THE DEEP ONES: "The Dark" by Karen Joy Fowler
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"The Dark" by Karen Joy Fowler
Discussion begins o March 27, 2019.
First published in the June 1991 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
No online versions found to date.
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Ninth Annual Collection
What I Didn't See and Other Stories
Nebula Awards 27
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
I'm pretty sure I have that issue of F&SF, so I'll see if I can dig it out.
Just read it from The Weird, which keeps proving itself an excellent investment.
My ILL loan request just came in, I'll also be reading from The Weird. I've got a standing search for an affordable used copy, I can see I'll want a copy eventually.
Well, I found that copy of F&SF easily, much to my surprise. I was fascinated by this story, from the anecdotal opening scenes to the science of plagues and on to the claustrophobic, underground tunnels in Vietnam. I found myself wanting more, and indeed, this could read almost like part of an outline for something novel-length.
Was it too much of a coincidence for our narrator's original coyote-boy to be the same Victor who saves him in the tunnel? Maybe, but the force of the tale practically demands it.
Well, I was the one who suggested this story, and it's stuck with me after reading it on its first publication. That is no doubt because of an interest I have in the bubonic plague. (Incidentally, Fowler gets all the details right on its history.)
However, on reading it a second time, I'm not sure how well it sticks together. Paul Becker could be the same dark avatar of the plague that Procopius mentions or he could be a mutant with "singular" musculature (or just developed it from being a feral child) whisked away by the CIA and who becomes Victor.
The first possibility is seemingly contradicted by his seemingly normal boyhood up until that camping trip. And, while encountering him may have given Caroline plague, why no one else gets the plague in San Francisco or in all the time (that we know about) until he shows up as Victor (if he is)? Even the plague in Vietnam was not, by medieval standards, a large outbreak.
The second possibility just has Paul becoming Victor who just happens to be in areas where the plague breaks out.
But Fowler wants seems to want to conflate both possibilities.
Fowler uses the plague survivors, especially Victor, as a metaphor for the animal, the “dark”, in all us; this darkness is manifested when horrors like disease pare away all that is human. When adults turn to the dark, it is difficult to return to the old self. Children are too young to have a self to return; they stay in the feral state like Paul Becker.
I think the ending is too obscure. What is meant by Caroline Crosby’s twitching? Are we to infer the dark, the feral, has permanently infected Caroline? And what are we to infer from Redburn's suicide?
I think the valences of these elements don't really work together despite the striking presentation and lots of plague details.
Incidentally, the idea of Procopius' plague avatar was also used in Alan E. Nourse's plague novel The Fourth Horseman.
Agreed about the obscurity of the ending.
If Victor indeed is the feral boy trained by the CIA, one'd want to know how they made him like them. Did they possess some powers of kindness and communication lacking in the narrator and the medical staff? Or are we conversely to assume their very callousness presented them as natural allies for the feral, dehumanized, boy?
>7 RandyStafford:, >8 AndreasJ:
All good points that I think might have been satisfactorily ironed out if this was novel-length. There's just way too much going on here for a short story to handle adequately.
I keep thinking of that spider scene in the tunnels. I'm no arachnophobe, and if it were done on-screen as CGI it would be pretty hum drum. Reading it, though, brings some chills...
Finishing the story, I thought simply: it works. A lot of that is the quality of writing --as the VanderMeer intro notes, Fowler's characterizations are strong throughout and this elevates the storytelling. So even though it wasn't clear to me exactly what was going on, I felt comfortable thinking the story works.
All the points and questions already mentioned are valid, though. Reflecting on those and on my own understanding of what I thought was happening (is Paul Becker the boy in Viet Nam? how could that be?), the main insight I had was that the realistic, "our world" scenario is the main source of confusion. We know the world Fowler describes, it's our world, and she goes to great lengths to get it right even when touching on arcane points of reference, such as the plague. In that world, the boy doesn't fit, and the pressure appears to be on Fowler for not explaining the boy's presence in the same rigourous manner, for not explaining the rules.
Then I thought, if this were a Dreamworld story, I wouldn't be asking any of those questions. If Dunsany or HPL or Fowler claimed the story took place in another world, I would instead wonder what the rules are, and not worry about the boy's role not working in the story. So I'm left thinking Fowler's story works so long as I think of the boy as an irruption of the Weird into our world, an interruption of sorts which can't be accounted for within the rules of our world.
>6 KentonSem: this could read almost like part of an outline for something novel-length.
>9 KentonSem: All good points that I think might have been satisfactorily ironed out if this was novel-length. There's just way too much going on here for a short story to handle adequately.
Fowler indirectly responds to your comments in the Strange Horizons interview you posted under MISCELLANY:
The short form fits science fiction in a beautiful way, and lends itself to the kind of science fiction I like, which is a cerebral, unsettling kind of fiction -- a fiction that turns things you know into things that are strange, and turns things that are strange into things you are comfortable with. This kind of head-centered fiction is easier to accomplish in the short form. Novels for me are more about emotions and less about revelations, and although there are many science fiction novels that I love, mainly my reading in the science fiction field has been focused on the short fiction, and my novel reading has been mainstream. So, as I said, I didn't make a conscious decision, but I guess it's not too unpredictable that that's what I would be writing myself.
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