Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading Stephen Graham Jones’s “The Spindly Man,” first published in Ellen Datlow’s Fearful Symmetries anthology in 2014 and available in the September 2016 issue of The Dark. Spoilers ahead. (Also spoilers for Stephen King’s 1994 story “The Man in the Black Suit,” which you can find in The Weird.)
“Proof,” he said. “We’ve all got proof, man. I bet every one of us has a story like this kid’s. Don’t we?”
Prof—we may as well use the spindly man’s sobriquet for our unnamed narrator—taught at the state university before he ran a red light with his son Jeremy. The wreck left the nine-year-old permanently disfigured. Too many surgeries and bills later, Prof “flamed out” of his university contract and returned to a night-shift gig stocking tools and ACs.
His one real gift remains talking about books; he leads a Wednesday night reading group at the community center. It’s a form of community service required by no judge but himself.
The group includes bank employee Marcy, retired Air Force officer Lew, city planner Drake, constant crotcheter Evelyn, and Jackie and her junior-high daughter Gwen. This week Lew brings chicken dumplings, and the reading is Stephen King’s “The Man in the Black Suit. It’s about a nine-year-old boy who meets the black-suited Devil while fishing in the woods; Prof figures that because the tale’s related eighty years later, putting the encounter safely in the past, it’s not as terrifying as other King stories.
The discussion begins with whether the boy, asleep just before the Devil appeared, might have dreamed the meeting. Or maybe he met a bad man and, being a Bible-schooled Methodist, imaginatively imposed fiery eyes and shark-teeth on a merely human malefactor. Then Prof suggests that if the boy really did meet a devil, he’d have to believe in angels as well. Yes?
Before anyone answers, the gym doors swing open to admit a stranger. He’s tall and spindly, wearing a top hat and ragged-edged black suit. For a breath-stuck moment, Prof thinks the stranger’s eyes flash fire, but it’s just light reflecting off his pince-nez. The stranger drags a chair into their circle and asks if there’s room for one more.
Spindly-Man seems to know the members too well, saluting Lew and calling Marcy a “money-handler.” He also gazes a bit too long at teen-age Gwen. But Prof doesn’t know how to exclude him, so discussion continues. Spindly-Man remarks “Go into the forest, taste the intangible. You come back with the story, never the proof.” Prof counters that if you prove a religion’s tenets, you remove the possibility of faith. When the Devil showed himself he cored out the boy’s faith, leaving him hollow.
Spindly-Man grins and says we all have proof of the Devil–everyone here could tell a story like King’s.
Sure enough, the group members volunteer their supernatural experiences. Marcy and a friend once snuck out at night, only to be chased by something that crawled spider-like down a windmill. Evelyn drove home one night perilously low on gas, followed the whole way by headlights that then vanished–a guardian angel? Drake dared a childhood fear of something lurking outside his window, only to see eyes looking back through the glass. (His own, of course—he was just a stupid kid.) For Lew, it was in Nam, when a dead sniper kept firing, supported like a puppet by–another man he doesn’t describe. Jackie and Gwen heard noises in the garage after Gwen’s father died–a puppy, which Jackie’s sure her husband miraculously left to comfort them.
Spindly-Man eats up their stories with unnerving relish. And what about Prof, he demands.
The discussion’s gone off track, yet Prof admits the members’ anecdotes show how King taps into “an archetypal well of shared stories.” He relates his own tale. The day of the accident, the driver of the truck they hit, he wasn’t human. Prof thinks he was waiting at that intersection just to cross in front of Prof’s car, smiling all the while.
Spindly-Man suggests that Prof didn’t see a “man-in-a-black-suit” in the truck cab. He only tells himself that, to escape his guilt.
This brings the group to a premature end. Everyone leaves with customary goodbyes, pretending all’s normal. All but Spindly-Man. One night around the campfire, he may tell how some book-club members thought horror stories were made-up, how they didn’t know what they were getting into. Oh, is he uninvited now?
Will that stop him? Prof asks.
Spindly-Man leaves suggesting maybe tonight’s story isn’t done yet. Prof mentally prepares to go to his night job, with its “walls and walls of shadows.” At the gym doors, he sees the reflection of two points of flame behind him, Devil-eyes. Spindly-Man’s snuck up behind!
The flame-eyes disappear. Were never there. But when they appear again, Prof realizes they’re his own eyes. He’s the Devil, the one smiling behind the wheel. He imagines himself into King’s story, hunched grinning in the forest brush, licking tears from his cheeks with his split tongue. Run, he tells the nine-year-old. If the boy stays, something bad will happen.
