Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week, we cover Brian Evenson’s “No Matter Which Way We Turned,” first published in People Holding in May 2016. Spoilers ahead for a very short story.
“After a while we couldn’t hardly bear to look at her.”
The members of an unnamed lodge have a problem: No matter which way they turn the girl, she has no face. Some members hold her gently (or not so gently) in place while the unnamed narrator and Jim Slip look at her from opposite sides. Both sides have hair, and backs. There is no face, or any front for that matter. Two back halves sandwiched together.
The girl’s mother screams and blames the lodge members, but narrator maintains there was nothing they could have done. Verl Kramm suggests calling out to the sky, after the receding lights. They took half of her, the same half twice. “Now goddamn have the decency to take the rest of her,” he shouts. Others join in Verl’s demand, but they don’t come back. They leave the lodge with a girl who, “no matter how you looked at her, you saw her from the back.”
If the girl eats, she does it in a way they can’t see. She just turns in circles. She walks backwards and knocks into things. She tries to grab things with hands that have two backs, no palms. After a while the lodge members can’t stand looking at her, so they decide to board up the lodge with her inside. Her mother protests violently. The narrator thinks the mother needs to protest to feel better about letting her girl go, and to let the blame fall on the lodge members.
They barricade the door and windows of the lodge, but at Verl’s request leave the hole in the roof, in case they come back for the girl. At first a sentry guards the door and reports he hears her scrabbling inside. When the noise stops, they don’t bother maintaining a watch.
Narrator dreams of the girl late at night—not the two-backed girl they had but the two-fronted girl they didn’t. Miles above them, in air too rarified to breathe in any normal way, she floats within their vessel. She is a girl who must always face you, no matter which way you turn.
“A girl who bared her teeth and stared, stared.”
What’s Cyclopean: Simple, straightforward language this week for a short selection.
The Degenerate Dutch: Good thing that in the real world, no one ever has to figure out how to handle suddenly losing their ability to communicate and control their body.
Weirdbuilding: “They” are experimenting on people. Either that or transporting them with the very wrongest type of teleporter.
Libronomicon: No books this week.
Madness Takes Its Toll: No madness this week.
Like a well-meaning but unevenly discerning librarian, Kindle is ever eager to recommend my next read. It is also persistent. For a while now it has been touting a short story collection by Brian Evenson. Unlike most of the book covers Kindle dangles before me, Evenson’s features a multi-faceted line drawing of a woman’s head rather than a buff male agent in stark silhouette running toward the US Capitol with a drawn handgun. This was a big point in its favor. A still bigger point was the name of the collection. Song for the Unraveling of the World has for me the evocative power of Olivier Messiaen’s similar title, Quartet for the End of Time. Messiaen had me before I ever heard the Quartet or learned that he’d composed and debuted it while held in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. Evenson hooked me from first glance at his title, though it took him (or should I say Kindle) a while to reel me in.
Can a fish enjoy being caught? At least a metaphorical fish (that would be me) can and has!
“No Matter Which Way We Turned” opens the collection with a brief but potent burst of weirdness. It, too, sports a masterful title. Those six words open the story, but the entire first clause is “No matter which way we turned the girl.” Taken by itself, the title suggests that the protagonists (“We”) have pursued every solution to their dilemma and failed to find a satisfactory one. This will turn out to be true, but by changing “turned” to a transitive verb with “the girl” as its object, Evenson instantly pulls readers from a lofty sense of undefined desperation and grounds them in the terrible if absurd situation the narrator and his mates are facing.
Talk about in medias res! Evenson goes beyond the “middle” and drops us into the immediate aftermath of his story’s Big Event, with a narrator who is evidently or at least effectively writing to himself rather than to an audience. Therefore the narrator has no reason to detail what led up to the production of a double-backed girl, or what “the lodge” is, its purposes and practices. He knows all that, to the extent it can be known, and so we the readers are left to fill in the blanks, which are large and legion.
One of the biggest mysteries is who even the hell are the narrator and his buddies? The Masons and other fraternal orders organize local groups in lodges and may engage in esoteric rituals. I’m thinking that Evenson’s lodge is heavily into secret stuff, like the existence of extraterrestrials or extradimensionals and how to contact or summon them.
