For Creepy Crawlies
Real life frequently gives me the creeps, and I do not like horror films, but fiction rarely affects me. I'll be using two examples that did freak me out for our Halloween Bingo. This is one of them.
Anthony Coburn's novelette was published in the 4 April 1959 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, one of several large, illustrated weekly magazines to which my parents subscribed. I was ten and a half years old at the time. I had not yet begun to write adult fiction. The illustration for the story attracted my attention -- I have searched but can't find it online -- and I began reading. The tale captured me completely, frightened me but mesmerized me. More than likely I read it again in the next few weeks, but my mother was not one to keep magazines piled up for any length of time, so it ended up in the trash, and almost forgotten.
It might have been completely forgotten except that the ending was too good, too clever, too perfect. I couldn't forget the ending.
A few years later, when I was in high school, I did some searching at the public library. I didn't remember the title or the author or even what magazine it had been published in, so the usual reference sources, like the big green Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature indexes, were of little use. Somehow or other, however, I found it as a reprint in an annual collection. I'm pretty sure I reread it at that time, although there's a possibility the library didn't have that particular anthology and I didn't read it, for I remember nothing of my reaction if I did. The one thing I took away from the research was the title. I was not going to forget the title.
Monster stories aren't really my thing, so I'm not sure why this one captured my enthusiasm and held it for so very long. But it did. Several years ago -- it looks from my records like 2010 -- I purchased a copy of that annual collection from Amazon and reread The Tale of the Fourth Stranger.
It proved to be both slightly disappointing and yet as satisfying as ever. And when the Booklikes 2016 Halloween Bingo was announced, I knew right away a rereading for the Creepy Crawlie square was in order.
The unnamed hero is a self-described rather dissolute young man who hangs around the beach of his little Australian town, drinks and swaps stories with the other men, and makes a little money here and there selling his artwork. He is fascinated by their tales of a great monster and the fabulous treasure it guards somewhere out to sea not far from the shore. With the innocence and bravery and faith of youth, he sets out to slay the monster and win the treasure.
When he returns from his adventure, he learns he has been played false by his former friends. His joy and triumph turn to anger and contempt, but he is not left with bitterness or without hope.
And the ending is still as fabulous as when I read it the first time.
In November 2014, just a few days before I set out on a perilous adventure of my own, I wrote a blog post about The Tale of the Fourth Stranger, one of my by now probably familiar disavowals of a belief in omens and other superstitious claptrap. And yet. . . . and yet. . . .this is the season for superstitions and omens.
Perhaps the moral of the tale is not just the destructive power of cynicism, but that it is all around us, and it can so easily kill our dreams. Perhaps the real treasure is the one we hold in our imagination.