“Faces in the Walls” by John Shirley

John Shirley is one of the most acclaimed writers in the speculative genres, with an impressive list of credits to his name. This story from #17 is his only appearance in Black Static.

To my mind it’s a story of two parts, and it begins ‘The hardest part is when I first wake up. Because in my dreams I can move about freely. In my dreams, I can walk and talk and kiss girls.’ And immediately the scene and situation of the protagonist is drawn, becoming ever more fleshed out as the narrative continues. Douglas is a patient in Wemberly Sanitarium, paralysed and lying in bed 24/7, his life one of dull, monotonous routine – ‘I ingest, I eliminate waste, I breathe’. He receives no visitors and only minimal attention from the staff, some of that not entirely welcome (they laugh when he gets an erection, and so Douglas tries to avoid sexually arousing thoughts).

The picture that emerges is one of low level abuse and neglect, both in society and family, as Douglas fills in the backdrop to his condition, a tale of drug addiction and viral infection, being shunted aside by a mother who no longer wishes to care for him. Constantly beset by bedsores and boredom, he can speak to no-one and has nothing to look at except the ceiling, a view that changes only when his bed is shifted and offers little in the way of distraction beyond the movement of insects.

Douglas’ life seems to be a veritable hell on earth, Shirley painting a compelling and emotive picture of physical purgatory. But of course there is the life of the mind, which is when the story shifts up a gear and brings to mind work like Steve Gerlach’s Within His Reach. Douglas sees faces in the walls of his room – ‘a pretty girl, one I sometimes dream about’ and ‘a frightened looking man’ and ‘a little boy with colorless hair and very dark eyes’. There’s an element of ambiguity here, with on the one hand the suggestion that these are somehow psychic resonances stored up in the brickwork of the room, and on the other the hint that they are Douglas’ memories projected onto and into the blank screen of the wall (one of the faces is that of his mother, and he conjectures that another is himself at an earlier age).

But one of these faces is special, one of them can talk and interact with Douglas. Bethany appears to be a ghost, somebody who was once a patient at the sanatorium and died there in the most horrible circumstances. She reveals a back story of illness and victimisation, becoming the sexual prey of the son of the man who owns the sanatorium (and is now, in Douglas’ day, the actual owner), a story that in many ways echoes Douglas’ own situation.

If Bethany is Douglas’ consolation, then Sam Sack (SS) is her opposite, a relentless tormentor, one of the staff of the sanatorium who comes to visit him in the night wearing a sack to hide his features, and who tortures and sexually abuses Douglas in scenes that bring to mind the opening of Kill Bill.

And it’s with Sack’s arrival that the story changes again, twisting in a direction that serves up lashings of gore and violence, exploiting all the cliches of the madman taking over the asylum subset of schlock horror films. Douglas’ rage enables a greater connection with Bethany, and she repairs the damage in his brain that caused the paralysis. Able to move again, instead of taking the opportunity to escape from the sanatorium, Douglas wreaks bloody vengeance, first on Sack and then on sanatorium owner Wemberly, the man who abused Bethany. The irony is that in doing so, he is shot by a guard and once again becomes paralysed. 

While the story is never less than readable, I’m not sure the two parts sit together well. For much of the narrative we have an engaging and heartrending tale about a man coping with the most horrendous circumstances, one which passes comment on the way in which we treat the disabled (and, even though it’s set in 1982, recent news stories suggest that the culture of neglect in care homes is far from vanquished even now, nearly thirty years later, and so the story does address issues of vital concern to us all, even if that’s peripheral to its main thrust). Obviously not much happens given Douglas’ condition, but all the same Shirley’s prose draws you in, makes the reader care about this man and his terrible predicament.

And then all this good work gets thrown away with a totally out of left field, spray the halls with haemoglobin, eye gouging, head decapitating finale. All by way of setting us up for a pithy little twist on the theme of missed opportunities and going full circle. It was, to put it mildly, disappointing.

But is that really what happened?

Early on Douglas tells us about one of his ways of coping – ‘writing in my mind – I tell stories, only I tell them in my mind. I think them out and try to memorize them, word for word, and tell them over again, to myself. Sometimes I make the stories up. Sometimes they’re things that really happened.’

So do the faces in the wall, a mix of memory and invention, have any substance beyond his imagination?

The current story is a work in progress – ‘I know it’s true because I’m telling it even as it unfolds’. Douglas’ mind has become the strongest part of him, and he believes he is beaming these stories to the outside world. His hope is that a ‘random writer will just pick it up out of the air, maybe years from now, and write it down – and he’ll suppose it’s all his idea.’ And of course, given the hopelessness of Douglas’ situation, the violence at the story’s end is inevitable, the helpless victim visiting a horrific, if imaginary, vengeance on those who torment him, empowered by the intervention of Bethany, who is just a part of his psyche.

It’s a neat trick, and provides an answer to all those tiresome questions about where a writer’s ideas come from. But all the same I don’t feel it’s quite enough to redeem the story. The cliches inherent in the material remain, even when the author confers a pseudo-legitimacy on them through the suggestion of a metafictional element.

Shirley is an interesting writer, and this is an inventive and engaging story, but one that falls at the final hurdle. Your mileage may vary, as ever.

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