Friday, October 21, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 21: A Truly Noble Desperation

Well, today's reading didn't quite go as I'd planned, and so the far-more-elaborate-than-this-one's-gonna-be post I'd been planning on will have to wait. As always in this situations, I turn to my old friend the short short horror story, which are plentiful. However, my last go 'round with these found me a little enervated, after years of loyal service, by the stories in either of my typical haunts, 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories and 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories -- I put up a brave front and didn't let on, but it's true. Of course, when I'm going through any other anthology, one not devoted to stories of that brevity, I'm always skipping pass various options as being too short for my purposes, and then forgetting about it them on occasions such as this. But not tonight! I remembered them!

And I've ended up with a curious grab-bag that I frankly plan on blowing right through. Because let's be honest, some of these stories are so short that it's nearly impossible to find anything to say about them. One such story is "Nellthu" by Anthony Boucher. Boucher was a famed genre editor back in the pulp days, as well as a respected practitioner of same, his most famous book being the collection The Compleat Werewolf, his most famous story from that being "They Bite", which pops up in lots of classic horror anthologies. That's certainly the one I remember most, that and the title novella which is not horror but, if I remember correctly, lycanthropic spy adventure, but I haven't read anything by Boucher in years. "Nellthu" reminds me of a Frederic Brown story -- Brown often wrote very short pieces, which often had a funny or nasty punchline. "Nellthu", which is about a demon who grants wishes, flips that trend by actually being rather sweet by the end. Well, sweet to a point as long as you don't think about it, because then it becomes a little more mercenary, but still sweet.

Also too short to really get into is Stephen Graham Jones's "Little Monsters", which is about a married couple creating a monster. Take that title and apply it to my briefest of descriptions and you might have some idea. A very literal pun, in other words, which, if that's your thing, okay, but the story's well-written -- I just don't know what to do with it at the end. Do I believe that what the couple claim will happen before the not-quite-twist occurs will still happen? I do believe I'm supposed to think so, but I do not believe it. But I also strongly suspect the story is just about its pun, which seems to me to be a waste.

Meanwhile, and moving on, a question I sometimes have when reading such short stories is what was behind the idea to keep the story so brief? It's a curious impulse that I, in my quite limited exerpience, have never felt, and I wondered about it again when reading Richard Adams's "The Knife". It's a story of revenge set in an English boys' school, and it's about three and a half pages long. The basic plot of "The Knife" could have been, and more than likely has been, stretched out to novel and film length many times before, or at the very least could be, very easily, and as long as a good writer was behind it you would never feel like the thing was being stretched past its breaking point. None of which is to say that "The Knife" should have been longer -- it's perfectly effective as it is. It's just interesting to me to read what really is a novel's worth of material so radically compacted. This is in sharp contrast to another story I read, Joe Lansdale's "On a Dark October", which is about as long, or a little longer, than Adams's story, but plays out like an isolated scene of a larger piece. It isn't that, of course, but that's how it plays. Adams's story may be effective, but Lansdale's is truly creepy, and I wonder if the different approaches to the short short might be behind that. Anyway, "On a Dark October" is in some ways vintage Lansdale, depicting a group of good old boys performing what the reader gathers is a human sacrifice on Halloween night. His way with violence is quietly devastating ("What they did took a long time"), and the way they talk to each other, and to something else ("All yours. Keep the years good, huh?") places the events in the real world among real people. Pretty wonderful, if that's the word.

Finally, or nearly, I read a story called "The Savage Mouth" by Sakyo Komatsu*, a writer I've gathered was at one point one of Japan's top science fiction writers (Komatsu, author of a famous novel called Japan Sinks, passed away earlier this year just months after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami). And this is what's interesting about "The Savage Mouth", which at ten pages is more than twice as long as anything else I read for this post: it is perhaps the one pure science fiction horror story I've ever read. Maybe that's going too far, but as I read it I thought about other famous examples of this genre hybrid, and all of them basically draw their horror from an alien monster killing astronauts or invading earth or something in that realm. "The Savage Mouth", meanwhile, contains nothing like that, and instead places its main character, who goes unnamed, in a world where certain technological innovations, of a medical nature, and in line with a particular real path of innovation the benefits of which have been enjoyed by many worthy souls, have progressed to a point where a soulsick misanthrope and nihilist is able do something quite horrible. I am hesitant to say more. I will say -- and this in itself may be too much -- that "The Savage Mouth" has the effect of rendering one of Stephen King's more notorious stories much less shocking than it was by revealing that King arrived here in second place, at best, and didn't go as far as Komatsu did anyway. "The Savage Mouth" steps wrong a bit right at the end by bringing in an official voice to bemoan the incident(s) we have just witnessed, but never mind -- the scene was unneeded, but is also easily ignored. "The Savage Mouth" is quite horrific, but is sadly correct in claiming that, as technology advances, the more we're able to do, the more awful things we will unquestionably do.

*I would like to thank Simon Abrams for steering me towards "The Savage Mouth", which I would not have know about otherwise.


the night watchman said...

Damn, now I really want to read "The Savage Mouth." I have 100 Hair-Raising ..., but it's not in that one. Can you tell me which Stephen King this story is like to help tide me over until I can get my bloody little paws on it?

bill r. said...

I probably should have said where I got some of these stories. You can find "The Savage Mouth" in THE BEST JAPANESE SCIENCE FICTION STORIES. And I avoided naming the King story because I thought it would spoil things, but the direction "The Savage Mouth" is headed is clear pretty early on, so the King atory is "Survivor Type".

the night watchman said...

You know, I guessed "Survivor Type." Thanks for the info.