“The River Styx Runs Upstream”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is Dan Simmons’ first published story.

Review: “The River Styx Runs Upstream”, Dan Simmons, 1982.PTBS1992

This, like Robert Silverberg’s classic “Born with the Dead”, is a resurrectionist story. Whereas that story’s returned dead stick to themselves and are oddly changed and not interested in their former lives, the dead of Simmons’ story function at a much lower level.

The story opens with a thematic statement from Ezra Pound’s “Canto LXXXI”:

What thou lovest well remains the rest is dross

What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage”

The story is narrated by a young man looking back to his boyhood, and it starts when he is eight.

His mother has died and been brought back by the Resurrectionist movement. They are somewhat like a church. The boy’s father will be tithing 25% of his income to pay for the resurrection and the group’s activities.

It is suggested that the family think of the formerly dead woman as returned from the hospital after a stroke. She can move. She can even tell bedtime stories but not generally talk. She will respond to commands like stay in her bedroom all day, but she is really little more than a moving vegetable though she does go out in the forest at night – perhaps to mutilate squirrels. Even her skin feels different.

Trouble begins immediately.

The narrator’s Uncle Will is angry about the whole thing and never visits the narrator’s home again. The narrator’s brother Simon doesn’t really think of the woman as his mother anymore.  The narrator’s father has perhaps tried to unsuccessfully have sex with his resurrected dead wife — though we can’t be sure since the whole story is filtered through childhood recollections — and then sleeps on the couch from then on and takes to drink which eventually costs him his academic job.

Simon and the narrator make an attempt to run away from home to go to Uncle Will’s house, but they don’t get there, returning at the narrator’s request.

The family goes to a rundown seaside resort with other Resurrectionists. There we get hints the narrator’s aunt and his dad may be having an affair. It is there, under the boardwalk, Simon hangs himself.

But the story ends with the narrator embracing the Resurrectionist lifestyle. He works for them, and, we learn at the end, he inhabits a house full of his resurrected family – mother, father, and Simon.

My initial reaction to the story is that I didn’t think Simmons justified the emotional unease and horror we are to feel at that end. So the narrator goes home at night to hang out with an ambulatory and mostly mute echo of the family he once loved? It produced no great emotion to me.

But the River Styx runs upstream, and what it discharges into our world is cause for an unease about society’s fate.

The Resurrected and the dead they bring back have increased. Now there are lots of empty schools. Many sections of the narrator’s city are now unlit. We even learn that the narrator burned, unread, his father’s journal and notes on a thesis he was working on about Ezra Pound.

Embracing the dead and not accepting death has brought more death into the world, and the project of living, of talking to the naturally alive, of having children, of tending to the world, is diminishing.

The story opens with the narrator questioning whether his mother will be dug out of the ground. At the end of the story, the world is becoming the grave.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

4 thoughts on ““The River Styx Runs Upstream”

  1. keithakenny May 22, 2019 / 7:02 am

    Interesting reflections and well written. The whole life, death, reflections of life and death, their connection with birth and children, the ebb and flow of it all, seems deliberately misunderstood in modern American society.

    • marzaat May 22, 2019 / 8:29 am

      Yes, I think it does have more “resonance” with American society now than it did in 1982.

  2. George Kelley June 5, 2019 / 7:17 pm

    Thanks to your fine post about this book, I bought a copy at a Library Book Sale last weekend. Without your review I might have passed it up. Now, to find time to read it…

    • marzaat June 5, 2019 / 7:35 pm

      I have not read any of the stories in the book except that one and “Carrion Comfort”, the kernel for Simmons’ novel of the same name. One of many books I dip into for the LibraryThing discussions and will get around to finishing someday.

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