Note: AT THE BOTTOM of this post, you’ll learn how to win a copy of the collection in which this story may be found.
This story stars with one of my favorite “first lines” of all time:
I know an old couple who live near Hell.
I don’t know how anyone can resist reading on. I certainly could not. What follows is a complex interaction of dialogue and narrative and characterization and situation that leaves us wondering what is truly going on. And that’s a good thing for a reader. And that’s a worthy thing to study for a writer.
Quick Synopsis: A man who regularly visits a rather extraordinarily situated B&B meets a woman who may not be what she says, a demon who may not be who he seems, and finds that the events of a single night may be the crux of his own salvation or damnation. Is he falling in love with a runaway from Hell? Is the demon out to bring her back? Is there a complex devilish (literally) plot to snare his soul? Has he gone mad and none of what’s going on is what he thinks it is?
Structure: This is a first person short story (28 pages) that is the narrator telling an event of his own life from a week prior. Dialogue is of crucial importance, as is the introspection of the narrator. The ending leaves many questions in the air.
Characters: If we take the narrator as reliable—he states himself that he only lies when forced to, and we must decide if he has reason to lie—then the characters are 1. a living human man, 2. a demon, and 3. a dead female runaway from Hell. Secondary character: the B&B proprietor. No Christians are identified in this tale.
I’m doing this analysis in two parts, because this tale quite longer story than the previous Wolfe story, and longer than the Yolen and the Willis, too.
IS IT CSF?
This is a fantasy story that presumes Hell is real (ergo Heaven is, also), and that angels and demons are also real. In this world, demons are powerful and ruthless and do harm, much harm, to mortals. And they cannot be trusted. This fits well with the Scriptural teachings.
Because it is fantasy, the Hell is the Hell we are familiar with not from the Bible but from works such as Dante and onwards; which is to say, not precisely subtle or populated only by the souls of the lost. This Hell has demons and devils in a business hierarchy that has its headquarters down below. Dante is mentioned more than once in the story, so we are to assume that Wolfe is paying homage to the poet’s imagery.
The heart of the story is about Hell—though we never see it—and those bound there. In that the first line is more than a “hook.” It’s utterly brilliant. “I know and old couple who live near Hell.” It’s so mundanely written. They could as easily live near Mount Vernon or The Metropolitan Museum of Art or Niagara Falls. And that is an important point. This is the mundane reality. We all live near Hell. We are all living in proximity to our doom—unless we make the choice otherwise, the conscious choice not to live near Hell, but to live for Heaven.
I’m so jealous I didn’t come up with that line. Sigh.
This is a totally Christian idea: We choose Hell, just as clearly as we can choose Heaven. God is there, inviting the world to choose, from the beginning of human life: choose where you’ll live. Be careful the choices you make, they have consequences.
And this is a story about choices. The runaway’s, the demon’s, the bosses of Hell, and, most importantly, the narrator’s.
I hope I’ve piqued your interest, because now we get to the part where you think and we discuss—
Assignment: Knowing the set-up of this story—a runaway woman from hell drops by as a beggar for a night’s meal and shelter at a Bed & Breakfast, where she meets the narrator, a man who is regularly drawn to this strange place near Hell, and where a demons casually register as guests on their way to and from “business”. The woman seeks the narrator’s aid and protection for the night. The narrator is attracted to the woman—as he is attracted to Hell, itself, surely—and agrees to help. He has “guards” against demonic influence. But does he?
What will happen next? What will the woman say? What will the demon? What will the narrator? How do you see this story playing out if it were written for the CBA? How do you think it works out as an ABA story?
Once you comment on where you think it could go, should go, must go, then we’ll discuss where it does go. And then I’ll tell you if this is CSF, and what we can learn as writers (and readers) from this excellent story. I’ll also post comments from Wolfephile, Elliot H. of Claw of the Conciliator blog.
BOOK GIVEAWAY BLESSING: Because I love this story, I’ll be giving away a free copy of STRANGE TRAVELERS—the collection of Wolfe stories that carries this work—to whomever posts the comment I most enjoy during this two-part analysis. It’s totally subjective and up to me. No names from a hat. And I will not play favorites. If my favorite comment in answer to some of the above questions or next week’s discussion comes from a total stranger, said stranger gets the book. Also, this is voluntary. If you don’t want the book, I won’t foist it upon the winner. I give you….a choice. Winner will be chosen next weekend. Note that I will need your name and snail mail to send the book if you CHOOSE to accept the prize.
If you need incentive to join the verbal fray for the collection, here is some info from Wikipedia that those of us who have read in SF for years and years already had heard many times:
Although not a best-selling author, Wolfe is highly regarded by critics and fellow writers, and considered by many to be one of the best living science fiction authors. Indeed, he has sometimes been called the best living American writer regardless of genre. Award-winning science fiction author Michael Swanwick has said: “Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today. Let me repeat that: Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today! I mean it. Shakespeare was a better stylist, Melville was more important to American letters, and Charles Dickens had a defter hand at creating characters. But among living writers, there is nobody who can even approach Gene Wolfe for brilliance of prose, clarity of thought, and depth in meaning.”.
Among others, writers Neil Gaiman and Patrick O’Leary have credited Wolfe for inspiration. O’Leary has said: “Forget ‘Speculative Fiction’. Gene Wolfe is the best writer alive. Period.
If that doesn’t make you want the book, well, I’m aghast and befuddled. 😯
Til next week, my dears.