to find this man whose name and appearance he knows nothing of.

Like he is known to do, Dick is commenting on a few things with this story: the Communist scare, religion, and war, just to name a few. The story is entirely compelling from beginning to end and when Conger is given a strange stare by a resident of the Colorado town, the reader is never sure what is going on in his or her mind. Will he be ratted out as a Red (he does have one of those big beards like that fella Marx–noted by one man) or is something even stranger afoot with locating the unnamed Founder?

“The Skull” is available for Free in the public domain: Feedbooks | Project Gutenberg

**I stumbled across this article from 2011 on i09.com featuring “10 Great Philip K. Dick Stories That Hollywood Hasn’t Filmed Yet” — which confirmed my long-held perplexity over the lack of film adaptation of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

Image [1]
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The Man in the Woods by Shirley Jackson

Although, passing away in 1965, the exquisite author Shirley Jackson still persists as one of our great 20th Century American writers. Even after her death, she leaves us with many unpublished works. Her adult children have been wading through all of her papers and unpublished stories have been found. Last year, the New Yorker magazine ran a previously unknown story called, “Paranoia.” With this week’s issue, a story taking root in mythology and fairy tale was published. This new Shirley Jackson story is called, “The Man in the Woods.” It is also available to read in its entirety online.

themaninwoods

Admittedly, the story reads like an early draft. It is indeed short and the ending is lacking the hard resonance that Jackson’s other works released during her lifetime have. The final sentences give a glimpse, however, to the tone and path she wanted to take. With that all said, “The Man in the Woods” doesn’t disappoint.

It is a short story that unleashes a lingering terror from the first page. Shirley Jackson was always wonderful at making the reader feel on edge without being blunt. Christopher is compelled to start walking into the woods out of the mere fact that he has nothing better to do. He is joined by a nameless cat who Christopher playfully asks, “Where we going, fellow? Any ideas?” As he continues on into the woods, Christopher finds himself at a crossroads, not sure which path to take. Jackson sets up a story that feels very familiar in the realm of fairy tales (well, the kind of fairy tales that really are horror stories with grim outcomes and any notion of “fairy” is wholly misleading). Christopher comes upon a small stone cottage where a trio of mysterious people live. The occupants are strange with their speech and they are not completely able to pick up on the humor in casual conversation.

Regardless of the draft quality of the story, I am still delighted by Jackson’s ability to construct a foreboding environment. She clearly is taking a cue from fairy tales and folk myths (one character’s name is possibly Circe; what this tells the reader about her, though, can be debated). It is this enigmatic quality of the narrative that is the big draw.

When you’re done taking a peek, the New Yorker also included an interview with Shirley Jackson’s son about discovering her unpublished stories and other topics.

An Amateur’s Field Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Has anyone else noticed the newish zombie trend slowly permeating through our books, movies, and television? Perhaps, this is just a backlash from the fatigue we all have from sexy teenage vampires. My interest in zombies has never been particularly high, but I can’t help but notice some of the more recent offerings. These aren’t your run of the mill Romero zombie tales.

I am no expert (hence the amateur status given to this post), but I thought I would share my run-ins that have bucked my previously held opinion of zombie fare.* The creators have tried to upend the standard lore of zombies and produce something new. For me, it all began with The Returned, a recent French television series.

zombies - 1They aren’t mumbling, half-wits motivated solely for brains. No, the revenants of this small French town return as if nothing has happened even though some have been deceased for decades. They want to return to their normal lives, but with every new episode, stranger behavior and occurrences unfold. There are clearly secrets buried within the living, too. The Returned is a television adaptation of a 2004 French film called They Came Back (French: Les Revenants), which seethes with the uncanny and eerie. This slow burning film makes you feel completely off-kilter. The returned are not quite what the living expected and the business of what to do with this sudden inflation of undeceased residents is a perplexing burden. Let’s not mention all of the not sleeping and midnight meetups by the undead who seem to be planning something. Both of these zombie servings offer a different picture, which include complex emotions and simmering questions.

