Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 25: What Must the Inhabitant of This House Be Like?

Another quick one today, but this time I'm veering away from my usual source for lazy posts, the short short story, to stories that are only pretty short, and were written by literary giants. In this case, those writers are Isaac Bashevis Singer and Jorge Luis Borges. I don't think I've ever read Singer before, but I have noticed that his name pops up occasionally in more catholic horror anthologies. I have read some Borges, and the fact that he's written at least one straight-up horror story doesn't shock me.

The Singer story is called "The Enemy", and it was written specifically for Kirby McCauley's ground-breaking 1980 anthology Dark Forces (this anthology was also represents the first time Stephen King's The Mist saw publication, which should give you some idea of its wide-ranging nature). In classic ghost story style, the story is told entirely in conversation, with one character named Chaikin -- a Jew who has recently arrived in America, escaping Hitler's nightmare, by way of a brief stay in Argentina -- telling of his strange and creepy journey by boat to the US to an old friend, our narrator, who escaped Europe some time earlier. During Chaikin's trip across, at meal-times he was assigned to a particular table, by himself, where he was waited on by a large, possibly Argentinian man who, for no reason Chaikin has ever been able to decipher, thoroughly abuses him. He mocks Chaikin, laughs at him, makes him wait for menus, for his food, and when his food does come, it is never the food he ordered. The waiter is so relentless in his bullying attacks that Chaikin is tempted to think that the man might be a Nazi, but then he notices that there are other Jews on the ship, even at tables being served by the same waiter, who are treated with complete respect.

This continues for several days until one night, Chaikin is walking along the deck when he finds himself face to face with the waiter. Suddenly, the two begin fighting, and the story makes the turn from the simply strange to the supernatural. And it's a good story -- "The Enemy" is only seven or eight pages long, and I felt a good deal of anger and frustration on Chaikin's behalf -- but I would say that Singer makes a step wrong right at the end when he offers a possible explanation for what happened on the deck (which you may have noticed I haven't told you about). This doesn't remove the story from the realm of the supernatural -- in fact, if the reader were to accept the explanation, the story's ghostly roots would only be cemented -- but it's far better, I think, to remain totally puzzled by stories such as this. I've said something close to this many times, but I think "The Enemy" highlights the idea. Singer's solution to the mystery -- which, to be fair, he only offers as a possibility -- is one that is rooted in ancient philosophy and theology, but this fact doesn't help the story's final impact. If you read a story full of bizarre occurrences and uneasy, unexplainable visions, only to have a character say, in the last paragraph, "I bet it was ghosts", you'll probably find that the cold mystery that preceded this has evaporated.

Then again...I suspect there's something deeper going on in this story. I'm curious about Chaikin's sojourn to Argentina, and what the significance is of Chaikin being harassed by a man of apparently Argentenian descent. But on first impression, "The Enemy" is a solid piece of work that lacks mystery.

The Borges story is called "There Are More Things", and I thought it was wonderful. Dedicated to "the memory of H. P. Lovecraft", it tells the story of a young man who travels from his home in Texas to a small rural town in South America to deal with the estate of his recently departed uncle. An engineer with a philosophical bent, this uncle owned a home known as the Red House, which was auctioned off to a man named Max Preetorious, who immediately guts the place and throws out all the uncle's possessions. Not only that, but...

For a fortnight, [the carpenter] was to work at night, behind closed doors. And it was by night that the new resident of Red House took up his habitation. The windows were never opened anymore, but through the darkness one could make out cracks of light. One morning the milkman came upon the body of the sheepdog, decapitated and mutilated, on the walk. That winter the Norfolk pines were cut down. No one ever saw Preetorious again; he apparently left the country soon after.

It's around here that our narrator arrives, and the story deals with his investigation into what Preetorious had done to his beloved uncle's house. He learns that many people found the whole situation very off-putting, even vaguely frightening, and that some of the workmen Preetorious hired only did the work asked of them because the money was so good. All of which leads our narrator to enter the apparently now-deserted house himself.

What he finds is very Lovecraftian indeed, specifically the Lovecraft of smaller-scale stories like "Pickman's Model" and "The Music of Erich Zann". What really pushes Borges's story beyond Lovecraft, however, are the last two sentences, which acknowledge a recognizable human reaction to the cosmically horrible beyond Lovecraft's preferred instant madness, followed by suicide. It's really a brilliantly subtle ending, with a marvelously disturbing use of the word "plural". Highly recommended.


Will Errickson said...

This is one anthology I missed back in the day, and I really need to get a copy. Doesn't it contain Klein's original "Poroth Farm" story? The Borges one sounds incredible.

bill r. said...

I don't believe DARK FORCES has the Klein story, but I'll have to double check.

Also, I realize that, by reading this post, you might be led to believe that the Borges story is in DARK FORCES, along with the Singer story, but it isn't. I got the Borges story from the Borges COLLECTED FICTIONS book put out some years back (and still readily available). Sorry for the confusion.

L. Rob Hubb said...

I think the Klein story in DARK FORCES is "Children of the Kingdom".

bill r. said...

Yep, L. Rob's correct: "Children of the Kingdom" is in DARK FORCES.