I first encountered the work of American writer Will McIntosh when I was part of the Interzone editorial team and we accepted one of his stories for the magazine, and publishing Will McIntosh stories is an Interzone tradition that’s continued since I left. He’s equally proficient at horror fiction, as this story from Black Static #11 ably demonstrates.
The title comes from the second line – ‘All had wide baby eyes and happy smiles, and none had sharp teeth’ – and we’ll get back to its significance later.
The story’s protagonist is bereaved mother Isadore, and she is an avenger, seeking out the slayers of children. Only her victims are not serial killers or pedophiles, but inanimate objects that have at some point in their past been involved in the accidental death of a child. In Isadore’s mind there is nothing accidental about any of this. She believes that these objects have an intelligence that is inimical to children, that they cause the deaths we unsuspecting humans classify as accidents, whether out of simple malice or as part of some ‘culling’ exercise to curb the human population.
A psychiatrist explains the rationale behind her obsession – ”If a tragedy is enormous, it’s natural for people to insist that the cause must be equally enormous. A tiny and inconsequential event, like an accident on a faulty carnival ride, could not possibly have caused something as awful as the death of your daughter.”
And in parenthesis, let’s observe here that this line of thought is somewhat similar to that of those inclined to religion. We reconcile ourselves to the death of a loved one by accepting that it is all part of God’s plan, and thus imposing an ersatz kind of reason on an act that is entirely senseless when seen in the abstract. Coping mechanisms to keep the pain of existence at a safe distance.
For Isadore the tipping event was the tragic death of her daughter Clarissa, pitched from a carnival ride. Isadore used the money from her settlement to purchase that ride and keeps it in the back garden of her house. She has other ‘death objects’ – a paddling pool in which a toddler drowned, a gumball machine that disgorged a toy on which a child choked to death.
What Isadore wants/needs from these things is an admission of culpability, by way of validation for her madness. She is sure they can communicate, and tortures them to force a confession. She pours acid into the paddling pool, places a plastic bag over the head of the wooden elephant on which her daughter was sitting when she fell, hammers nails into its rear, pours petrol over its head and sets it alight.
Grief has sent her mad, and madness has turned Isadore into a monster.
Readers have praised the story as quiet horror, but I think this is not entirely correct. There is violence and torture here of an extreme nature. Imagine that the things done to the wooden elephant were enacted on a creature of flesh and blood, and see if this story still feels ‘quiet’ to you. From the perspective of Isadore that is exactly what is happening. In a clever inversion akin to the way in which torturers dehumanise their victims, the reader’s perspective is the polar opposite – we don’t see the story as ‘extreme’ because we ‘know’ the elephant isn’t real.
There are a lot of other resonances here. Isadore’s behaviour put me in mind of Stephen King’s confessed desire to destroy with a pickaxe the van involved in his 1999 road accident. And, if not as extreme, all of us can probably remember moments when objects have caused us pain and there has been the unthinking desire to hit back (it happens with the computer and me all the time). Isadore acts out what King and the rest of us only dream of.
But her behaviour is not simply a reflex lashing out. Rather there’s a method back of her madness that taps into a strand of classic horror, where supposedly inanimate objects are pursuing an agenda that is harmful to mankind and only a few souls, dismissed as mad by their peers, have had their eyes opened to the true state of affairs. For Isadore it’s toys, fairground rides etc, all the accoutrements of a happy childhood, while other examples include oil and electricity in stories by Fritz Leiber, flame in a work by Polish writer Stefan Grabinski.
While the reader is at liberty to conclude that Isadore is insane, within the context of the story McIntosh plays it entirely straight faced, the character operating under a personal logic that distorts all objections until they become further planks in her obsession generated world view.
At the end the damaged elephant is carried away in an ice cream truck with its bell jingling and Isadore gives chase. For the reader though the frenetic energy of this scene and feel of urgency, can’t help but conjure up images of an ambulance with its siren screaming as it bears someone to hospital, and we have to wonder what further action Isadore’s madness has compelled her to, if the creature being tortured really was a wooden elephant.
Underlying everything else here is a sense of betrayal. The objects in this story that cause death to children are all supposed to be safe. In the words of the title ‘none had sharp teeth’. But safety is an illusion to pull in the unwary, and perhaps the reason why Isadore hates these objects so vehemently is that she trusted them and they let her down, and so by putting the blame on them she has a get out of gaol card, a way of avoiding any sense of personal responsibility or guilt for what happened to her daughter.