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It’s often noted that the 2002 British thriller, 28 Days Later, was the zombie film that reignited interest in the living dead. It took me ages to finally see it (due to my aforementioned disinterest in zombies), but when I did, I was impressed. It definitely was akin to those 1968 zombies, but it did do something different–the zombies were not slow walking  groaners. They were fast and strong making the post-apocalypse landscape even more terrifying. But we’ve moved on a little from these serious creepfests…

The genre has seen its own comedic interpretations with the fantastic Shaun of the Dead (that bar scene with Queen playing always gets me) or the slapstick horror of the New Zealand zombie flick, Black Sheep, which centers around the genetically mutated sheep that have secretly been created on the outskirts of a family farm by scientists looking to birth savage carnivores instead of docile grazers. Has anyone else seen this? I feel like I’m the only one. Shall I tempt you with the trailer? Also, we cannot forget Zombieland, a film that sees gun-toting Woody Harrelson driven to find a Twinkie in a zombie-filled world.

But this new zombie is flashing its teeth in writing as well. Isaac Marion’s debut novel, Warm Bodies, is narrated by R who isn’t your mamma’s zombie. Marion is writing from a zombie point of view–something which often is not a feature. R spends his days very slowly walking around a former airport with his other zombie cohorts in post-apocalyptic Seattle. He is bored, can’t remember his name, and on a recent hunt for brains, he meets Julie, a member of the living. R has a deep inner monologue and can relive memories of those whose brains he’s devoured. As the book goes on, R starts to become more human-like. He can string more than a couple of syllables together and his body movements are less restricted. Warm Bodies has been labelled a zombie romance, which it is, but it was also enjoyable to read as a new take on the zombie genre. There is also a 2013 film adaptation that is fun to watch as R goes through his zombie existential crisis.

Of course, there is horror maestro Joe Hill’s short story, “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead.” Honestly, I was skeptical at first because the entire story is written in a succession of Tweets by a teenage girl on a road trip with her family, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was a real joyride. The 140 character Oulipian constraint makes for some side-splitting moments. The whole time, the girl is tweeting her family’s car ride even when they make a wrong turn leading them to the Circus of the Dead–a circus manned by zombie entertainment. Even when her own brother is turned, she can’t help but be surly and she remains tweeting till the very undead end.

TYME2WASTE He’s not very good at being a zombie. He isn’t even trying to walk slow. He’s really going after the ringmistress. 9:04 PM – 2 Mar from Tweetie

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“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

Zombie stories and resurrections have been around for centuries. The mindless brain-centric menace can trace its roots to West Africa and Haiti where many myths and stories shape our present day zombie. The mainstreaming of the word began in the late 1920s and exploded with the release of the 1932 Bela Lugosi picture, White Zombie, based on William Seabrook’s book (note: his Wikipedia page states, “[W]as an American Lost Generation occultistexplorer, traveller, cannibal, and journalist.” Maybe, one of the best entry openings on the site?).  

I proffer that zombies became more than just the living dead with Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. We can argue that the creatures are really more like vampires, but this is my blog, so I win. They’re zombies. In his 1954 novel, Matheson popularized the notion of a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by an unknown contagion. This is really a must-read even outside of the zombie wheelhouse. (Let’s all just agree to forgo the recent film adaptation for the sole reason that the filmmakers totally throw out the idea of what “I am Legend” means in the book). Matheson’s excellent book won’t be the last to elicit a dwindling world where war, disease, and other man-made epidemics will be our downfall.

Newer zombies are regularly shown as staying awake all night long. Their inability to sleep and their weary-eyed restlessness is often highlighted. Even in Karen Russell’s new novella, Sleep Donation, which is not strictly a zombie piece, compares the insomniacs to zombies. They are rendered insane by the sleeplessness and an epidemic is raging through the world. A cause is not given, but it is obviously a metaphor for society’s anxieties (also, commenting on the fact that with every progressing day, we are less likely to pull ourselves away from our various screen devices that have been show to interfere with sleep).

