This was last week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “The Dark”, Karen Joy Fowler, 1991.
Despite one of my interests, the bubonic plague, playing a significant role in this story, I don’t think it quite manages to meld its plot elements together successfully.
Our narrator is an epidemiologist, and the story will take us from 1954 and California to 1967 and Vietnam and back to California.
In the summer of 1954, in Yosemite Park, the Becker family disappears while camping.
In the spring of 1960, two campers will have their food and beer stolen.
In August 1962, Caroline Crosby, a teenage girl, and her family go on a camping trip. Surly and not happy with the trip, things get worse for Caroline when she’s hospitalized for septicemic plague, the form the plague takes when the infection enters the bloodstream.
It’s here the narrator, Keith Harmon, a scholar of disease epidemics and member of California’s plague monitoring team, enters the picture. As he explains later on, plague has been endemic in America since 1899. That, along with every other detail Fowler provides on plague and its history, is correct.
On interviewing Caroline in the hospital to learn where she’s been in Yosemite Park so the track of the infection can be traced, Harmon hears a tale about a naked and seemingly feral boy she saw in the park.
At this point in the story, Harmon briefly recapitulates the history of the Black Death starting with the Byzantine historian Procopius’s account of Justinian’s plague and ending with modern outbreaks in America and Vietnam.
In the account of Justinian’s Plague in Procopius’ De Bello Persico, we hear about “phantoms in human form” that appear before the outbreak of plague in an area. Alan E. Nourse’s modern plague novel, The Fourth Horseman, uses a version of this notion with his dirty child appearing ahead of the plague.
To trap some rodents and do a plague census, Harmon is sent with a team back into Yosemite Park in October 1962.
They don’t find any infected fleas, but they do find a flea-infected boy, a dirty and feral boy of twelve or thirteen. He’s taken back to San Francisco where he doesn’t do well. He writhes at the touch of others, rocks back and forth when he sits, has occasional seizures. In fact, a doctor announces the boy has “abnormalities in the nervous system” and “unusual musculature”.
A policeman, familiar with the Becker case, suggests the boy is Paul Becker and goes off to see Paul’s grandmother.
But life interrupts. The investigation takes place during the October Missile Crisis, so the story of a feral boy doesn’t break out into the public consciousness. Harmon gets called away to check out another possible plague outbreak in Yosemite. (He finds nothing.) The policeman jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. And, when Harmon returns to San Francisco, a new doctor tells him the boy died of a seizure and he wasn’t Paul Becker.
The story next shifts to Vietnam in 1967. Harmon is attached to the 521st Medical Detachment. He’s there to fight an outbreak of the plague, possibly started by the Viet Cong using infected rats.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter how infected rats got into the massive tunnel complexes of the VC.
While giving inoculations against the plague to the “tunnel rats”, American troops who go into those tunnels, he hears fantastic things about Victor. Victor can see in the dark. Victor can crawl faster on his hands and knees than most people can run. Victor can jump straight up twelve feet. Victor lives in the tunnels.
At first Harmon thinks Victor is just a shortened form of Victor Charlie aka the Viet Cong aka the VC, and the tales about him are either hallucinations under the stress of combat in the dark and cramped and booby-trapped tunnels or tall tales.
But, no, the tunnel rats he talks to say these aren’t tall tales. Many really have been saved by this Victor person. They don’t know if “he’s special forces of some sort or if he’s AWOL down in the tunnels.”
To get some caged rats to see if they are infected, Harmon finds himself going into the tunnels. The tunnel rats refuse to have anything to do with the actual rats. He gets lost and has a harrowing experience.
As he’s about to drown in a water trap, he is pulled out and led to the outside. In the growing light from outside, he sees his savior, Victor, is “a little kid dressed in the uniform of the rats.
Harmon realizes Victor is the boy he found in 1962.
Harmon launches his own investigation into “special projects”, recruits, men gone AWOL, and men who have seen Victor. He tries to find the doctor who noted the boy’s strange anatomy. He suggests the sergeant who thought the boy was Paul Becker didn’t commit suicide. He suggests the CIA killed him and Mr. and Mrs. Becker.
Denounced as delusional, Harmon is put in a mental hospital but released in 1969.
He decides to look up the Crosbys and hears about another lost child. Caroline Crosby has put flowers in her hair and went out to Haight Ashbury and hasn’t returned.
Looking back 20 years – in other words about the time this story was published, Harmon ponders all this. He decides “There is a darkness inside us all that is animal.” When we face the darkness, sometimes it pares us down and makes us just animals. When this happens at a young age, like Paul Becker, we become feral and can’t find our way back.
The darkness doesn’t defeat Caroline, though. She returns home and marries a Stanford chemist.
Besides the comparison between Paul and Caroline, Harmon says he’s presenting, in the best tradition of weird fiction, two realities: one in which the CIA kidnapped a child and used him as a weapon in Vietnam, the other the official story where the boy wasn’t Paul, the cop committed suicide and wasn’t murdered, and Victor is just a delusion.
That’s fine as far as it goes. But Fowler has put two other things together by insinuation that don’t work together.
Paul Becker could be the same dark avatar of the plague that Procopius mentions or he could be a mutant with “singular” musculature (or just developed it from being a feral child) whisked away by the CIA and who becomes Victor.
The first possibility is seemingly contradicted by his seemingly normal boyhood up until that camping trip. And, while encountering him may have given Caroline plague, why no one else gets the plague in San Francisco or why the plague outbreak in Vietnam is relatively minor when Victor (if the boy is Victor) shows up. Maybe he’s just an avatar of minor.
The second possibility just has Paul becoming Victor who just happens to be in areas where the plague breaks out.
Of course, the mention of Procopius’ plague avatars could be meant to operate on a purely metaphorical level. But, of course, a story first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, invites the interpretation something fantastic is going on.