This brief story from Black Static #24 marked the fiction debut of American writer K. Harding Stalter.
The opening line pretty much lays out the agenda – ‘I have named each of the doctor’s instruments’ – implying both that the first person narrator is a patient of some kind on whom surgical procedures are enacted, and that his mindset is slightly outside of the norm, unless your norm happens to involve naming inanimate objects.
What follows confirms this impression, with the narrator operated on while an audience of students watch what is happening, and further elaboration on his giving of names and distinct personalities to the surgical instruments – ‘Jones is an enigma. It is not possible to know him the way one might come to know a consistent fellow like Macintosh.’ And as the story progresses this quality of Jones (described as ‘spiraling like a corkscrew’) is further expounded on, with the statement that ‘Jones is an aesthete and an artist’, and the strong suggestion that the narrator identifies with Jones, feels himself also to be creative and not at all like the common herd.
We are never told exactly what is being done to the narrator or why, though context is suggestive. The narrator is not treated with respect, the orderlies taking bets on whether he will bleed or not. He is restrained and ‘kept apart from the others’ in a chamber that ‘is six feet wide by eight feet deep’. And in one section he ruminates on how ‘some females have even sought to destroy me’, describing their gender as ‘vipers and lower creatures’ and saying how he was ‘accused of trespass and worse’. The narrator blames everyone except himself for his plight, with the closest he comes to accepting responsibility the comment that ‘the fault lies not in my stars, but in my cognitive architecture’. And the implication seems to be that the surgeon is attempting to change his ‘cognitive architecture’.
And then something goes wrong at the facility where he is being held, and the narrator escapes, on his way to freedom picking up the surgical instrument that he refers to as Macintosh. He comes to a place where a young woman is seated alone on a bench, her attention focused on her mobile phone (and the narrator doesn’t appear to know what a mobile phone is), and there is the suggestion that the narrator is contemplating an attack on the young woman, though actually his intent is never pinned down and perhaps all the more chilling for that ambiguity.
Eventually what holds him back is loyalty to Jones, who he left back ‘at the institute’. His penchant for giving personalities to mere tools reaches its apex with ‘Dare I indulge without him? He would surely be stricken and dismayed to miss out. He would not say so much – he is as well mannered as he is sensitive – but he need not say a word, because I, in my heart, would know.’
Fear of Jones’ disapproval causes him to stay his hand, concluding ‘it would be so easy. And so empty.’
And this, almost, is when the story ends, with the student walking away ignorant of her narrow escape.
So what’s going on here?
There are lots of obvious genre tropes, as for instance the doctor experimenting on a patient, the escaped lunatic, the killer who doesn’t really know what he is doing, and in the anthropomorphism of surgical instruments there is more than a hint of the way in which weapons are treated in much heroic fantasy (e.g. Elric’s sword Stormbringer, Arthur’s Excalibur). Given the repeated surgical procedures, it’s tempting to conjecture that the narrator is actually a Frankenstein style creation, and certainly there are echoes in his ‘confrontation’ with the student of the scene where the monster indifferently throws the child into the water in Whale’s film.
More apposite I feel, is the idea that the narrator is a criminal, one who preyed on women, and the doctor is trying to alter his ‘cognitive architecture’ so that he becomes harmless. The procedure appears to have been only partially successful – parts of his memory have been destroyed, as witness his unfamiliarity with mobile phones and ignorance of where he is – but his murderous instincts haven’t been eradicated so much as directed into other channels.
Killers dehumanise their victims, so that they can easier enact their crimes, but something almost the reverse seems to have happened in this scenario, with the anthropomorphism of the killer’s potential weapons, to the point that he sees them as possible collaborators, and has bonded so strongly with the absent Jones that he needs his approval to attack the female student. And yet, we are free to conjecture that things would have gone otherwise had he escaped with Jones in his hand rather than the dull Macintosh (a bureaucrat, rather than an artist, and apparently murder is an aesthetic act for the narrator).
The last line of the story reads ‘I cringe and turn away.’ Implicit in that is a degree of self-loathing, a subliminal recognition that he has been neutered, however he deludes himself with talk of Jones. He cannot act without the approval of inanimate objects, just as Alex in A Clockwork Orange is conditioned to feel nausea every time he hears Beethoven, but as a side effect of the process rather than its intention.
It’s a strange and curiously effective story, one that doesn’t spell everything out or take a strong moral position on the ethics of what is being done to the narrator, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and draw his or her own conclusion, and all the more effective for that.