Even in the horror-comedy schlock fest, Jennifer’s Body, a bit of commentary is going on. Although, Jennifer is not explicitly labeled a zombie (more a demon), she comes back to life to wreak havoc on the high school boys who objectified her. It is a ridiculous and absurd film that is pretty great and it tries to tap into the portrayal of women in slasher flicks (the execution can be questioned at times, but still admirable, for lack of a better word). Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “As a movie about a flesh-eating cheerleader, it’s better than it has to be.” It is a suitable addition to a genre that is already highly saturated with male voices.

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Supernatural works are often stand-ins for society’s very real fears and worries. Letting go and grief seem to be apparent themes in The Returned and They Came Back, and we are seeing it again in the new US television series Resurrection (based on the 2012 novel, The Returned, which has nothing to do with the two French works, but also deals with long-dead people returning to a small town. Read the Slate article to clear everything up). Also, in all three, the revenants are unable to sleep, denoting them as the other and keeping from the very human function that visits us every night. I have not read Jason Mott’s novel, but I’m curious if anyone else has an opinion on it.

Our new zombies are often having existential crises. They keep their heads high and ruminate on their fates. Sometimes the world is destroyed by a disease, but many times this is not the case. R doesn’t remember how he lost his sense of self. Did this new, distracted world just think itself into zombieism? Many iterations don’t sleep. They can be found walking aimlessly and unblinking with plenty of time to think. They seem harmless at first, but when more come, the true monster shows its face. They might not always be guttural, fleshy cannibalistic heaps anymore. As readers and watchers of these new zombies, we often become enthralled by this different approach to the genre. The stories are evolving with our own present world, for the good and the bad. Our anxieties are being manifested in post-apocalyptic worlds filled with modern creatures. No matter what, though, zombies are always a human creation. They are mutating and overcoming us until we must send in Brad Pitt to rid of us of our World War Z.

Now, I am off to watch Cockneys vs. Zombies to add to my zombie arsenal. Do you have any to add? They are certainly plenty of zombie films, but are there any more works of fiction that are just begging to be read? Does anyone else notice that many vampire books are written by women, but zombies seem to be the playing field of men?


* Sorry Walking Dead fans. From the one random episode I watched last year, this series solidified my previous held disinterest in Zombies and their ability to bore with me the main focus being on walking back and forth slowly.

Appendix

1. Images [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]
2. Zombies are such a trend now that there are zombie-themed apps, including a jogging “adventure,” called Zombies, Run!
3.  A short list of zombie films starring Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price.
4. Many thanks to Helen for recommending the television series The ReturnedThe TV series airs on Sundance Channel and can also be binge watched (recommended) on Netflix. They Came Back can be watched for free in its entirety on Hulu. Although, I recommend finding the DVD for the extra “making of” documentary.
5. Never utter these words during a zombie apocalypse.

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Throttle and Duel

Homages are an interesting thing. Often enough they are created to tickle our fancy for the original. With the short story, “Throttle,” the reader gets just that. I think we can all agree that Richard Matheson has produced some fine works (I am LegendThe Shrinking Man, episodes for The Twilight Zone to just name a few for the uninitiated). One of his great anxiety inducing stories is “Duel,” which also was adapted for television and film by Steven Spielberg.¹

If you’ve never read “Duel,” I suggest reading Matheson’s story first, not only for the references in King and Hill’s story, but for the sheer fact that it is highly enjoyable.²

It sounds simple and maybe not as horrifying as one would imagine, but “Duel” literally races down the highway taking the reader along with it, leading to intense page turning. The story is about Mann, our leading driver, who finds himself impatiently trying to pass a truck on the highway. What ensues is a death-defying cat and mouse duel between Mann and the truck driver, who Matheson focuses on as a truck and less like a man (Man vs. Machine?). Matheson strips the characters of their identifying humanity, creating battling creatures.

Then, unexpectedly, emotion came. Not dread, at first, and not regret; not the nausea that followed soon. It was a primeval  tumult in his mind: the cry of some ancestral beast above the body of its vanquished foe.

