This week’s work of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing:
Review: “The Beautiful Gelreesh’, Jeffrey Ford, 2003.
Unlike the last Ford story I looked at, “The Delicate”, I am going to get into the plot of this one. The weirdness of this story is more diluted though, for me, more memorable than “The Delicate”. That’s perhaps because the world of this story seems to abut our world at least enough that we get references to the Silk Road and the Bible. It’s also because of its satirical element. Still, the stories end with a similar feeling and seem to share similar motifs even though they do not, as far as I know, occur in the same world.
Our story opens with a teary therapy session being conducted by Gelreesh. Right up front, we get the sense he’s not human. The story opens with
His facial fur was a swirling wonder of blond and blue with highlights the deep orange of a November sun. It covered every inch of his brow and cheeks, the blunt ridge of his nose, even his eyelids. . . . His bright silver eyes emitted invisible beams that penetrated the most guarded demeanors of his patients and shed light upon the condition of their souls.
But we forget about that first impression because Gelreesh is indeed penetrating and sympathetic. “ . . . when, may I ask, did you perceive the first inklings of your despair”, he asks his patient.
After a breakthrough, when a patient gives a stock answer about how it all started when their father left them, Gelreesh, “the heart’s physician”, offers a consoling hand on their back and suggests a walk into the woods. (The patient is called the subject and, we’re told, could be a “woman or man or child, as the case might be”.)
But Gelreesh isn’t offering a balm to the psyche. His questions are “designed to fan the flames of his companion’s anguish”.
And so the walk ends at the edge of a cliff.
“You know without my telling you that there is really only one solution,” Gelreesh tells his patient.
And, so, the patient walks off the cliff.
And then our initial impression of Gelreesh returns when we goes to the bottom of the cliff and eats every bit of flesh off his patient’s corpse.
The final bit of the con is taken care of when Gelreesh dispatches notes, sent via scrolls carried by a giant owl, to the deceased’s relatives explaining that he so came to respect their loved one that he paid for them to take a two year vacation on the island of Valshavar. Don’t expect to hear from them until then. Valshavar isn’t a real island, but it does get mentioned in some other Ford stories.
Like most conmen, even when they’re not serial killers, Gelreesh can’t stay in any area too long. Eventually disappearances and suspicions mount, and he has to leave. And, on one such escape attempt, he is captured and brought to trial.
The “blind and somewhat autistic” detective Gal de Gui is brought in to do an investigation given Gelreesh’s beastial appearance when he was captured.
We don’t really hear what de Gui found out because we get Gelreesh’s story during the trial. However, Gelreesh says de Gui’s soul is “blank as a white wall and perfect”.
Souls are, it turns out, a subject of some concern with Gelreesh. We hear of his birth and frightening appearance as a child, so unusual that his father (and the question as to whether he is Gelreesh’s father is not resolved) accuses his mother of bestiality.
Gelreesh gets locked up in a cage, and his worldview is determined by the only two men he sees regularly. A priest is brought in to teach him to speak and read and exorcise the demon Gelreesh’s father thinks is possessing his putative son. Gelreesh distills the priest’s philosophy down to
the world was a ball of shit adrift in a sea of sin and the sooner one passed to heaven the better.
The other man is Gelreesh’s caretaker who is there to feed him regularly with raw meat. (Gelreesh’s father seems to have two conceptions of his son — demon-possessed and an animal – in his head.) In his younger days, the caretaker roamed the world and entertains Gelreesh with tales of his travels including the persuasive and hypnotic tricks of a con man he met on the Silk Road.
Gelreesh practices his skills at hypnotism enough to mesmerize the priest one day and escape – after freeing the priest’s soul from his body.
Gelreesh pleads he just wanted to “help the emotionally wounded”.
The jurors are sympathetic to Gelreesh and his solitary life, but then they see his true form. It’s execution time.
Facing a firing squad, he gives a “spectacular display of metamorphosis” when he takes on the form of each of his executioners. However, Gelreesh’s professions of empathy – sincere or not – aren’t working this time. Even shouting “I feel your pain” doesn’t stop the volley of bullets. Gelreesh is no more.
Yet Gelreesh’s philosophy does change the world – for a while. For five years after it, women claim to have had his children. Men claim to be Gelreesh. Children play at being Gelreesh. “Non-Consumptive Gelreeshia” becomes a psychological therapy. Plays are written about Gelreesh.
It all goes away when end-of-the-world mania strikes due to a comet’s arrival.
The world doesn’t end, and the story concludes with a student at Nethit University trying to study Gelreesh’s skeleton. As with the of “The Delicate”, he is foiled by entropy and decay manifested in the museum by its records being consumed by mites brought back from a mummy at the top of the world. (Which did remind me quite specifically of the end of “The Delicate”.) There’s also a concluding bit of unexplained weirdness with Gelreesh’s skeleton turning out to be that of a giant owl.
It’s an entertaining and memorable story. Besides its satirical view of Christianity as a faith utterly bereft of Earthly value and whose logical conclusion is suicide, I think this story is an attack on the idea of empathy as an unmitigated good. Here it is the tool, as it often is in our world, of a predator. A predator in the most basic sense. And, with Gelreesh, it may also be the means he justifies his crimes even to himself.