This story from Black Static #23 was the first appearance in the magazine of American writer Robert Davies, who was previously published in Interzone back in 2006. The story was the winner of a competition Black Static ran in conjunction with the 2011 World Horror Convention.
It’s a relatively straightforward piece that conflates the idea of organ harvesting, popular in such films as Paradise Lost and Urban Legend, with stories of alien abduction and experimentation and Cronenberg style body horror.
The first line grabs the attention and pitches us straight into this terrible situation – ‘When Jackson Cade woke and felt his right lung missing, he knew the Harvesters had come again.’
Only these aliens don’t simply take. They give as well – ‘A strange, gelid weight throbbed where his lung had been, shivering with each frantic pump of his heart.’
But in the very next paragraph we are presented with a pointer to a somewhat more prosaic explanation of what is going on with Jackson Cade, when our hero stumbles out of bed ‘knocking over empty beer bottles’. As the story progresses a picture emerges of a man whose life is in meltdown, his marriage breaking up, hanging on to his job by the skin of his teeth, his sleep constantly broken by the sound of sirens and the smell of burning, while alcohol consumption remains a recurring theme.
The alterations to his body which, whether imagined or real, are inflicted by the Harvesters, seem to reflect and symbolise other changes in his circumstances, with both sets of change beyond his control, or at least that appears to be his rationale for what is going down. Things are done to Jackson Cade. He takes no responsibility himself.
The process escalates when his wife leaves him, and he learns that everyone except him knew she was having an affair – ‘That night the Harvesters took his testicles.’ Cade has been emasculated. Rejected by long suffering Sheila he turns to his usual source of comfort, but ‘even after thirteen beers, Cade couldn’t fall asleep.’
The Harvesters grow ever more rapacious – ‘They took the bones in two toes, and a kneecap, six ribs, and his pancreas. They even took his medulla oblongata’. In his imagination the insectoid lifeforms take his body parts back to some alien dimension where their queen feasts on them.
And yet, Cade is still aware of the possibility that he may be going mad, and so decides to test the hypothesis – ‘He stretched the swollen scrotum as tightly as he could; red arterial threads were visible. He pressed the blade against the skin.’ This attempt at self-mutilation is interrupted by the arrival of a work colleague, to tell him that he is in danger of losing his job, but Cade sees Doug as just another Harvester.
Cut and bleeding, Cade goes to the hospital ER, but the nurse is another Harvester, and so he leaves, stumbling home in such a state that ‘the warmth running down his legs and pooling in his shoes wasn’t just piss.’
Harrowing scenes of mental and physical dissolution follow, after a moment of peace, with the Harvesters implanting their young in Cade’s body, and the only option left to him if he wishes to thwart their designs, the ignominy of suicide by beer bottle – ‘He had little thoughts left; more madness than coherence, surely, beautiful warm radiant madness.’
At the end ‘he had come too far undone for any meaning to be clear’.
The final impression left by the story, is not so much that of harvesting but of the unravelling of a man’s personality, the sense that Jackson Cade has been broken by pressures, both individual and societal, that he is unable to bear, and that terrible as it is, his whole situation with the Harvesters is also a form of escape for him from those pressures (‘beautiful warm radiant madness’).
Davies’ writing is explicit and often repellent in the way it focuses on what is being done to/by Cade, but never gratuitous and never allowing us to lose sight of the fact that his protagonist, while not a good man by conventional standards, is undeserving of what happens to him, with the Harvesters representing those forces which are too much for Cade, which crush him down and collude in his death.
In the end perhaps the story “Harvesting” echoes the most is Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, albeit seen in the surface of a distorting mirror, where Cade’s fate is to reject help and be thrown back on his own resources in the most terrible manner, his psyche splintering and fracturing even as he commits atrocities on his body. Unlike Gregor Samsa he cannot change, can only stumble and fall, becoming the victim of inimical entities that, perhaps and perhaps not, exist only in his own mind.