Kate Wilhelm once said that the fantastical or science fictional element in a story had to be integral to the story in order for it to be fantasy or SF. If the story is still intact with that element removed, then you should ask yourself why you didn’t just write a literary or “mainstream” story.
I was reminded of this while reading this month’s issue of F&SF. Two novelettes in particular raised this issue for me; Dale Bailey’s “The Bluehole,” and “The Woman in the Moon” by Albert E. Cowdrey.
“The Bluehole” follows a first-person narrator, now in his early fifties, as he reminisces about the year in his life (1982) when everything changed for him. Jeremy is an unhappy man, an unsuccessful writer on his second failed marriage, with children who have grown apart from him. His second wife asked him, “When are you going to accept yourself for what you are?”
“The Bluehole” is about loss, sexual identity and first love. It’s about adolescence and coming of age when you don’t fit in. Jeremy’s mother died a few days before Christmas, six months before the story starts. In a powerful scene in the story, on December 26th, Jeremy’s father piles all the unopened Christmas presents into black garbage bags and drags them out to the curb.
That summer, Jeremy becomes friends with Jimmy, a transplanted Californian who moves in across the street. Jimmy is perfect. Jeremy wants to be Jimmy. In their rambles around the town of Saul’s Run, the two boys come to the Bluehole. It’s a lake, a beautiful lake with a dark history. Of course bad things have happened there; drownings, mostly, but there is a tale of a diver in an asylum, raving about monsters. The lake, of course, is believed to be bottomless.
There is no suspense about what will happen; even if we hadn’t figured it out, fifties-something narrator Jeremy point-blank tells us. The how is what’s important, that and the relationship between Jimmy and Jeremy. When perfect, golden Jimmy challenges Jeremy to swim across the lake, things go horribly wrong – and a tentacled monster drags Jimmy under and he drowns.
Or, if you read that climactic paragraph closely, maybe not.
My first take on this story was that there was a monster in the lake, a tacked-on monster that didn’t need to be there. My second take on the story is that there is a monster in the lake, a monster that has been with us since early in the story. Is the story Lovecraftian fantasy? Absolutely not. It’s psychological horror.
Along the way, Bailey evokes summer, the south and the 1980s with tiny, concrete details; the spinner racks of paperbacks at the drug store; the town theater (they weren’t called cinemas yet); the sense of freedom that comes from crashing through the undergrowth with your buds, out in the countryside. It is horror, but the horrific element is hidden in plain sight.
Bailey’s story could have been just as compelling, though, without the horrifying aspect. I feel compelled to ask Wilhelm’s question; “Why didn’t you just write this as a literary story?” even though I’m very glad he didn’t, because I probably would never have found it then. In fact, I think this story could fit into a mainstream story collection exactly as it is – except that someone would say, “Well, wait. Monster in the lake, is there or isn’t there?”
“The Woman in the Moon” is a different thing entirely; a humorous story of academe. Like “The Bluehole,” it is framed by a narrator telling a tale; but that narrator is Professor Threefoot, a pompous full professor at an academic convention, lecturing his boot-licker son-in-law.
“The Woman in the Moon” is filled with academic jokes that are cliché, political references and word-plays meant to be funny. Well, they are funny, at least at first. Professor Threefoot got off to a bad academic start because he impregnated someone and had to marry her; thus he ended up in Alaska, the town of Nyuknyuk (if you don’t get it, find an old Three Stooges episode to watch), at the Sarah Palin School of Mines. Threefoot discovers a woman scholar who is writing her dissertation on the same topic he is, and at a conference in Chicago he meets and seduces her. She is a bad cliché of a woman scholar; intellectual, unattractive, sexually inexperienced. Since Professor Threefoot is an egotistical oaf, it is possible that Martha is not as unattractive as she is presented. Martha becomes part of a team that goes to the moon, as the team historian, and the team makes a momentous discovery. This is the science fictional element, and the story would not work if this discovery had taken place of earth. The moon is clearly necessary, and not just for the title. Martha, in fact, is quite successful, and the story takes a momentary Boswell-Johnson turn.
Please understand that I understand that Cowdrey is doing this deliberately. He is not a misogynist; he is deliberately writing his character that way. (In a clever moment in the story, Adam thinks “Threefoot believed he was Zeus, his endowed chair a throne from which he hurled thunderbolts that made and unmade professional lives,” and that, in fact, this image is accurate.) Clearly, Martha is by far the better scholar, and, to Threefoot’s chagrin, she has no trouble finding sexual partners. Still, reading the story felt like getting stuck next to the professor at some formal dinner and being unable to escape; not a fun prospect.
This is a particular subtype of story; the academic story, and I think Cowdrey is quite faithful to its conventions. It’s just not pleasant. Neither Threefoot nor his captive audience Adam is appealing or engaging. I struggled through to the end and immediately wanted to hunt up my copy of Jonathan Leatham’s As She Crawled Across the Kitchen Table, to read an entertaining book about academia.
“Woman” scores points for technical merit, mainly by convincingly weaving in a genuinely extraterrestrial element. “Bluehole” scores for artistry. Both of these stories belong in F&SF; I strongly recommend reading “The Bluehole.”