Whereas many of the other stories I’ve looked at have something ‘weird’ going on below the surface, hinted at but never quite revealed, with “These Things” there’s plenty of strange stuff happening in the foreground, and it only makes you that much more unsettled at the thought of what else could be taking place.
But the bones of the narrative have an almost soap opera sensibility about them, focusing on one family and events in their lives that seem quite mundane, are the sort of problems we all have to contend with. Neil and Sarah are trying to make their marriage work after her infidelity, teenage daughter Emma is pushing at the boundaries of her life, experimenting with hair dyes and bad boys, while Neil’s brother Gary is visiting from out of town and down on his uppers, afraid that he might have a brain tumour.
It’s pure Coronation Street, except for the fact that the stage on which all this human drama is played out is very different from any Manchester suburb. Cold Rest is a town on the border of Georgia and North Carolina, one of those fantastical backwater burgs that seem a staple of so much American genre fiction, like Green Town, Illinois, or Eerie, Indiana. It was founded by the Cold family, who came there from ‘nobody knows where’ and established Cold Rest at the time of the Great Depression. In the present day Bree Cold and her half -wit brother Ambrose run the town’s only business, a mine of some sort, though nobody is quite sure what it produces. Even Gary, who works in the office, reports that the words and figures he records each day transform into ‘other kinds of marks, things I’ve never seen before.’
The locals almost never leave Cold Rest, and those who marry into Cold Rest families from outside eventually experience similar problems, as with Neil. There are opposing views of the town. According to Neil, ‘I have always known that there is something wrong in Cold Rest’, but his wife Sarah is of the opinion that ‘at least in Cold Rest we can get at the edges of something miraculous’.
This dialectic of the miraculous and the horrific is at the heart of the story. Neil carves marvellously lifelike creatures in wood, and sometimes these figures actually come to life, as with a robin that flies around his workshop before killing itself in an attempt to escape. It’s a disruption of the natural order, overturning our understanding of the laws of cause and effect, but in essence that is what a miracle is: the difference lies in how we react to the event – with wonder, horror, or the amalgam of both that is awe.
The people of Cold Rest are every bit as trapped as that bird – their existence both a miracle and an abomination – and fated to destroy themselves when they push against the boundaries of their world.
Lately Neil has been having strange dreams which inspire him to forge sculptures in metal, ominous creations that Sarah and Gary find disturbing. There are hints too of others indulging in a similar bizarre creativity – the poems Sarah never shows to Neil, the novel Gary works on up in his room.
In tone the story reminded me very much of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” and also of “In the Black Mill” by Michael Chabon, but Rucker delivers a showstopper ending that brings to mind “The Mist”, with an eruption of the outre into the everyday.
There’s ambiguity in attendance though. What has caused these strange chickens to come home to roost? Do the locals power some otherworldly machine that creates a fracture in the space-time continuum, or is it their own creations, those monsters of the id, that are being injected into the reality of the story? A third alternative – has Neil, who is the viewpoint character, lost his mind?
This was a powerful and intriguing story, one in which the potential for the miraculous in the everyday is both celebrated and a cause for fear.