This week’s weird fiction novella being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “Children of the Kingdom”, T. E. D. Klein, 1980.
I suspect this story couldn’t be published as is today.
The word “nigger” is used twice without any coddling elisions or tetragrammatonish substitutions.
The color of urban crime is not hidden behind euphemisms either, and one doesn’t need to know too much about American history to know where the story, with its section headings noting a setting in New York City circa July 1977, will end up.
This is as much a story about urban crime and squalor, epitomized in 1980 by New York City, and the deadened people who inhabit it like the narrator as it is about a Lovecraftian horror. The opening epigraphs from Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer and August Derleth’s “The House on Curwen Street” aren’t as significant as the one from a New York City rape victim: “It taught me the foolishness of not being afraid.”
The story starts out with a nice evocation of the experience of traveling by bus late at night. Klein captures that feeling I know from experience, the strange aspect even the familiar can take on under sodium streetlights deep in the night and perceived with a fatigued mind.
The narrator, returning in the post-midnight darkness from a job interview in Boston relates the sights he sees:
“Here and there a solitary figure would turn to watch the bus go by. Except for my reflection, I saw not one white face. A pair of little children threw stones at us from behind a fortress made of trash; a grown man stood pissing in the street like an animal, and watched us with amusement as we passed.”
The disturbing thing, he realizes, is that he’s only three blocks from the apartment where he and his wife Karen live. “Crumbling rows of tenements” in the night remind him, in a significant bit of foreshadowing, of crumbling Mayan cities. Such differences are common in New York City, he notes. The modern high-rise with its wealthy and middle-class may be next door, even abut, the apartment building of the poor.
People like our narrator, a teacher of some unspecified subject, cast wary eyes about when they must come near the world of the poor.
But Herman Lauterbach, the narrator’s grandfather, is a man comfortable in both worlds.
Herman has had a stroke and needs a place where he can live while he recovers and be monitored. So, Karen and the narrator find him a place at the slightly seedy facility of Park West Manor for Adults.
The first note of unease in the story, after the opening, is a laundry machine in the building’s laundry facility. Building Superintendent Reynaldo “Frito” Ley complains that kids have gotten in the building and moved the machine from its floor drain and wrecked its power cord. The manager assures the narrator this is not the case.
The narrator then talks about how he never really had much respect for the old as a repository of wisdom. He might make an exception though: “But Father Pistachio… Well, maybe he was different. Maybe he was onto something after all.”
That’s his nickname for a cleric from South America with red-stained lips from constantly munching on pistachios. He’s one of the street people, along with Coralette, a black woman from the South, Herman likes to talk to on a step near the facility. Pistachio is working on yet another translation, this time into English, of a work of his based on archeology, myth, and the Gospel of St. Thomas.
Eventually, the narrator reads – or, at least, looks at the pictures – Pistachio’s work. (Pistachio is keen for him to look at it once he learns Karen works for a publisher though only in the accounting department.)
Eventually, several things bring a Lovecraftian sense of a secret world to the narrator.
There are the odd snorting sounds Coralette heard from a junkie woman’s apartment before that woman committed suicide.
A resident of the Park Manor is sexually assaulted and strange hand prints are found on the apartment. The narrator counters an officious, bored, and unhelpful New York City Police Department when he suggests they investigate the possibility that somebody came up through the sewer and into the laundry facility and left strange hand prints that were similar.
Using the real theories of the Ameghino brothers, pioneering South American paleontologists who postulated human evolution began in Argentina, Pistachio’s theory is that civilization began in Latin America. Drawing from myth, he says the first city of man was invaded by cursed humans with “no pity, no love for God or man”. God cursed these invaders three times. First, he made their women sterile. Then God cursed their men with sterility by removing their penises. The cursed men carried off human women. Finally, God made them blind. Drawings of their “helmets” remind the narrator of ambulatory tapeworms.
Things come to a crescendo on Wednesday, July 13, 1977, the night of the New York City blackout.
At the start of that section, the narrator notes certain things are not supposed to happen before midnight. Herman goes down to get his lucky socks out of the dryer, and, when the blackout happens, the narrator, suddenly gripped by fear (correlating the contents of his mind, one might say), goes to find him. Herman makes it to the elevator without incident and gets stuck there.
The narrator, meanwhile, is swarmed by the tapeworm-like cursed men after they leave the laundry.
We get descriptions of the looting. This bit reminded of the, for me, local sights at a Minneapolis Target store last summer:
“The large display window had already been stripped bare; glass littered the sidewalk. Now they were lined up in front of the shop like patrons at a movie theater, patiently awaiting their turn to file inside and take something. It was clear that the ones at the end of the line were not going to find much left.”
But Karen and a friend are out in the darkness, making their way home through the riot. At last, she arrives at home. But there is no safety there. She is raped by one of the tapeworm men, the details of how they expect to procreate without penises left unexplained.
Karen gets an abortion.
Has the narrator learned his lesson, that fear can be a gift? Does a man who takes street fights in passing as a normal urban feature now see the world differently.
The last scene starts with him noting he never had the experience of feeling that someone was watching him until one night.
Red eyes glare out a sewer grate, a bag of pistachios nearby. Is it a tapeworm man or is it Father Pistachio, who disappeared in the night of the blackout, and was perhaps somehow transformed by the touch of cursed men as suggested by the Gospel of St. Thomas?
The cycle of history has swung around again since 1980. New York City is no longer a unique American city in its dysfunction and violence, and we are again in an age of urban unease even sans tapeworm men.