When Carl Taske, the narrator in David J. Schow’s “Not From Around Here,” finds a monster curled up in bed beside his young daughter Jilly, and is then unable to stop the monster from slowly eating her, I realized Jilly was a totally undeveloped character, so in spite of my own fatherhood, and the worry I daily experience for my own daughters, I wasn’t horrified at all.
To a lesser extent, a similar problem occurs when Taske’s wife Suzanne is eaten. Though Schow provides Suzanne a little backstory, she is mainly a middle-aged wet-dream:
After bearing Jilly and dropping the surplus weight of pregnancy, her ass and pelvis had resolved into a lascivious fullness that I could not keep my hands away from for long….
Furthermore, she “Recently shed all self-consciousness about sex…” and is nearly always naked or throwing on a robe as she rushes around her new house.
The inability to write realized characters is an oft-cited weakness of horror fiction authors. Schow, however, is able. Carl Taske is likeable in spite of a host of flaws because he is fully self-aware. He knows he’s a yuppy and he feels the attendant class guilt, he’s desperate to please his wife and child, his temper gets the best of him, he’s afraid but willing to do for his family, he accepts blame, he’s insecure, and he’s unsure what to do with his success—it’s this uncertainty, he determines, that imperiled his family. Taske’s neighbor, Dunwoody, who serves as a glimpse of what Taske might become, is another sympathetic character. Maybe Schow just doesn’t write women well.
When Dunwoody first meets Taske, Dunwoody asks a series of very specific questions. Dunwoody wants to tell Taske something, but is prevented—we understand later what prevents him. The second time they meet, however, Dunwoody is free to speak, but rather than clearly explain to Taske that he and his family is in danger, he’s cryptic and rude.
And that’s a cliché. The old man, addled by the horrors he’s experienced, offers warnings no one would ever take seriously. What if the old man simply told Taske everything, the instant the two had a moment free? An interesting way to start a story—a real challenge to the protagonist. Sir, I know you just bought this house, but there is a monster here that mutilated my son and keeps me enslaved with its addictive venom. Here’s proof.
The addictive venom is the reason Dunwoody doesn’t warn Taske: Dunwoody is an addict. Addiction is the real horror in this story. It explains—justifies—everything. Even the cliché.
“Not From Around Here” starts strong, then drags to the end. Too much resolution for my taste. Schow’s macho persona interferes, too—Taske’s page-long anecdote about losing it in middle school and beating up a bully is completely unnecessary.
While reading for my Video Lies series, I came across a 1993 review of X, Y that begins, “Michael Blumlein is best known in the horror community for The Brains of Rats, widely acclaimed as one of the most disturbing short story collections of the last few years “(Fangoria #130, Don Kaye). Who is Michael Blumlein?
“Bestseller,” ultimately collected in The Brains of Rats, is in the 1991 Year’s Best, and I admit I couldn’t finish it in one sitting because it disturbed me so. Specifically, the narrator is an author struggling to write in the face of his family’s growing economic desperation. His wife is losing confidence in his work and so is he. Then—and this is when I took my break—his son Nick is diagnosed with cancer and the doctors want to amputate his leg. This is not maudlin—Blumlein is better than that. The suffering of his characters is felt.
The weird of the tale is the arrangement the narrator makes with a private organ farm, a deal he enters into wide-eyed, and benefits from. The horror does not stem from forced harvesting, as it could, but rather from how the narrator responds to the progressively aggressive procedures. What the narrator becomes.
Briefly, “Bestseller” falls into a pattern that slows the tale down, but I’m not sure this should be considered a problem. A little lull is to be appreciated.
Susan Cooper’s essay “Fantasy in the Real World”—one of Terri Windling’s selections for the Year’s Best—proposes that the United States lacks the ritual that myth provides, and that this is the reason the United States “falls into destructive violence” (Cooper is paraphrasing Joseph Campbell, by way of Bill Moyers). Fantasy literature, she suggests, could provide the myth the States lack, presumably creating order in our society and putting an end to gun violence.
Great Britain is a fortunate country; there is a great deal to be said for constitutional monarchy. The actual governing is all done by a democratically elected Parliament; the monarch has no power at all, but leads a benevolent and very public life as a figurehead, a focus for ritual and emotion—a hero. Popularity is less important for a British prime minister than for an American president, since in Britain the public can focus all its adoration, all its hero-worship, upon the Queen—not to mention Prince Charles, Princess Di, and the rest.
She explains that, “We are short of such figures in the United States.” I don’t consider being without a preposterously entitled figurehead a lack, but a virtue. “Who are our heroes?” she asks, and then dismisses our heroes as either mere celebrities, or dead (she names John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.), or possessed only of great talent, intelligence, and great beauty—none of royalty.
The United States is not without myths—look to the wild west—nor without heroes—legendary and otherwise. The great benefit of heroes who are entrepreneurs, actors, athletes, musicians, politicians, etc., rather than royalty, is that it is possible to not only emulate such heroes, but to become one yourself by achievement.
Cooper abandons her central claim (fantasy is really important) to conclude that “parents, teachers, librarians, authors, publishers” must bring together “the right child and the right book.” She explains:
The biggest truism of our professional lives is that hugely important fact too many civilians still forget: every child should be encouraged to read books, words on a page, for his or her own pleasure, in his own time, dreaming his own—and the author’s—dream.
Originally a speech delivered at the New York Library, I’m sure she delighted her audience, as I’m sure the essay gave certain readers a sense of importance. It is, however, a mess. Condescending, too.