So, you can see why Stephen King and his son, author Joe Hill (who is a completely wonderful writer in his own right; I hope to have some reviews of his work soonish) would take on the task of creating a story influenced by “Duel.” Homages can be fun when done right (no one likes a copy cat) and this one certainly is just that. In “Throttle,”³ we have a gang of hard-living motorcyclists with more back story than Matheson’s Mann. While on the road, they must maneuver down the highway while outracing a dueling tractor trailer. The motorcyclists have a seedy story to hide and it all comes to deadly fruition during the final duel. Oh, and there are illustrations to supplement the spinning tires and Army tats.

I’ve never seen Sons of Anarchy, but I’m sure fans of the show will like this one. I know I certainly had a good time. Also, I kept thinking of the grumpy Hell’s Angels in the East Village who yell at tourists, who dare to sit on the bench outside of their clubhouse on East Third Street. For all non-New Yorkers, even though absolutely no member ever sits on that bench, they don’t want you to, either.

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  1. You can read a little recollection by Spielberg about the story and adapting it here.
  2. “Duel” is available to read for free online at Google Books.
  3. “Throttle” is available for a steal at .99 cents.

**Many thanks to Rory at Fourth Street Review for pointing this one out. I was a bit busy this month and I know I’m a day late and buck short, but maybe this one will count as my contribution to her month-long, King’s March.
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The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie by Thomas Disch

robotic alien

Down and out sci-fi/fantasy writer Rudy Steiner is approached by his agent Mal Blitzberg, who offers him the chance to write a UFO abduction book. The fact that it is April 1st isn’t lost on Rudy, but he soon believes that Mal isn’t playing a joke on him. Apparently, previous books presented as true life alien abductions have gone over well and sold many copies. An editor at Knopf, Janet Cruse, is eager to have Rudy write the next big thing. What does he have to lose? He’s overweight, perpetually in AA, three months into a wicked writer’s block, and a frivolous lawsuit is all that Rudy has going on.

With the help of editor Janet Cruse, Rudy writes about the completely “true” alien abduction of his imaginary daughter, Bunny. The fact that Rudy has no children to speak of is not a problem; Janet will take care of everything.

“Oh, I think you’d always have written it, Rudy. The only difference now is that you’ll sign your name to it.”
“You think I’m shameless.”
She nodded.
She was right.

And who can pass over a Knopf payday? Everything seems so perfect–an easy gig for a writer fallen on tough times–but while he’s halfway through writing the manuscript, the real truth begins to unravel. Janet Cruse isn’t representing who she first says she is, the mysterious and imagined Bunny Steiner, blonde curls and all, is starting to pop up on television interviews, and there is a vengeful cult called The People who have their hands deeper in these events that one should feel comfortable with.

When he starts to become aware that not everything is okay, Rudy awakens in the middle of the night and has “an obscure sense that something terrible had just happened to him but he didn’t know what.”  For a short story, so many unsettling things are happening in “The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie.” There is the obvious lie snowballing into something completely out of the control of the protagonist and the even more uncomfortable UFO cult that is more prominent than Rudy is first led to believe (aside: The People are an interesting example of strange UFO cults that were featured on the 5 o’clock news in the 1990s and the ones that still persevere today like Raëlism and Scientology).

Although, Thomas Disch’s story first appeared in April 1992 (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine), there is an element that rings so relevant to some of today’s publishing schemes and the desires of the book reading public. When Rudy is first presented with the idea by Janet Cruse of writing the true tale alien abduction, she tells him,  “Strieber’s book shows that the audience is there, and Hopkins’s book shows that anyone can tell essentially the same story.” She is referencing recent releases that had captivated readers and made a killing for the publishers (whether they are truthful or not isn’t relevant). Why not jump on the bandwagon is her initial pitch to Rudy. This feels entirely in line with the recent smorgasbord of dystopian youth novels that are invading bookshelves. You can’t go on the internet without reading about some new post-apocalyptic trilogy’s breakdown of a not-so-distant future society (and just a few years ago, you couldn’t go two feet without bumping into some teenager vampire romance). Even in Disch’s story, when a publisher sees a lucrative venue, they’ll milk it till it’s bone dry.

“The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie” is not a science fiction story onto itself. True, the protagonist is a sci-fi writer and he’s penning an alien abduction book, but the story is completely set in reality with the horror and anxiety coming from very real, albeit, bizarre sources. As Disch stacks one more bit of the strange on top of another, the reader will be hooked until the final page.

