So, Jon Mollison, who seems an all-around awesome guy, and who’s Sudden Rescue I’m very much looking forward to reading, is taking one for the team and attempting to go through the Hugo-Nominated Novelettes for this year. Since I’m trying to increase my reading, I figured why not read along with him. He doesn’t know me from Adam, but maybe we’ll compare notes sometime.
Told from the second person, in “You’ll Surely Drown…” you, Ellis, are a witch-boy, born of a witch-man and the spirit of some western desert. Your father died in a silver mine cave-in about three months back and since then you spend many a night in some sort of transformed state, running about in the desert and bringing dead things to life. Your only friend is Marisol, a girl who lost her parents in the same cave-in and now works as a whore, where you too work and sometimes even service clientele (though your witchiness sends most of them running quick).
SPOILERS: The story begins when some city-slickers and a dark preacher come from out east to check in on their caved-in silver mine. Because of your powers, you’re recruited to help them clear out the cave-in from the risen dead, brought about by some curse (revealed to be the apparent murder of your witch-man father in the mine). You fail and die, but are resurrected by the power of the dark preacher and your mother. With new powers, you bring the dead to life, reunite them with their loved ones for an evening, kill the city-slickers, and tearfully give Marisol the money for a one-way ticket east and then march off into the desert to be whatever zombie-desert thing you’ve become.
First off, I have to applaud Alyssa Wong on her writing. It’s fantastic. Every sentence is well-crafted, the second-person viewpoint reads smoothly, and she can do angst really, really well. The whole second-person thing, while it doesn’t detract from the story, doesn’t seem to add anything though. It seems like a conceit just for the sake of literary fireworks. Still, the novelette is a fantastic read just for the wordsmithing alone.
The story is also pretty good from a purely technical point of view. It builds you, Ellis, up gradually from a very lost little boy, to someone trying to live up to your powers, seeing this thwarted, then finally giving yourself up wholly to them. Marisol is a great human anchor, giving a tenderness needed in a story that’s really dark and oppressive. The villains are a little cookie-cutter – company-men looking to make a buck any way they can – but are serviceable for the situation.
It’s a good novelette, worthy of the Hugos, especially based upon their recent aim of socially conscious fiction.
And that’s where my rub is. This is very much socially-conscious fiction, though not of the racial- or gender-lit style most right-wingers are complaining about. Instead, it’s the “let’s make nihilistic-relativism beautiful” sort.
The story is a horror tale – there’s some slight body-horror with the terror of your, Ellis’, transformations; you feel menace at what may happen to Marisol under the easterners’ interests; the silver-mine holds a dark secret, manifest in its shambling dead things and the visions of your murdered (?) father. This becomes a dark and twisted world where you, Ellis, are forced to contend with powers that are inhuman.
A horror story like this should end in one of two ways – the ending of the horror and restoration of the Good; Or the oppressive nihilism of recognizing the futility of man’s Good in a world which doesn’t care. The first is the usual ending of an adventure-horror story – kill the monster, undo the curse, save the town, get the girl. We all know how that goes. And we all love it because it is good, wholesome, romance. The second is perhaps most perfectly embodied in the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Man is, for the most part, Good. However, the universe he inhabit doesn’t care and because he is so small in it, this tension will drive him insane.
I’m a fan of both endings because they ultimately affirm Goodness. Even in the second one, Goodness is so real that it instead goes mad before the irrationality of the universe than be denied. It’s a look into a world where man has supernatural aspirations but is caught in a world where there is only the natural (the eldritch horrors of Lovecraft are eminently natural, forces of irrational nature blown up to supercosmic proportions) – the atheist recognizing the horror of it all. He’s a fool for not having that move him to belief, but I’ll leave the LORD to deal with that.
Wong’s story doesn’t follow either of these endings. Instead, she creates a contradictory ending where that which is not-good is seemingly embraced. Death is somehow “life” here. This is not the Christian view of things, wherein man goes through death unto new life. Rather life is death, like in the Santa Muerte cult. In the midst of the story, you, Ellis, are tasked with “stopping” or “killing” the shambling skeletons of animals and men. It pains you to end this living death:
“after only a few of these anti–resurrections, you’re shaking and howling and barely able to stay on your horse for it.”
Anti-ressurrections, Wong calls them. The sleep of death is worse than living-death, apparently. No RIP here.
This is really shown in the ultimate ending. The preacher is revealed to be some sort of ally, a kind of witch-man but one who is the brother of your desert spirit mother. He smells and reeks of death and is even depicted with a gaping whole in his belly where bats hang suspended. Through his help, you, Ellis, effect a kind of inverted eschatalogical moment – the dead return to their loved ones (it’s left mysterious whether they appear dead or not) for an evening (the end of which we do not see). Ellis, you, fully embrace being a dead thing, even turning away the only living thing you really love.
And Wong is skilled enough with her word-smithing that she makes this beautiful. One is left with a tear in the eye as death is made into a special kind of life.
Reading this right after Easter (Christus Surrexit!), I’m left rather horrified by all this inversion. The preacher is turned into a vessel for death; the desert-spirit is like a vengeful God; the messiah does not end death but revels in it; salvation is a fleeting evening of remembrance or a one-way ticket away from the one you love. It isn’t just the zombies here, but the whole ethos of the tale – embrace death and revel in it. Not like a Heavy Metal “tonight we dine in hell” revel, but an ecstatic, mystical moment revel.
This contradiction becomes especially apparent in the kind of victim-vengeance indulged in its last act. You, Ellis, are the victim – from the loss of your father, the inhumanity you were born into, the hurt of your friend, Marisol, the manipulation by the company-men. It all piles on until, in the last act, you are turned into a grim reaper of death who can fulfill all people’s desires and destroy your enemies. The only thing keeping this from full victim-reparation is that, instead of finally getting with your girl, who, the story takes pains to make clear, loves you for who you are and not your appearance. Instead of getting with her, you tearfully send her away. Apparently you can’t let her love you (though what this says about your father and mother’s relationship is odd…). It smacks of trying to keep from a wish-fulfillment ending. This whole final act is an attempt at the usual adventure-horror ending, trying to bring about some sort of Eucatastrophe, but also firmly embracing the kind of nihilism of Lovecraftian horror – just, instead of madness, one has mystical ecstasy in becoming death itself. All for being a victim (and thus overtones of a perverted Christian message – instead of resurrection, there is vengeance and death-apotheosis). It’s very much in the genetic lineage, thematically, of “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”, the 2014 Nebula Winner and Hugo Nominee.
Some may want to call this contradiction beautiful. It’s surely interesting, especially in Wong’s skilled hands. But I don’t think one can simply drink the Kool-aid.
Wong’s story is “good”, in the same way Nietzche’s philosophy is “good”. The philosopher of the ubermensch is a damned skillful writer with enough insight to wow the unaware. But he’s still sickly wrong.
“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” lives up to its name. It’s a rather beautiful story, but its glamour is like that of a will-o-the-wisp or a siren. It’s beauty is there to entrance, to draw you in, but its goal is to kill you. Wong’s story seeks to upend the human and Godly love of life.
Put this one on the Index.