But something bad happens anyway.
What’s Cyclopean: The story rhythms and speaking patterns are King-like—“Just doing it for meanness, like.”—raising the question of whether we’re in Castle Rock.
The Degenerate Dutch: Narrator describes the book group as “a good mix of backgrounds and ages, anyway, if not very diverse,” suggesting awareness of a larger world of experiences not represented there.
Mythos Making: It’s Stephen King’s mythos at play this week—though not necessarily King’s cosmology.
Libronomicon: The book club covers King’s “The Man in the Black Suit,” and it’s implied that they’ve covered other works of his previously.
Madness Takes Its Toll: “Everyone’s got a story like that,” but most are more ambiguity than any sort of proof—plausible coincidence or simply encountered under the influence of fatigue or battle fog or childhood terror. It’s only by correlating their contents that we construct meaning.
Like John Langan’s “Technicolor,” Jones’s “Spindly Man” is a story about a story and the effects it has on its readers. The narrators of both are college instructors, or were. Whereas Langan’s professor has nefarious motives for assigning “The Masque of the Red Death,” Jones’s “Prof” chooses “The Man in the Black Suit” with no ill intentions, except (semi-consciously) towards himself. How can King’s nine-year-old Gary not remind him of his own Jeremy? Does he mean to harrow himself, or does he hope to strengthen his desperate self-exoneration? The Devil inflicted lifelong psychic damage on Gary, no really, THE Devil, supernatural evil incarnate. So, too, did a truck-driving, grinning Devil inflict lifelong physical damage on Jeremy. Even though Prof was technically at fault for running that stop sign, he wasn’t vicious (drunk) or irresponsible (speeding). He was momentarily off-guard, so the Devil lurking at the intersection could take advantage of his innocent mistake, or even cause him to make it.
The Devil made him do it. Truly. Only who was the Devil in this case? Spindly-Man claims a devil resides in every angel, waiting to claw its way out. If even angels have such dual natures, it follows that humans must too.
What human wants to believe this?
Or worse, to know this?
Prof wants to believe his gnawing guilt unwarranted. He wants King’s fiction of Gary meeting the Devil in the woods to be the reality of Jeremy meeting the Devil at an intersection–the crossroads, yes, where folklore has it He can be summoned! Belief, in the sense of faith, is the ultimate mental shield, because faith allows you to believe what you want to believe without proof. Indeed, proof is inimical to faith. Proof begets knowledge; and knowledge, well, acknowledges churlish reality, which refuses to bend to one’s desires. That refusal would be tolerable only if reality were always as comfortable as one’s treasured faiths, say, that God cares about His/Her/Its creations, us in particular.
Instead reality is too often a bitch. Reality means that a bee sting can be fatal to the venom-sensitive, whatever the stung one’s mother so vehemently wants to believe that she’ll make it her new religion. Reality means the Devil can sit down beside you and propose to eat you all up, and do it too if you’re not clever or lucky enough. Reality means that one afternoon you might think to hell with stop signs and roll on through, your son paying the price for your impulse.
Stephen King has always understood reality. By writing about it in fantastical terms, he’s dipped for decades into that “archetypal well of shared stories.” King tells us bad things want to hurt us. Sometimes the bad things succeed. Sometimes cleverness pulls us through, or human fellowship, or often the two combined. Still, bad things can win, and tend to come back.
Jones’s Prof has gathered a human fellowship around him; together they make sense out of stories. With “Man in the Black Suit” they misstep, inviting in a Devil who imposes this wicked sense on their personal tales: The supernatural, diabolic or angelic, is real, and you know it, but you know it alone because you can’t prove it. Ouch. The diabolic’s especially cruel to Prof, since it points out that no external Devil injured his son–it was his internal demon, the more terrible because it at once maims and weeps.
The question of which is preferable, belief or knowledge, reality or fantastical faith, is one Lovecraft famously addresses in “Call of Cthulhu”:
“….The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
As Lovecraft reveres science and despises religion, he can’t envision a true haven from an indifferent cosmos. Yet it’s not indifferent enough! Mindless Azathoth is a bee that stings because that’s what bees do, no malice. Its Soul Nyarlathotep, on the other hand, is a bee that singles out allergic humans with mocking glee. It’s a Man-in-a-Black-Suit–literally in some manifestations.