These “extra-” beings, then, are the “they” of the story. They come from the sky, to a hole either the lodge members or they themselves make in the lodge roof. They have a “vessel” and “lights” that recede as they do. Or maybe they manifest as lights? Pure energy? Whatever, they are powerful enough to split someone in two, to duplicate each half, then to make the four halves into two wholes, if inaccurately to our human way of thinking. Not greedy, they take only one of the wholes away with them. Maybe that was the bargain? Maybe that was why the mother was willing to let her daughter be duplicated, figuring she’d get to keep the original? Unless she wasn’t willing but coerced. Who knows what if any scruples these lodge guys have. It seems to me that when the narrator insists that the mother ought not to blame the lodge for what happened, this is what he wants to believe. So what if she fights like a tigress when they abandon her double-backed daughter? Narrator assumes she’s only putting up a show of reluctance; really, she’s as eager to be rid of the girl as the lodge brothers are. Plus, why doesn’t he give us the mother’s name, the girl’s name? Does he even know them?
In the last couple paragraphs, of course, I’m strictly speculating. If you’ve read this story, I bet you’ve speculated, too. Readers hate a vacuum. Or do they always? Must they? Don’t some stories do just fine with the blanks left blank like the void spaces in graphics or silent beats in music that make the “framed” images and sounds stand out the more starkly? The more brilliantly? The more movingly?
Another fine story in Song for the Unraveling of the World is “Leaking Out.” In it an unhomed man named Lars seeks shelter in an abandoned mansion. He finds he’s not alone, and as he and the other man warm themselves before a still handsome porcelain fireplace, the other man begins spinning a tale:
“There once was a man who was not a man… He acted like a man, and yet he was not in fact a man at all. Then why, you might wonder, did he live with men or among men?”
Lars may well wonder, but if so, he’ll need to keep on wondering, because the tale teller adds:
“But this is not that kind of story, the kind meant to explain things. It simply tells things as they are, and as you know, there is no explanation for how things are, or at least none that would make any difference and allow them to be something else.”
And so it is with this week’s story. The double-backed girl is the way things are, and there’s nothing an explanation would do to change that. It is the terrible image of her that counts, that is the core of the tale, perhaps its initium. That and the image of her counterpart, the double-fronted girl who haunts the narrator’s dreams, her teeth bared whichever way he turns, her eyes boring it into him that the inescapable thing she is happened because of the thing he was and therefore did.
My reading of this story is entirely shaped by the week I’ve had, which involves two separate family members going abruptly into the hospital with cancer. I realize this is heavier business than normally goes into a column of snarky readthroughs, but no matter which way you turn me this week, it’s people I love having sudden, catastrophic changes to their bodies. And much of the best weird is ultimately about fantastic versions of real terrors—not things where you can sigh in relief after putting the book down, but things that stick with you because yes, unfortunately, sometimes it really is like that.
There’s something old-fashioned about this story, and it reminds me most of a certain sort of 80s post-apocalyptic thriller, the kind where a testosterone-heavy party has to make tough decisions about who gets to stay in the lifeboat and who gets abandoned. (I’m thinking particularly of Niven’s doorstoppers here: Footfall, Lucifer’s Hammer, etc.) Here we have “the lodge,” trying to deal with what “they” have wrought, which may or may not be the lodge’s responsibility. And of course if you “couldn’t hardly bear to look at” an injured kid, you’ve got to lock her in a room and board up the windows. It’s for the good of everyone else, right? Even her mother can figure that out (or so the narrator assures us).
Niven’s characters, of course, would never call out begging someone else to fix a problem. And would certainly never dream, afterwards, of their own abandoned victims bearing teeth at them, staring, staring… judging. Having opinions even after having been made voiceless.
I’m thinking, too, of Judith Merrill’s 1948 “That Only a Mother,” in which the big reveal is that a precocious kid, fully verbal at ten months, lacks limbs. This was written at a time when keeping disabled kids hidden from the world was considered good sense rather than abuse, when many readers would have found fathers murdering their mutated children perfectly understandable.
I would like to think that the modern reader has stronger expectations of caregivers and companions, even as I’m fully aware that not all do. That we still have people willing—both at the individual and societal level—to abandon those whose appearance or abilities become inconvenient. And that is a horror.
It’s unclear—as in “Replacements” a couple of weeks ago—how far the world has changed beyond what we see. Maybe “they” are a single UFO that’s only imposed on (or summoned by) this one Lodge, or maybe “they” are an alien invasion strewing Hollow-Places-esque chaos across the globe. Maybe resources are terribly limited and hospitals are fallen into ruin.
But what I really want this week—and I don’t actually blame Evenson for writing something else—is a very different story. One in which people keep caring even when bodies don’t do what’s expected of them. One where the Lodge or the mom finds a way to get the girl a feeding tube, a communication aid, and someone to hold her gently through her own terror. One where they remain horrifying, but humans put in the effort not to be.
Next week, we continue T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places with Chapters 19-20, in which we have a problem with stuffed animals.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, weird 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.