Academic journal article Mythlore

Anthony Boucher's Greatest Horror Story

Academic journal article Mythlore

Anthony Boucher's Greatest Horror Story

Article excerpt

In The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, T.E.D. Klein describes Anthony Boucher's short story "They Bite" as "one of the most terrifying and often-reprinted stories in horror literature" (48). Again, he describes this story as

   a savage horror tale about a family of shrunken, desert-dwelling
   cannibals called the Carkers, who have survived two attempts by the
   U.S. army to exterminate them. Now mere "lean dry things"
   resembling mummified children, they are usually glimpsed "out of
   the comer of your eye," but their bite can snap through bone. This
   widely anthologized story remains one of the most terrifying ever
   written--and, like the Carkers themselves, it is the single work of
   Boucher's guaranteed to survive. (49)

I print Klein's statements to establish the position I disagree with. Klein has a major reputation in the field of horror literature, of course: editor of the one-time Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" Magazine, author of a novel, a book of novellas, and other works in the field, he certainly has the credentials to support his judgment.

But I am not disagreeing with him personally. Non disputandis de gustibus. What I am saying is that, according to my taste, Boucher's "Review Copy" is his greatest dark fantasy--his greatest horror story, in the casual way that term is currently used. In this essay, I do not intend to attack Klein's judgment. "They Bite" was published by John W. Campbell, Jr., in Unknown Worlds, and it has been reprinted in seven anthologies (Nevins 306, with a more recent appearance in Kaye). It obviously is an effective story, and Klein's commercial judgment of it is not to be denied. But it does not seem, to me, to be a perfect fiction. Its main flaw is structural; it takes a long exposition of the Carkers in a bar--the Desert Hot Spot--to set up the conclusion, and the young man who tells the protagonist about them is identified by the bartender as a stranger there himself (47)--no doubt the bartender means a relative stranger. But the young man's presence and knowledge is never explained, and he is dropped after appearing in the protagonist's dream that night. However, the latter part of the story--a murder plot and the Carker plot--is very well handled, especially the nightmarish struggle to get a Carker's bite loosened from the protagonist's hand (51). And certainly the choice of the name Carkers--probably intended to echo carcase--is subliminally effective.

While admitting "They Bite's" virtues as a story, I still think "Review Copy" is the greater fiction. Since I complained of the exposition scene in "They Bite," let me begin with the structure of "Review Copy." It is divided into nine scenes, via the usual method of skipped spaces between them. The first (eighteen paragraphs long) establishes the conflict, as a frustrated author has turned to a black magician in order to seek revenge upon a reviewer. I might add that this situation may seem, to some, to be a minor affair for the basis of a story; perhaps the topic of the wartime spy in "They Bite" seems more important. But I would argue that supernatural stories have often turned on ancient manuscripts or ancient books; "Review Copy" is simply a modern version of a traditional motif.

The setting of the first scene is New York City, indicated by direct reference (142). The general time period--about the story's date of publication in 1949--is established by the mention of the journalistic columns of Bennett Cerf and Harvey Breit (143). The next seven scenes are in San Francisco and Berkeley, before the final one in New York again. Thus the two scenes with the magician frame the action across the continent.

The second scene is set in the outer office of the bookpage editor of the San Francisco Times. It is a long scene (of thirty-five paragraphs), and it is expository in the sense that it introduces two significant characters--Mark Mallow, the reviewer of detective fiction and other Gothic works, whose clever review of a book on magic upset the author of the first scene, and a young clergyman--referred to just as The Reverend--who reviews the religious books for the newspaper. …

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