238. The Worst Story

The Worst Story Ever Told

The rest of this week and all of next are devoted to fantasy. It’s a fluid category. In one sense, everything is fantasy. Science fiction almost always has some outré element, and it usually deals with science or engineering which hasn’t been invented yet, and probably never will be in the “real” world. The Iliad and the Odyssey are predicated on believing that the Gods are real. So is Pilgrim’s Progress, The Scarlet Letter, and most American fiction written before 1950.

We just need is a simple definition which separates science fiction from fantasy, so we can compare apples with apples. It probably doesn’t exist, but I’m going to throw something into the pond just to stir up the water.

Science fiction stories tell us to ask for the stars.
Fantasy stories tell us to be careful what we ask for.

**       **       **

The Gods have always told us to be careful what we ask for, and most men, frightened, have complied. A few have had the courage to complain, at least in poetry and song. Leonard Cohen, in Bird on a Wire, said:

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

Khayyam in the Rubiyat, using pots as metaphors for human beings, said:

After a momentary silence spake
Some vessel of a more ungainly make:
  “They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
What! did the hand, then, of the Potter shake?”

**       **       **

Of those who knuckled under and said, “Be careful what you ask for,” no one has written a more damnable story than W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw. Morally, that is. As a piece of fiction, it is superb. As an apology for the status quo, no one has done better. That is to say, no one has done worse.

Without, the night was cold and wet.” So the story begins. Mr. White and his son are playing chess when Sergeant-Major Morris, back from India, comes visiting and tells the tale of a talisman, enspelled by a fakir, which grants three wishes to three men. The holy man “wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.”

The first man had his three wishes. Morris does not know what the first two were, but the third was for death. Morris then had his three wishes, but he won’t discuss them. He hurls the talisman into the fire, but Mr. White recovers it and . . .

No, I can’t tell you any more. It’s all too horrible.

(But you can click the link above and read for yourself.)

Of course not all fantasy fits my baiting definition, and much that is not fantasy, does. I’m just poking the beast with a stick, because every time I read something that says, “Be careful what you ask for,” I am once again infuriated by the propaganda of surrender.

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