Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Indie Short Fiction: Complicit In Their Bondage by J. Manfred Weichsel

Why are short stories short? Why couldn't they be long stories? There can be wisdom in obvious questions. "Because the submission guidelines cut off at 7500 words" is a good answer, along with "because my fingers got tired" and "look I like this guy but I don't want to hear his life story." If you want the brown-nosing overachiever answer, though, it's something like "the point of writing this was an idea, just one or two or three creepy/thinky/cool bits, and anything extra would be distracting at best." Uncut gems are technically larger than they will be after they're shaped but we do it anyway. More isn't always more.

This frustrates me even more when the gem is cut but not enough, or not in a regular shape. I'm talking about "Complicit In Their Bondage" from the Planetary: Earth anthology, which you can't read, sorry, it's out of e-print till later this year. I know somebody that can hook you up with under-the-table Weichsel stories if you're curious, which you should be since I won't spoil the twist.

The unnamed narrator is a soldier in Afghanistan. This has no effect on his role in the story, which is purely reactive. He has no agency and exists to be shown the story. He has escaped with his CO from a Taliban execution, but before they can die of exposure a mysterious Victorian woman shows up with the human-monsters from Dragon Masters and shoots his CO, at which point we learn the narrator is black in a great example of how formatting can ruin an emotional moment:
I cried. Mark. Mark. We had been through so much together. Yeah, you were white, but you were OK for a white dude. Those things don’t matter in the army anyway. You were like a brother to me. Mark. Poor Mark.
She takes him on horseback to a hidden base in the Afghan hills with elements of all sorts of cultures, you know the type, very mysterious, where about a third of the story is spent with the narrator asking for the twist and not getting it and getting frustrated, which I shared. We're set up to believe one thing about the mysterious fortress, but we're wrong, and they were putting us on. Short stories can handle about one bait-and-switch, and that at the end.

There's a really weird mood whiplash here too, from the realism of the Afghan war (letting aside whether the Taliban actually got their hands on American soldiers for that long) to the spooky lost empire/secret history/alien base, to actual lines of doggerel verse describing their Dragon Masters body horrors:
These are grushers/Their hands are real crushers/They’ll pound the ground/And swing you around/Until you’re out of your druthers 
What I'm saying is there's some barriers to entry before we get the twist, which is actually pretty good. You know what? I'll spoil it.

The thing they used to do with Africans in zoos was expanded into a breeding program where they shaped black bodies into all kinds of Cronenberg, which was funded by some of the world's most powerful people until slavery laws forced them to hide it in Afghanistan (since the world's most powerful people have to obey slavery laws). Finding the narrator in the desert was a stroke of luck for them since they needed a black man to replenish the rotten genes of their monsters, since the world's most powerful people don't seem to have easy access to those.

This is the sort of thing you build a story around! I certainly wasn't expecting it, and wouldn't have even if the first half hadn't been trying to get me to expect something else. I wanted to see if the snithers were actually snakelike and duplicitous, or how many rompers could take down a grusher. The spectacle of the grotesque is the main attraction, though, and once it's been given the narrator is broken out by a friendly niglish for a truncated denouement.

This is the kind of idea that could have driven the best of the Weird Tales, but the composition and prose are halfway between hobbling and hamstringing it. It should have been half or twice the length, and focused, but at least it's here.

Rating: 💂🏿‍♂️😱🇦🇫🤨

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