“Vic” by Maura McHugh

Black Static #21 is now mailing out to subscribers, and it contains a new story by Maura McHugh, “Water”, and so it seems appropriate to discuss Maura’s story “Vic” which appeared back in #10 and was picked up by editor Paula Guran for the inaugural issue of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. There’s another reason it’s appropriate, but I’ll get to that in a short while.

The story begins with the line ‘Vic’s room was small and awkward, just like him.’ As we read on it is revealed that Vic is a child suffering from a never named disability – his heartbeat is erratic, there are stitches in his flesh, the wounds bleed and he can’t exert himself – and that this room, itself nothing more than a converted storage closet, is the circumference of his world. His only diversions come from books and looking out of the window, fantasising about the lives led by other children, things he fears that he will never experience for himself but yearns for. He studies butterflies, and the concept of transformation, the larva that becomes a chrysalis and then emerges as a fully formed imago appears to have a special significance for the boy.

Initially, with news reports of imprisoned children still fresh in our minds, this scenario invites a conclusion of abuse – the boy kept in a cubby hole, no hint of a legitimacy that something like a bedroom would provide; the mother who is also scarred and walks with a limp; the father who is never named, and comes over as an imperious figure, possibly to be feared.

As events unfold this impression is dispersed: both parents show signs of caring deeply for the boy and Vic’s mum argues for his freedom – ‘Being pent up like this isn’t healthy!’ Indeed, when Vic decides to run away, to allow his parents to ‘start over’ without him, leaving the house is easy: there are no locks or bars to stop him.

Vic meets another boy and they play basketball together, and for a brief while he can be just an ordinary child, only then he starts to feel tired and his parents arrive to take him home. But when his mother invites the other boy back to their house, something that should surely please Vic, a terrible memory rears up in his consciousness and Vic drives the boy away.

So what’s going on here? What’s up with Vic? The clue is in the name, which for any horror fan can’t help but bring to mind Victor Frankenstein. And his mother answers to the name of Mary, which puts us in mind of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, and also at a stretch of the Virgin Mary (in Shelley’s book the monster was to be the progenitor of a new race, and so a messianic connection is not entirely off the wall).

And thus we can hazard a guess that the father is the never named monster from Shelley’s seminal work and the mother is the female companion gifted him by James Whale, and Vic is the child they have patched together out of other body parts just as they themselves were created (we are told that Vic’s hands do not match, that his stitches keep coming undone, and it’s suggested that the fate he fears for his basketball companion is that of a cadaver providing the raw material of his existence – Vic’s driving the other boy away is an act of self-sacrifice). Who then should the boy be named after other than his ‘grandfather’?

But by telling this story of ‘monsters’ from the perspective of a child McHugh gives it a haunting and very human dimension. Vic just wants to be a boy, to have and do the things that other boys do. He reaches out for this prize even at the cost of his own life; to be normal, if only for a brief moment, is Vic’s greatest desire. His parents just want to be a happy family unit, the desiderata of father, mother and child, and they are prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to make that viable, though unlike Vic their methods involve the sacrifice of others. We forget appearance as we read and instead relate to a very human situation, – dying child and desperate parents – one that has its ugly side but which also invites our compassion along with condemnation.

We know that human beings can act like monsters. Our television sets tell us this every single night. “Vic” is the other side of the coin, showing that monsters can be human too, that they too can care about their children and show them a love every bit as genuine and valid as anything we feel for our own.

At the end of the story there’s a strong suggestion that death is imminent, but ‘Vic kept beating for as long as he could’, and really that’s all any of us can do, human or monster and all points in-between.

Oh, and the other reason talking about this story now is appropriate? I’m currently reading Frankenstein’s Prescription by Tim Lees.

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