Beyond Iverson’s Pits: Six Other Great Works of American Gothic Short Fiction by Dan Simmons

In a previous post, I discussed at length Dan Simmons’s masterful story “Iverson Pits.” That Gettysburg-set shocker, though, does not represent the author’s sole foray into American Gothic territory in his short fiction (i.e. stories, novelettes, and novellas). Here are another half-dozen exemplary pieces:

 

“The River Styx Runs Upstream” (1982)

The text is as great as the title of Simmons’s first-published, award-winning story. A deceased mother is brought back to life-and back home to her family–by a quasi-religious/scientific group called the Resurrectionists. But Mother, mute and mentally blunted, proves a grim facsimile of her former self. The result, though, isn’t Pet Sematary-type carnage, but instead the more quiet horrors of the quotidian (e.g. Mother’s narrating son sees her “watering a plant that had died and been removed while she was at the hospital in April. The water ran across the top of the cabinet and dripped on the floor. Mother did not notice.”). The heartbreaking, not to mention American Gothic, aspects of the narrative are accentuated by the ongoing discrimination suffered by Resurrectionist families such as the narrator’s.

 

“Carrion Comfort” (1983)

The epic novel of the same title is a genre classic, but the source story furnishes no less rewarding a read. A trio of vampiric puppet-masters with a deadly mental Ability to direct the actions of others gather to compare their latest kills. But old rivalries and resentments rear their offensive head, and the game degenerates into macabre mayhem (occurring in both the narrator Melanie’s mansion and the Southern Gothic environs of Charleston). Simmons’s theme of the utter corruption resulting from absolute power makes for some hard-hitting horror, while also providing food for thought about people’s frightening penchant for inhumanity when dealing with one another.

 

“Shave and a Haircut, Two Bites” (1989)

A dingy barber shop in a quintessential Midwestern town becomes the scene of chilling horror. Two pre-teen protagonists suspect the place is a front for a pair of vampires, but these wannabe Hardy Boys get more than they bargained for when trailing surveillance of the barbers turns to late-night break-in of their shop. The story (which jumps back and forth in time between the protagonists’ youth and adulthood) is structured for maximal suspense, and the climactic twist is big and stunning, as Simmons shows it is not just Bram Stoker he’s channeling here. Paging Greg Nicotero: “Shave” would make a perfect script for an episode of Creepshow.

 

Elm Haven, Illinois” (1991)

Written specifically for the shared-world anthology of linked tales, Freak Show, this story serves as one piece of a larger narrative puzzle. In it, the lonely, extremely disfigured narrator Benjamin (inflicted with “Elephant Man’s disease”) gets caught up in the machinations of a shady traveling carnival. The plot is quite enjoyable in its own right, but the true delight for Simmons fans lies in the fact that this piece forms a postscript to Summer of Night. The small town of Elm Haven is in the midst of its death throes three decades after the events of the novel; decadence runs rampant. Benjamin tours the community’s darkest nooks, from the “charred ruin” of his own family mansion to the even more Gothic wreckage of the sinister Old Central School.

 

“This Year’s Class Picture” (1992)

Simmons breathes new life into the zombie subgenre in this tale of a veteran fourth-grade teacher determined to carry on after the collapse of civilization. Ms. Geiss still tends to and attempts to educate the students in her classroom, even if they are now undead and festering. A story that might have devolved into mere grotesquerie instead builds to a moving conclusion (in which Ms. Geiss’s efforts earn her a much better fate than landing on the lunch menu). Besides offering a portrait of post-apocalyptic survival, “This Year’s Class Picture” also presents a scathing critique of a pre-Tribulations society plagued by forces more insidious than zombie hordes: for thirty-eight years, “Ms. Geiss had, as well as she was able, protected her fourth graders from the tyrannies of too-early adulthood and the vulgarities of a society all too content with the vulgar. She had protected them–with all her faculties and force of will–from being beaten, kidnapped, emotionally abused or sexually molested by the monsters who had hidden in the form of parents, step-parents, uncles, and friendly strangers.”

 

“Sleeping with Teeth Women” (1993)

An impressive work of Native American Gothic, presented from an indigenous perspective and displaying a vast knowledge of the culture and mythology of the Lakota Sioux. In his foreword, Simmons writes that the novella is “my antidote to what I consider the saccharine condescension of such travesties as Dances with Wolves,” but his countering of the weak-and-whimpering-victims characterizations in the Costner film does not mean that Simmons in turn simply idealizes Native American strength (he does not gloss over instances of cruelty and savagery). The climax features a battle with some truly nightmarish creatures, yet here the vanquishing of monsters out of native mythology does not mark a conservative end point to the narrative but instead opens up the possibility of a more positive outcome: the eventual freedom from subjugation, and the reclaiming of the lands previously stolen from the Sioux by the greedy white “Fat Takers.”

 

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