Knowing and deliberate, too, are King’s and Jones’s Devils. They’re forearmed with deadly intelligence on their targets. They’re not to be thwarted. Though Gary physically escapes, Black-Suit haunts him to the grave, maybe beyond. Prof can’t stop the Devil from taking over his group and thwarting his attempt to transfer blame. The difference is that knowledge of the Devil doesn’t absolutely destroy Gary’s long life. Prof, however, must not only acknowledge the Devil but that Prof himself partakes of Devilry, and this knowledge could wreck him.
We know not to speak of the Devil, lest he come. Maybe we shouldn’t read about the Devil, either, or at least not blithely discuss Him over chicken dumplings and crocheted scarves. I think the dumplings in particular were a sore temptation for the Old Goat–for whom wouldn’t they be?
No, I take it back. We have to speak–and read–of the Devil. Otherwise, how will we recognize Him, on the hoof or in ourselves?
This week’s selection seems to illustrate nicely (in the “nice and accurate” sense) the distinguishability of cosmic horror and weird fiction. It’s not in the least bit cosmic: the horror is thoroughly personal. But it is weird, decentering human belief even as it puts human experience—not at the center of the universe, only at the center of the story. (An important difference even if stories might be real.) It starts with the assumption that devils imply angels—a whole cosmos laid out neatly for human comfort—and ends with the question of whether, if you see a devil in the mirror and realize it’s your reflection, it means only that you’re being stupid.
“The Man in the Black Suit” isn’t a King I’ve previously read, though it’s well-known and award-winning—it is, in fact, his representation in The Weird. I find it one of his best, minimalist and observed with exactitude. It’s also extremely Christian—to give you a taste of the symbolism, the boy keeps the devil from eating him by sacrificing the biggest fish he’s ever caught. While there’s a touch of doubt at the end, it’s a story of certainty where Jones provides a story of difficult interpretations and doubt.
The contrasts between the two stories are sharp and deliberate. King’s child is innocent, his devil city-slick, and both are held back by boundaries—the child by parental instruction not to stray past the river fork, the devil by fish and the border between woods and human habitation. Jones’s (possible) devil is raggedy and ignores restrictions of place and social contract alike. Jones’s adult seeks absolution from sin or at least from horrific failure, and is a boundary-breaker. His child is in the hospital because he ran a stop sign; his lost teaching position pushes him across class lines; his ambiguous revelation comes after crossing a literal line of paint at a gym.
Much of horror is about what happens if you break rules and cross boundaries. In some stories, those consequences reinforce the rules’ reality, reflecting a deeper underlying order. One definition of the weird, though, is stories where the consequence of boundary-crossing is understanding that the boundary was meaningless all along. Underlying order is merely an illusion born of narrow vision. You can’t un-know the truth, even if you wish you could. By these definitions, King’s story isn’t weird, but Jones’s crosses that line easily.
Book clubs are a form of boundary-setting, Prof’s maybe more than most. He calls it a good thing he’s doing, and maybe it is—he seems to be building community and relationships among the attendees. But he also uses the club to keep control of something in his life, the flow of the conversation and the meaning of the stories. Note his plan—he’s not going to ask the “students” if they think the story’s devil is real, or actually implies angels and heaven, only whether faith’s better than knowledge. A comfortable topic to fill a couple of hours, not the sort of challenge that the spindly man brings. No personal revelations and no actual truth-seeking required.
And some of his interpretive assumptions are interesting. Why say the old man’s life is hollow because it isn’t summarized in a short story about his childhood? Is it really Prof’s life that’s hollow? For that matter, does choosing not to share details (as all the book club members choose before Spindly Man breaks the rules) mean those details aren’t important? It makes me wonder about narrator’s own lacunae—for example, his failure to mention his wife’s name or her reaction to car accident and job loss, his failure to describe anything personal about Jeremy.
Then there’s that ending—narrator’s own ambiguous revelation. Is it simply that he’s the “devil,” the one responsible for the accident, the one who smiled inappropriately in his post-accident shock? Or is something stranger going on here? I’m half-convinced that our narrator is in fact the devilish furniture truck driver, sketching out the lives he’s blighted and acting a part based on those sparsely-understood details. The book group who “didn’t know what they were playing with”—is that overlooked danger the spindly man? Or narrator himself?
Or both? How many devils can there be in the world—and what does it mean, if the devils don’t imply anything beyond their own actions?
Next week, we switch from professors to journalists desperate for a good—or at least spicy—story, in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Flash Frame.” You can find it in The Book of Cthulhu.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.