Further Information…
  • Thomas Disch (1940-2008) was extremely prolific. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, and poetry.
  • On TheMillions.com, David Auerbach writes of Disch: “He was as fine a prose stylist as his genres had seen, but he also possessed a nightmarish imagination that combined J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic despair and Philip K. Dick’s nightmares.” You can read the complete article here.
  • Update: This story pops up in a few anthologies. I read it in Decades of Science Fiction (ISBN13: 9780844259956).

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“Beyond the Door” by Philip K. Dick

That night at the dinner table he brought it out and set it down beside her plate. Doris stared at it, her hand to her mouth. “My God, what is it?” She looked up at him, bright-eyed.

“Beyond the Door” is a 1954 short story by Philip K. Dick that appeared in the January issue of science fiction magazine, Fantastic Universe. This story is not what you think when you think sci-fi or other of Dick’s works like ValisMinority Report, or Flow My Tears the Policeman Said. Like Wikipedia describes, it is a story that falls in the low fantasy category. I didn’t know what this was, so when I finished reading the story I looked it up on their site: “[N]onrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.”

Dick’s story concerns itself with Doris, a housewife, and her husband, Larry. He gives his wife the lovely gift of a Bavarian cuckoo clock, but ruins the moment by babbling on about how he got it wholesale. Doris is annoyed with her husband and as the days go on, Doris who dotes on the cuckoo bird, sees the tiny timekeeper pop out every fifteen minutes, where the grumpy Larry who constantly winds the clock, never sees the bird lurch forward. He ponders about the cuckoo “inside the clock, beyond the door, silent and remote.”

What’s so fascinating about this short story is that Dick is able to cover so much humanely tension with layers of the fantastic in only a few pages. Clearly, every sentence is important, every small movement is chosen for a reason. Returning back to the definition of low fantasy, I think about of some of the best stories of the fantastic are those that start in a normal place or space, but the rules are quickly built notifying the reader that something is amiss. I would definitely paint this story in terms of the fantastic and horror.

Dick has taken the familiar tale of domestic melodrama and added the strange concept that the cuckoo bird inside a clock lives with his own awareness. In the world of “Beyond the Door,” it is part of the story’s landscape that it is totally acceptable to have such a cuckoo clock. The behavior of the mechanical bird also reflects the jealous eye that Larry has for Doris’ friend Bob, an antiques lover who Doris invites over to the house to see the clock.

I am always impressed by writers who can bundle up so much in such a small space. The trend in literature now in the US is to produce massive tomes (I recently read about a novel sold at auction for $1m and comes in at over 900 pages). There is something to be said about being wrapped up in a lengthy, complex tale, but I generally feel more blown away by less is more.

“Beyond the Door” could also be marked as a horror story. Read plainly, the bird terrorizes Larry. At one point, after holding the clock, he investigates a nick on his hand and being left alone in the house with the cuckoo doesn’t end well for him either. There is clearly something deeper going on in the story between Doris and Larry and Bob…and the cuckoo. I have no doubt that writers like Stephen King have read “Beyond the Door,” because it does so well to take a plain object and transform it into something that is waiting to unnerve us.

Available for free in the public domain…

Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

rossettiAfter the interest from Monday’s post and an email from a former roommate telling me of his enthusiasm for Nathaniel Hawthorne, I feel compelled to write about a favorite short story of mine: “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (pub. 1844). This story can be found in the author’s collection, Mosses from an Old Manse available for free at Project Gutenberg.

“Rappaccini’s Daughter” begins in medieval Padua with the arrival of university student, Giovanni Guasconti. He takes up residence next to the scientist Giacomo Rappaccini and his daughter, Beatrice, whose beauty, although, never beheld by the young men of the city, is held in high regard.

Guasconti spends his days staring at Rappaccini’s garden where his daughter spends most of her time. He is bewitched by her beauty and by the mysterious connection she has to the plants in the garden. Alas, he is given a warning by Professor Baglioni, a friend of his father’s, that no good will come of becoming entangled with Rappaccini or his daughter. Guasconti ignores him, of course, and as the weeks go on, becomes even more hypnotized by Beatrice.

