“The Essayist in the Wilderness”

Last week’s weird fiction being discussed at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Essayist in the Wilderness”, William Browning Spencer, 2002.

New Cthulhu
Cover by Rafael Tavares

This is a gem of a story, a rare combination of horror and humor. It doesn’t have any explicit references to the Cthulhu Mythos despite being included in New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird anthology.

It starts with an improbable event. The narrator and his wife win the lottery, quit their jobs as English professors, and move to the country.

Naturally, being an ex-English professor, he has pretensions of finally becoming a writer to fill the time. So does his wife.

He realizes he has no talent for fiction or poetry, so he decides he’s going to become an essayist.

One night his wife has some kind of attack and can’t breathe. So, it’s off to the local doctor, one Dr. Bath and his nurse wife because they’re the closest ones for tens of miles.

Everything turns out all right. Dr. Bath – whose diction is rather strange for someone with such an Anglo-Saxon name – says it was just a spider bite.

In the waiting room, the narrator discovers a paperback of Annie Dillard essays. He now knows he wants to become an essayist on nature even though, as his wife points out, he is not really very knowledgeable about the subject.

There’s plenty of humor here. It’s not just the narrator noting that he bookmarks his place before responding to his wife’s cries for help. The good-humored narrator is oblivious to many things and ignorant of many things. No, spider bites don’t normally glow green at night. Exterminators don’t not normally work until midnight. His wife hasn’t left him to join a cult on the West Coast.

And, especially, “crayfish” don’t dance drunkenly in clouds of pesticide, burst into flame, or methodically dissect frogs and wear their skins.

And there’s horror too: those same crayfish, the fate of the exterminator, and the strange plants the narrator’s wife has been growing in the garden while he’s been tromping through the woods.

Something of a masterpiece of modern horror and not just Lovecraftian horror.


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

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