Part 2: An Analysis Of Gene Wolfe’s “Bed and Breakfast”: Is It CSF? What Can We Learn?

~This will be longish. I decided not to stretch it to three parts, hence the length. Remember: I’ll be choosing a winner for a free book (Strange Travelers, Gene Wolfe) from the comments relating to last Friday’s or today’s post. […]
on Sep 8, 2006 · No comments

~This will be longish. I decided not to stretch it to three parts, hence the length. Remember: I’ll be choosing a winner for a free book (Strange Travelers, Gene Wolfe) from the comments relating to last Friday’s or today’s post. My fave wins.

I asked some questions last Friday, and here’s my answer to the first, “How would this story play out if it were written for a CBA book?”

Because there is a fictional tradition within Christendom that includes Dante’s INFERNO and Lewis’ THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, and Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, we could keep the set-up exactly as is without being mavericks: a bureaucratic hell with levels of hellishness, a runaway woman of what we’d categorize of minor evilness, a demon who comes across as a businessman with malicious intent, a narrator caught in a moral bind. Probably the conversations would establish more clearly that the woman never accepted Christ as Savior-Lord and that’s why she’s damned. The man’s spiritual struggle would be played up, and he certainly would not indulge in a sexual barter. No sexualized scene would be thinkable. If one wanted a CBA happy ending, there might be a divine intervention that gave the damned woman a second chance (ie, time reversal?), and the narrator would make a profession of faith, too. The demons would have lost, and God would have won, and the narrator and runaway might be get married. A less happy ending might focus on the salvation of the narrator, yet sadly, the woman’s plight would be hopeless. Her talewould be merely cautionary. But demons would have still lost the narrator, God would have the glory, and the B&B would not be visited again by the narrator (who may or may not go on to enter an anti-Hell ministry).

Answering the next question: A less theistically inclined writer in the ABA might make hell seem a heckuva lot more fun and God a lot less just.

But this is how it actually plays out in this ABA published story:

~~Man and runaway hellizen meet in the B&B’s kitchen, eat, talk, and once the demon presence intrudes, the conversation becomes a three-way one. Information about hell is given, but there is much that is only revealed aslant (part of the brilliance of the use of dialogue). Eventually, before everyone retires, the woman makes a sexual bargain with the narrator. Her in his bed for a night’s protection.

The man has some sort of occultic protective knowledge, so the room is fortified against demonic intrusion. During the sexual encounter (not indulgently described such as in erotica, but discreetly alluded to, mostly in directions or suggestions in dialogue), the man gains some direct and indirect information from the woman about her miserable marriage, her infidelities, and the one man she remembers fondly with whom she had no sex, but almost turned to for rescue. It becomes evident she’s using the narrator, as she’s used men in the past, and the narrator is quite happy to be used, enthralled as he is by this beautiful runaway.

In the morning, he asks the demon—in case this demon is the one who’s been sent to retrieve her—to grant him more time with her, a couple weeks. The demon, Foulweather by name, says he’s not after her. If he were assigned to her, he says, he’d have been with her all along (a sort of hellish guardian angel). In fact, he reveals, the “boys downstairs” would be displeased if he interfered with what is transpiring. He says the narrator can have her forever, and there is a sinister phrasing in the demon’s dialogue hinting at things that trouble the narrator.

The woman leaves with the narrator, and they soon part company. He investigates news archives and finds her identity (maybe). Her name is not Eira (meaning snow). She had killed her husband several decades before and suicided while awaiting trial. The narrator has on the day of his narration received mail from her, with her number and a suggestive note. And he’s wondering if he’s the victim of a trick, or if he’s mad, or if there is some demonic plan at work. The story ends with, “Will I call her? Do I dare?”~~

It’s very difficult to convey the subtleties, because any really good story depends on its form and elements, and can’t be merely described.. It’s told in the way it needs to be told. The dialogue must be paid attention to. The actions. The assumptions. The hints. I can’t summarize those.

I can say that the story would not be accepted in the CBA as is. No one is redeemed. No one overtly repents. Sexual activity is the background of an extended bout of pillow talk. While the demon is evident, the angel who might counter the demon is not.

So, is it CSF?

It does not fit precisely all the guidelines we spoke of in a previous post. This one is straddling a line. Not CBA does not = not CSF, imo. But does this qualify as CSF? I think it does. Let me clarify:

The tone of this story is strongly cautionary about flirting with the things of the devil (figuratively and literally). And it takes for granted judgment for sin. There is a hell, the story says. Don’t be overly fascinated by it and the demons associated with it. If you go too near the fire, you may get burned. The devil will come at you where you’re weak. All your occultic tricks won’t save you if you do not wish to be truly saved at the level understood by Christians. In other words, the way to conquer demonic intrusion is to have the Holy Spirit. In God’s name, demons may be authoritatively defeated or told to flee.

Without being preachy, the story presents Christian ideas. Bible verses are even alluded to: “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” The Dantean phrase about abandoning hope in hell comes up more than once. Allusion to portions of the last book of the Bible, notably the beholding of God’s face in heaven and the eternal praising of Him. The “dead” in sin are alluded to. And the Scriptural characteristic of demons/devils is clearly presented—they are liars and not to be trusted. Ever. This plays an enormous part in the story. Who is to be believed? A demon is not to be trusted, right? They will say things with a twist, to confuse, to corrupt, and to distract.

And the story ends at the point of a key life decision. We suspect, after all those pages, that the narrator has sensed deep in his soul that this is a major juncture. If he pursues Eira (the runaway from Hell), what he is actually committing himself to, most likely, is his own damnation. He is at the crux. Will he choose Hell? (I am not even delving into the other possibilities, such as his being insane, thereby invalidating the narrative.)

