Monday, January 29, 2018

"Smoothpicks" by Elizabeth Massie


"Oh. There is blud..."
It was relatively early in Deathrealm's ten-year history that I became acquainted with Elizabeth Massie's short fiction, and not long afterward that I became acquainted with Ms. Massie herself. At the time, her work had been published in numerous reputable small press publications, such as 2AM, Grue, The Horror Show, and Space & Time, and when I met her at the 1987 World Fantasy Convention in Nashville, TN, I confess I was a fanboy. On a personal level, we pretty much hit it off, especially when we discovered we had attended the same college, though some years apart (I will be a wretched man here and tell you that she preceded me there by a few years, though I will not reveal how many). The fact that Ms. Massie [and her hubby Cortney] later took up geocaching proved she was a human of appealingly deviant character.

When Ms.Massie submitted a story to Deathrealm a couple of months or so after our first meeting, I truly was over the moon, especially because, unlike a select number of "name" authors at the time, she did not send me a trunk story*, but a first-rate piece of fiction, which was at once horrifying, heartwarming, funny, and tragic. It was called "Smoothpicks," and it became one of Deathrealm's most acclaimed published works, for very good reason. It read as both a spontaneous graphic narrative as well as a stylized fable. Based on reader feedback, for some, it tiptoed into the "I-Can't-Suspend-My-Disbelief" zone, but if one read it as this editor believed it was intended, the more far-fetched aspects of the story were an absolute non-issue.

The story is a "jernal," penned by an inmate in a home for "mental dessectives." Mary is her name, known to some as "Hary Mary," not because she is a hairy girl but because "she so hary to be wit." Mary's best friend in the institution is a gentleman who goes by the name "Buggy," incarcerated after a personally devastating tour of duty in Vietnam. Although Buggy brought back memories of untold horrors from the Far East, he also returned with certain esoteric knowledge, which some modern medical practitioners might describe as a form of acupuncture, but which Mary merely calls "smooth stiks to help the hurt"—a.k.a. "Smoothpicks."

Buggy is occasionally taken with violent, destructive fits, yet when one of the inmates is in pain, he is the one who selflessly alleviates their suffering, by way of his "smoothpicks." After Buggy reaches a point of crisis, where he can only kill his personal demons by using a "big" smoothpick—a butcher knife—he leaves Mary with a special gift: an application of smoothpicks that brings her a clarity of mind she has never before known.

At this point, Mary faces an unimaginable choice. Whatever her choice, it is horror. It is tragedy. It is unbearable.

For her choice to have meaning, the reader must willfully suspend his or her disbelief; however, in the context of the story, such suspension is not just simple but natural. Over the course of the tale, Ms. Massie has drawn us into the realm of the impossible. And because her storytelling has captured most of us fully and without reservation, in context, the impossible no longer seems even implausible. At once, we both want and dread the final, nerve-shattering revelation. Without it, there is no catharsis. And in a story such as this—the kind of story at which Ms. Massie excels—we desire catharsis. Even if it hurts.
Elizabeth Massie, or emvirginia, as
she is known in geocaching circles

Though it springs from very early in Ms. Massie's long, varied career as an author, "Smoothpicks" displays the hallmarks of an expert storyteller: engaging, memorable characters; a distinctive voice; critical conflicts, both internal and external; and imagery that haunts the mind long after the reading is done. Over the years, I've read countless of Ms. Massie's stories and novels—I've even co-written two novels with her—and while she has gone on to explore endless new avenues in fiction, "Smoothpicks" remains a landmark work, both for her and for Deathrealm.

Copies of Deathrealm #7 are difficult, though probably not impossible, to find. "Smoothpicks" was reprinted in the anthology Deathrealms (Delirium Books, 2004) which may be marginally easier to acquire. You might check with eBay or Amazon.com to find available copies.

*More than one well-known author did this early in Deathrealm's run, for the professed purpose of "testing" my editorial prowess. I've never understood such a mindset, but apparently it exists. Submissions that struck me as being trunk stories always got bounced, no matter who they came from.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Massie said...

Wow. Thanks for this incredible blog....I'm humbled and so appreciative! "Smoothpicks" remains one of my favorites, and I'm so glad you and others found it worthy, as well.