Friday, May 9, 2008
Orpheus With a Heart
Though rife with many of the trappings of the classic horror tale, Kim Paffenroth's novelette, Orpheus and the Pearl (Magus Press, 2008), isn't what I would call "horror" at all. With thematic elements that hearken to Dracula, Frankenstein, and Herbert West: Re-Animator, Orpheus is a haunting tale that offers a few little chills and the occasional shudder, but above all, it's a story with a heart (and no, not just an organ yanked out of somebody's chest cavity).
Set in the early 20th century, Orpheus opens with a scene reminiscent of Jonathan Harker's arrival at Castle Dracula, but here, it's a woman psychiatrist, Catherine McGuire, arriving at the dwelling of Dr. Wollston, a highly regarded physician/research scientist who faces an unusual moral, ethical, and practical problem: his young wife is recently deceased, but he has found a way to revive her to a state that resembles life. While her "soul" remains intact, preserving her body requires extensive measures, and her mind has suffered unexplainable damage by the ordeal of dying and resuscitation. Most significantly, she is prone to fits of extreme rage, with a corresponding amplification of physical strength and appetite. It is this problem that Dr. McGuire has been summoned to address.
Tension begins on page 1 and undulates snakelike behind every scene. Just how does one understand, psychoanalyze, and "cure" someone who is technically dead? Mrs. Wollston is not a mindless zombie, yet her presence inspires the kind of fear one might feel in the presence of a wild animal — an animal that might, at the slightest provocation, rip your throat clean out. As Dr. McGuire interacts more closely with Mrs. Wollston, we, as readers, gain increasing insight into this weird state somewhere between life and death, rendered by Paffenroth in alternating shades of clinical detachment and emotional intensity. The characters drive the story to a moving climax and a resolution that is at once hopeful and bittersweet.
Paffenroth's crafting is mostly masterful, yet all is not quite perfect in this novelette, for the occasional turn of a phrase clunks like a B-flat that should have been an F-major-seventh, and I'm not sure it's due entirely to the style of the telling. One line in particular slammed my reading to a stop and even now, it feels as ugly as scraping my fingers across a cheese grater. It describes "a wide, narrow window," followed by its approximate dimensions. This sentence could have breezed right to the portal's dimensions, leaving out the "wide, narrow" bit, and suffered not a smidgen of harm. Perhaps I nitpick, but this stood out sufficiently to make me remember it long after the fact. Thankfully, such gaffes are few in number, and none other so grievous, and when Paffenroth's prose is elegant, it is the very definition.
I'm going to recommend Orpheus for a Stoker as well as to you folks who are dying for a story that is both tense and touching. In my fairly long experience of reading dark fiction, I've too often found the latter quality deficient. Orpheus makes up for a mess of it.