“Dread is that tension, that waiting the comes when you know there is something to fear but you have not yet identified what it is. The fear that comes when you first realize that your spouse should have been home an hour ago; when you hear a strange sound in the baby’s bedroom; when you realize that a window you are sure you closed is now open, the curtains billowing, and you’re alone in the house.”
-Orson Scott Card, from the Introduction to The Changed Man.
Once upon a time there was a talented young writer who explored death, horror and the future with uncommon vision. He had a rare talent for the fast-moving plot, the unexpected twist and the exploration of deeper philosophical themes, all in the same space.
People change, and not always for the better. In recent years, Orson Scott Card, who made his fame with brilliant works like Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, has turned his attention towards advocating for one loathsome cause after another. Dogma and fear have gotten the better of his creative talents. If you want evidence, read Empire. Hell, Warner Brothers has the rights, so it may soon be coming to a theater near you.
While Card may now deride much of the “New Morality and the Pill” era, his earlier work is very much of a piece with the glories of science fiction’s Deviant Age. In this edition of All Tomorrows, I’ll focus on The Changed Man, a slim volume released under that title in 1992 that happens to be contain the strongest single collection of Card’s early work that I’ve found (if you want the entirety of his short stories, including some other gems, get the massive Maps in a Mirror).
This column is less about the collection itself than some of the tales contained within. It’s about gems like “Eumenides in the Fourth floor lavatory,” “Fat Farm,” “Closing the Timelid” and “Prior Restraint.” Dread and the bubbling of the nasty subconscious are a theme, and these stories stand as a reminder of the writer Card was, and could have been.
It took a moment for Howard to connect the sores with the child, and by then the leg flippers were already pressed against his stomach, and the arm flippers already gripped his chest. The sores on the child’s flippers were not sores; they were powerful suction devices that gripped Howard’s skin so tightly that it ripped away when the contact was broken. He tried to pry the child off, but no sooner was one flipper free than it found a new place to hold even as Howard struggled to break the grip of another.
What had begun as an act of charity had now become an intense struggle. This was not a child, Howard realized. Children could not hang on so tightly, and the creature had teeth that snapped at his hands and arms whenever they came near enough. A human face, certainly, but not a human being.
–From “Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory”
The above passage gripped me when I first opened The Changed Man. There and elsewhere, he showed an ability to begin with a relatively mundane situation, the kind of mystery that nags, just enough (how does that asshole keep gorging himself and never seem to suffer? is that car following me? Is our kid really that strange? Why do brilliant writers seem to just fade?). Then things don’t work out the way they’re supposed to, but just subtly.
Next thing you know, the creature’s ripping your flesh off. That’s only the beginning. In a recent conversation about good horror, Jerem Morrow mentioned that the best creators of dread “show us who the real monsters are.” Card, in these bitter, perfect tales, does just that. The scariest part about “Eumenides,” or “Fat Farm” aren’t the supernatural elements, but the fact that those prove just a sideshow to the possibilities that lie within our own hearts and minds.
At his best Card had a keen grasp of that nature, it’s part of what made Ender’s Game more than just a slightly innovative twist on the old Alien Invasion story. Here it’s what gives the future death-seeking decadents of “Closing the Timelid” or the sympathetic, brutal censors of “Prior Restraint” an air of uncomfortable reality, and the disturbed son in “The Changed Man and the King of Words” more than just another Damien rip-off.
I’ve written before, with no small amount of regret, about the short story’s fall from its perch as the reigning form for sci-fi and horror.
Part of that regret stems from the fact that many concepts lose their power over a longer game, along with the delicious sense of mystery that a good writer can cultivate in a short space. Just about everything Card wrote in his earlier period demonstrates that taut, tense power. Whatever he does in the future cannot take away from that. It is sometimes a great blessing that stories outgrow their creators.
They tried to console me by telling me what good company I was in. Thomas Hardy–they made him give up novels and stick to poetry which nobody read and so it was safe, “Hemingway decided to kill himself instead of waiting for us to do it. And there are some others who only had to refrain from writing a particular book. It hurt them, but Fitzgerald was still able to have a decent career with the other books he could write, and Perelman gave it to us in laughs, since he couldn’t be allowed to write his real work. We only bother with great writers. Bad writers aren’t a threat to anybody.”
-from “Prior Restraint”