Thursday, May 3, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #14: A review of "The Place of Pain" by M.P. Shiel
Best known for THE PURPLE CLOUD, Shiel is mostly forgotten by modern audiences. He doesn’t deserve that, and it’s good to see Pelan bringing back one of Shiel’s tales from the dead.
The story is set in the middle of nowhere, a town called Small Forks in British Columbia, and it concerns a gentleman by the name of Rev. Thomas Podd. The narrator sees him as a pious man, eager to help his flock and to convert others to Christianity. However, one day the nature-loving Podd goes out camping to commune with the planet. When he comes back, he’s an absolute wreck of a man. Dressed as sloppily as a man can, he addresses his flock without his collar and denounces them all as fools. From this moment on, he becomes homeless, a joke to everyone else. This rouses the narrator’s curiosity, so he interrogates the good reverend.
Podd refuses to tell him what happened out there in the woods. However, he says that if the narrator will give him three dollars a week, he will, upon his deathbed, let the narrator in on the secret. After learning Podd has tuberculosis and won’t be around for much longer, the narrator talks him down to a dollar.
A bit later, the government wants to put an electric company out in the woods, and Podd flips out. He starts blowing up their construction sites. Though he’s never caught, the townsfolk know it is his fault, and they try to lynch him. The narrator saves his life, and Podd decides to tell him the truth about what he’d seen.
This tale is a wonderfully sculpted suspense story. Shiel tantalizes the reader with very few details, demanding complete attention and devotion. What could possibly change this God-fearing man into the trainwreck we see before us? Why does he keep saying that he’s seen Hell? And what does it have to do with the moon?
SPOILER ALERT: The only flaw in Shiel’s story is the ending. Podd leads the narrator out to the falls, where he claims that if he takes a certain rock and puts it in a particular position in the river, the frothy waves will change into a glass surface, through which they’ll be able to see this Hell he keeps talking about. But he won’t do it in front of the narrator, because he doesn’t want the narrator to be able to duplicate the process. He tells the narrator to go down to a cave and watch from there while Podd does the thing with the rock.
Unfortunately, this is the moment when the tuberculosis kicks in. Podd lives only long enough to pick up the rock. Even though the narrator tries to position the rock in the river at various places, he just can’t do it. All the suspense is built up for nothing. We never get to find out if Podd’s story is true.
It’s not a complete loss. Perhaps Shiel is implying that Podd is a nut. Or maybe he’s suggesting that the powers that be saved the narrator’s sanity by letting Podd die at that moment. Podd certainly thinks that he got TB because he discovered the truth about the falls. This open-endedness lets the reader come to his/her own conclusion, but it’s maddeningly unsatisfactory, just like real life. END OF SPOILERS.
If you can stomach the vague nature of the ending, you’ll be fine. If you demand answers from your fiction, you might want to steer clear. Still, it’s a fine tale where the journey is a lot more interesting than the destination.
[This story first appeared in the May '14 issue of RED MAGAZINE and cannot be found online at this time.]