For those who require hope, one can say that there is the element of hope in his realizing that he has a choice to make. But is there? His act of chivalry had as much self-interest as anything. He wanted this woman, fell for her, made his bargain, and was willing to turn her over after a couple of weeks of sexual bliss. What does it mean when he says near the end, “Perhaps I may be a man of courage after all, a man who has never truly understood his own character.”

Wolfe leaves you to make your decision. Mine hinges on a very pertinent anecdote the demon tells early on to answer Eira’s questions about why hellbound souls come dutifully to the mouth of hell; why they casually stop off sometimes at the B&B before reporting to their final place; why they don’t run away as far as they can get. An anecdote that ends with, “He felt he belonged there.”

And this is my decision about the story:

He will call her. He will choose Hell. He is a man who, without true necessity, has been visiting (perhaps very often, even several times a month) a B&B near Hell. He’s learned enough magical arts to ward off overt demon intrusion, but he keeps putting himself in harm’s way. He is a man who, suspecting a woman is from Hell, dead and damned, nevertheless finds her increasingly desirable and beds her. A man who is willing to make bargains with demons. His true character is that of a man who is comfortable with Hell. He belongs there.

At no point does he call on God for assistance. And even realizing that this woman may be the one sent for him, the way Wormwood was sent for “the Patient,” he entertains the idea of calling her. Sin hasn’t just crouched at his door, it’s made itself at home on his sofa. I don’t’ think it’s an accident that she has chosen the name Eira (“snow”). That sounds suspiciously like “error”, if I’m pronouncing it right. And she’s part of Hell’s snow job on him. (At least in MY interpretation.)

I would say that this story is just inside the line of CSF by my definition, mostly because it doesn’t minimize the cost of giving into temptation nor flirting with the things of Hell and it shows how easy it is to fall into its trap when one is doing it by one’s power alone. It accepts the dark reality of life: demons, temptation, lust, sin, weakness, and damnation. We choose Hell or Heaven, but we choose.

Elliot H. of Claw of the Conciliator blog (a big Gene Wolfe fan, and one of the Speculative Faith readers who has read the story) had this comment, which I quote here because his points are, I believe, on target:

The demon in Bed & Breakfast seems like a tribute to Lewis’ Wormwood. This isn’t a Romantic demon in heroic rebellion against God – he’s a nasty piece of work. And Hell is very real. I particularly liked the anecdote the demon tells to illustrate why people stay in Hell when they could leave – again, very C.S. Lewis.

The protagonist is not discernably a Christian – he seems more like a magician of some sort, who knows enough to fear Hell and its demons, but who still meddles with them. He think’s he’s able protect himself from direct demonic attacks with his magic, but he’s wide open to a moral attack, through temptation, and that’s the question that haunts him at the story’s end. Is his encounter with the escaped woman all an elaborate scheme to damn him?

So it struck me as a combination of a Screwtape-style story with a realistic portrayal of ordinary humans in a morally questionable situation. One point that I remember is the protagonist’s explanation that men are often just as foolishly romantic as women are said to be, just in a different way, which rang true to me.

I, obviously, agree, with Elliot. Hell knew that the narrator’s weakness was sexual and emotional (he needed to feel wanted, he needed to feel heroic to a woman). It makes us stop and think, “Where is our armor’s chink? Who would Hell send after us to do us in?”

Do you disagree with my conclusions? Agree? How else might this have been revised to fit the CBA audience? What is the chink in your fictional character’s moral armor?

What can we learn as writers?

Let people be less than ideal: The best way to show how weak people are in the face of temptation and sin is to let them fall. If all your characters resist temptation, they are cardboard. Only Jesus was able to resist all temptations. Every other human being screwed up—sexually or otherwise.

Let some characters be ambiguous and non-transparent: A character who cannot be trusted in what they say is interesting. It means you have to keep looking for clues to truth. In real life, we’ve all known folks who lie with regularity, who bend stories to their purpose, who justify themselves with fibs, who alter their life histories. Your liar doesn’t have to be utterly evil, just like the liars we know may have many virtues in other areas. But interesting things can happen if a plot point hinges on an untrustworthy character.

Use allusions: The references to the Bible and Dante are part of a conversation where they feel right. They don’t feel out of place or plopped in to make a moral point. They feel appropriate to the people and situation.

Make the most of dialogue: Don’t always be obvious or overexplain. Weave some confusion and mystery into some dialogue encounters. I would assign this story to anyone trying to learn how to improve their own fictional dialogue. So much goes on. Words are not wasted. Subtext adds interest and engages the reader. What is said, how it is said, reveals character.

Next Week: First part of the examination of “Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang. Please read it before we start. It’s downloadable online for a modest fee at
Excerpt: This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk, and how he came to love God. The pivotal event in Neil’s life was an occurrence both terrible and ordinary: the death of his wife Sarah. Neil was consumed with grief after she died, a grief that was excruciating not only because of its intrinsic magnitude, but because it also renewed and emphasized the previous pains of his life. Her death forced him to reexamine his relationship with God, and in doing so he began a journey that would change him forever.

EDITED TO ADD THIS: I had a really tough time picking between three posts I liked. Ultimately, I have to pick Matt M’s Sunday (long) post because it brought up some things that hadn’t occurred to me, and that got me rethinking. So, Matt, it sounds like you may already have Strange Travelers. If you don’t, then it’s ours. Email me at Mirathon atsy AOL dotsy com with your snail mail info. If you already have it, then YOU get to pick your favorite comment and that will be the book winner. Just post here, in either case. THANKS ALL for participating. Come back for the Chiang discussion.

What do you think?