Monday, November 2, 2009

Mother was not home from the hospital. She was home from the grave.

Dead Mother, Egon Schiele, 1910

Great Tales of Horror - The River Styx Runs Upstream by Dan Simmons
Originally published in Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine, April 1982

I loved my mother very much. After her funeral, after the coffin was lowered, the family went home and waited for her return.

With those words, the reading public was introduced to the imagination of Dan Simmons, whose career has since bounced effortlessly between dark fantasy (Song of Kali, Carrion Comfort), science fiction (The Hyperion Saga), crime fiction (the Joe Kurtz novels, beginning with Hardcase) and, most recently, quasi-historical dark fiction (The Terror and this year's Drood). In that time, he's been awarded a Hugo, four Stokers, and the British Fantasy Society Award.

He is also one of the first recipients of the Rod Serling Award for short fiction as sponsored by the late (and painfully lamented) Twilight Zone Magazine, which launched in early 1981 with the mission of keeping Serling's legacy alive through the publication of tales that straddled the boundaries between genres. For eight years it highlighted some of the decade's best material in a glossy, high-end format filled with surrealist art and intelligent genre commentary and history. The April 1981 debut promoted a fiction contest for new authors; the publishers were astonished when they received over 9000 submissions.

Judging the contest were Serling's widow Carol, as well as a quartet of authors, each a legend in the field; Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Peter Straub and Harlan Ellison. It was at a writers' workshop hosted by Ellison that Simmons' story first came to light. After publicly reaming Simmons for submitting a manuscript of that length (he may have been kidding, but with Ellison, it's not always easy to tell), the young author was pulled aside by Ellison and encouraged to enter the tale in the TZ competition. It tied for first place (along with "I'll Be Seeing You" by W.G. Norris) and earned the then-junior high teacher $1000 and an auspicious start to his writerly career.

"The River Styx Runs Upstream" takes place in a near future when science is able to restore the recently deceased to a semblance of life; the so-called Resurrectionists offer helpful advice ("think of it as a stroke") to those families who pledge one-quarter of household income in perpetuity to have their loved ones once again ambulatory...but little more than that. The animated dead are mute, unblinking, and responsive only to simple directives. For the living who are unable to break earthly ties, they are at least present, though they may have an unsettling tendency to spend time sitting quietly in the cellar, as though longing to return to the earth.

The story is told through the viewpoint of the young son of a newly-Resurrected mother, and how he views the effects the unliving has upon his father, sibling, and even the family dog. The dread accumulates quietly, gradually, as the death that was held in abeyance eventually manifests itself in a variety of ways, each with increasingly devastating impact. By the story's concluding paragraph, the Abyss has become Home. This is light years removed from a traditional gut-munching
zombie story; captured through the lens of childhood, this is a gentle tale that builds into corrosive horror and a shattering closing image.

TRSRU is due for a timely rediscovery, and all but screams for a film adaptation.
(The story can be found in Simmons' Stoker-winning collection Prayers to Broken Stones, along with a dozen more examples of his best early short fiction.) It will be an instantly recognizable metaphor to those who have borne the burden of caring for a terminal convalescent, but here without the release of terminus. As advancements in medical science allow us to fan the faintest of embers and maintain the illusion of life (and as the country continues to agonize over the issue of affordable health care), "The River Styx Runs Upstream" is a harrowing cautionary tale of unintended consequences that feels eminently believable...and hopefully avoidable.


Jeff Allard said...

Thanks for the wonderful write-up on an underappreciated gem. It's been many, many years since I've read this and to be honest, I'd even forgotten that this was the work of Dan Simmons. But I vividly remember the story appearing in that TZ issue and the chilling illustration that accompanied it (with the outstanding, macabre artwork that TZ ran in each issue it really should've been dubbed "Night Gallery Magazine"). I'm amazed that no one had ever taken a crack at adaptaing this story (it'd make a perfect fit for Masters of Horror, were that show still on) but maybe someday it'll experience a ressurection of its own.

senski said...

Yeah, that etching of the family, pennies over Mother's eyes...very eerie. Thanks, Jeff. I'm always glad when someone else knows of what I'm makes me feel a little less delusional!