What I love about Hawthorne’s story is the intermingling of beauty and death (which can also be said of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray). The combination of two themes that should not be mixed leads to an uncomfortable horror. Guasconti’s ability to be rational is so dampened by Beatrice’s beauty that he ignores the oddness of small creatures contorting themselves violently and dying at her feet. He even gets quite grumpy when Professor Baglioni tries to warn him via an anecdotal story of Alexander the Great, but when the young man dismisses it, Baglioni has to go so far as to just plainly say that the girl is full of poison. Beware!

With many horror stories throughout literary history, the horror can be found in the gruesome and uncanny, but with “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (and the aforementioned The Picture of Dorian Gray), the story is so off-putting by the blind attainment of beauty. It is not till the end of the tale does Guasconti finally believe what everyone around him has been saying; Rappaccini is a mad scientist and this fact is only made believable to him when his own beauty is tampered with.

I can’t recommend this story enough. Also, I haven’t had a chance to take a listen, but I found a 1940s radio show that is in the public domain called Weird Circle. You can listen to over 70 tales (each about 20-30 minutes long), including such great haunted horrors and grim stories as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Frankenstein, and if you haven’t guessed it, “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Ma.

The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Ma on our day-trip last week.

As a bit of a post script, I have a feeling fans of Trolls 2 will enjoy this story (from Wikipedia: “The plot concerns a family pursued by vegetarian goblins who seek to transform them into plants so that they can eat them.”).

The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

“Off there to the right–somewhere–is a large island…it’s rather a mystery.”

most dangerous gameBefore there was The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, there was The Most Dangerous Game penned by Richard Connell in 1924. This story is one of the original classics in the genre of man vs. man/the tables have been turned on this safari.

I am a fan of “Mysterious Islands” in literature and the confines of the place can be a worthwhile conceit for a story. The story begins with Sanger Rainsford, a young and successful big game hunter, off to hunt Jaguar in Brazil with his mate Whitney.

“Don’t talk rot, Whitney, said Rainsford. “You’re a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?”

“Perhaps the jaguar does,” observed Whitney.

With this dialogue right off the bat, Connell is explicitly preparing the reader for a turn of events. With the story first beginning from the perspective of the hunters, Connell is also planting the idea of focusing on the prey.

As the two are sailing to South America, Rainsford falls overboard and swims to the shore of a Caribbean island called Ship Trap Island, which already has a reputation of a high number of shipwrecks nearby. Once he is on dry land, Rainsford makes his way to the chateau inhabited by two Cossacks–Ivan and General Zaroff, the latter being the owner. Over dinner, Rainsford soon finds out that General Zaroff is an avid hunter and has even heard of the famous Rainsford. As their conversation proceeds, however, Rainsford comes to find that the often-bored General Zaroff stocks his estate not with the most obvious big game choices. In fact, he stocks the island with the most dangerous game.

“But they are men,” said Rainsford hotly.

“Precisely,” said the general. “That is why I use them. It gives me pleasure. They can reason, after a fashion. So they are dangerous.”

The General, at first, invites Rainsford to join him on a hunt, but after turning him down, Rainsford has found himself as the target for the next hunt. The most gripping part of the story is when Rainsford is out on the island. The General has given him a window of three days and a head start to out outmaneuver him. Rainsford must utilize all of his survival and trapping knowledge that he has acquired from his past hunts. “It was then that Rainsford knew the full meaning of terror” and the reader feels the anxiety too.

Screenshot from 1932 film adaptation.

Screenshot from 1932 film adaptation.

At the beginning of the story, Rainsford is clearly set in his black and white perception of the hunt, both his pursuit of jaguars and other exotic animals as well as General Zaroff’s hunt. Rainsford is pulled back and forth between his own desire to stay alive and his idea of murder.

“The Most Dangerous Game” is available for free in the public domain. It has also been adapted for the screen several times, with the most well-known being the 1932 film, which is available to watch in its entirety on YouTube.