Short Fiction Spotlight

Short Fiction Spotlight: Warren Ellis’ “Dead Pig Collector”

Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.

Just the one story for your today, folks, but the debut Digital Original from the folks at FSG Books is a doozy. “Dead Pig Collector” emerges fully-formed from the delightfully demented mind of Warren effing Ellis, author of any number of ground-breaking contemporary comics—including Transmetropolitan, Planetary, Red, Gravel and Global Frequency—and a pair of prose pieces, namely Crooked Little Vein and this year’s Gun Machine.

Now it wouldn’t be fair to say I was disappointed in Gun Machine. It wouldn’t, but… I was. Objectively, it’s probably the better book, with a hair-raisingly paced plot and rather more creditable characters than the paper-thin protagonists of Ellis’ inaugural effort, but by that same token it’s also… how to put it? A much more normal novel.

I guess what I wanted, if I’m honest, was Crooked Little Vein part two, or something along those lines, which Gun Machine, for all its awesomesauce, was not. But by combining the subversive elements of Ellis’ first prose novel proper with the procedural coherency of its more conventional successor, “Dead Pig Collector” showcases the best of both worlds.

Meet Mister Sun: a consummate professional in every sense. He values tact and timeliness, purpose and extensive preparation. He works well independently and doesn’t ask unnecessary questions. He’s flexible, adaptable, decisive and determined. Mister Sun is, in short, everything a good businessman should be… except that his business is killing people.

Maybe you’re wondering how he lives with himself; I was.

Well, he doesn’t consider his targets people, particularly—as human beings with families and friends, dreams and desires. Instead, Mister Sun imagines himself the entrepreneurial equivalent of a dead pig collector, an occupation he explains with reference to the pervasiveness of swine farming in China:

“There are periods—we’re in one right now, in fact—where serious disease and pollution events will kill the pigs. They will wash up on riversides in their tens of thousands. They will litter fields and pile up in their pens. A small farm—and, in places like Shanghai, they’re all small farms—cannot spend what little time they have disposing of tons of dead pigs instead of maintaining their remaining assets. [So] there are people who have learned how to effectively and safely dispose of swine carcasses. If you have a stack of dead pigs, and you don’t want to go to prison, then you pay for a dead pig collector.”

In this way—by thinking of his marks as meat past its prime—he divorces himself from the “emotional content” of his unpleasant employment. I’d go so far as to say this peculiar perspective enables him to take pride, and perhaps a certain pleasure, in his disembowelling endeavours.

That said, Mister Sun isn’t enjoying his latest job, largely because he conceives of his current client as “a bit of a dick.” There have been problems with his part of the bargain from the first; late deliveries, cheap equipment, inappropriate communication, a crappy car… you name it.

But the biggest of his messes is yet ahead, because when Mister Sun arrives at the scene of the crime he’s been enlisted to commit, he sees that his idiot of an employer has taken matters into his own hands. Rather badly, at that. Indeed, he’s dead, and his killer, a gorgeous blonde called Amanda —who just so happens to be Mister Sun’s target—is still entirely alive.

“His client was, in fact, a colossal dick. So much of a dick that he’d died of it,” our man concludes, whilst considering the unusual position he’s in. He’s been paid for his work up front, and there is, of course, still a carcass to collect—even if it’s the wrong carcass. So when Amanda bats her luscious lashes and asks for Mister Sun’s assistance, what’s a dead pig collector to do but help the very woman he was appointed to assassinate?

From a scant few paragraphs in, it’s clear that “Dead Pig Collector” chronicles Ellis at his basest best. It’s stomach-churning stuff, routinely disgusting and deeply devious—not a tale for the faint-hearted, I’m afraid—but a remarkably mannered and matter-of-fact narrative makes all this nastiness a nothing; or if not a nothing then near enough. Here we have one of a very few authors able to find the fun in the process of dissolving a dead body.

In addition, very much in the vein of Crooked Little Vein, a number of obscenely fascinating factoids are sprinkled liberally throughout “Dead Pig Collector,” including an absurdly detailed demonstration of how to break a human carcass down into its component parts and a passage about a lamentably lapsed brand of cell phone which brought together the SIM card and the cigarette lighter.

Plus there’s “a mostly naked girl in [a] fish tank” in the lobby of a Los Angeles hotel. Is that standard practice? As an ignorant Scot, I can only hope not.

One of the most distinctive things about “Dead Pig Collector” is its narrator’s preoccupation with making every second count, ostensibly as a means of damage limitation in the event he’s caught red-handed with a bloody body.

It takes forty thousand seconds, more or less, to fly from London to Los Angeles and then negotiate the boxes and runs of the airport. That’s how [Mister Sun] thought of it. Eleven hours would be a sleep of exhaustion and a leisurely breakfast. It didn’t carry a sense of urgency. Forty thousand seconds sounded to him like time running away with him, leaving him stuck in a dim and disconnected past. A lot could happen in forty thousand seconds.

A nice touch, no doubt—and one which does the trick, I think.

Ellis’ characterisation is otherwise scant but sufficient. Likewise, “Dead Pig Collector” is brief but oh so bold, and predictably brilliant, right through to its abrupt ending. All of which makes me wish Ellis experimented more often with the short form…


Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.

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