This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at The Weird Tradition group on LibraryThing.
Review: “The Oram County Whoosit”, Steve Duffy, 2008.
I liked this story. Not only does Duffy provide two well done narrative voices but some evocative historical details and also a bit of a rumination on the myth of the American West.
The story starts out on a rainy day in Oram, West Virginia, a coal mining town.
The narrator is Fenwick, a newspaper photographer, waiting for the arrival – along with the town’s dignitaries — for Horton Keith, a famous writer who will become even more famous in the intervening years between 1924, when this story takes place, and the 1980s when Fenwick is telling it.
Keith has come to town to investigate a report of a something found in a lump of coal from the mine. After meeting Fenwick and finding him suitable company, the ambitious Keith points out the local miners trudging off to work and then briefly mentions his days as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco and, on the quest for adventure, how he joined the Klondike gold rush. He juxtaposes the joy the prospectors approached their work, even though neither he nor many others found significant amounts of gold, with the attitude of men who will see pay, however small, for their work. The prospectors were dreamers like him, and they sensed, with the closing of the American West, this was their last chance for adventure.
Discussion then returns to the reports of the “toad in a hole” as Fenwick calls it. He’s skeptical of such reports and attributes them to either fraud of the Fiji Mermaid variety or newspapers desperate for stories.
Deciding not to wait for the mayor to show them the stone the next morning, the two men go to the courthouse where it’s kept. It seems there has been a dispute. The miner who found the item, Lamar Tibbs, claims it for his own. The mining company claims all coal is theirs, and Tibbs responded that he wasn’t claiming the coal, just what was inside it. Tibbs took the artifact back, and the coal from which it came is still in the courthouse’s basement.
This irks Keith since both items are needed to substantiate the story. What the men do find in that lump of coal in the basement is a disturbing and very detailed intaglio. Fenwick thinks that, if it is the creation of a local sculptor, his talent is wasted in Oram. Staring at the intaglio almost induces the sense of peering into another dimension.
The sight shakes Keith. He knows what was inside the coal, and they leave immediately. Later that night, Keith tells his story. .
When he was in Alaska, a group of prospectors from Maine dug up something from the permafrost. It was the winter, and one of them ventured to town where Keith and his party were camped and told them about it. The man intended on exhibiting it and making some money since prospecting has gotten his party little.
When Keith and others went to the man’s camp, they found the strange carnage of headless men, a man with his hands loped off, and the cabin that held the artifact burst from within. A native Indian briefly teold Keith of his people’s legends of the Old Ones and how they cast out these creatures, but some managed to burrow in the ground, “waiting their time”.
Strange tracks led from the cabin and then vanished. The party, convinced that the killer (they don’t think it’s a bear or Indian) will return, waited there.
And it did come back and killed several. It almost managed to get Keith before he was pulled away. The creature, tentacled and with wings, flew off, hovered in the air at one point against the aurora lights which then vanished.
Back in Oram, the two men go to bed, and the mine’s whistle wakes them up. It seems there is a fire at the Tibbs’ place. The mayor and his assistants are improbably ready. Both Fenwick and Keith suspect they may have been planning a raid on Tibbs’ place to get the artifact back. They don’t want to take the two newspapermen with them, but Keith threatens to write a bad story about the town, so they allow it.
At the farm, the creature killed Tibbs’ brothers and the barn was set on fire. Keith immediately knows what happened, and he and Tibbs set off after it with Fenwick in tow, but the creature ends up beheading Tibbs and flying away.
Fenwick notes that he had nightmares for decades afterwards – as his three ex-wives could tell you.
As for Keith, though in his sixties, he set off with the Collins Clarke archaeological expedition in 1936 to investigate something at the headwaters of the Amazon, strange carvings which bear a likness to something in the Restricted Collections of Miskatonic University.
Before he left, Fenwick asked Keith why he wants to “put yourself in the way again? . . . With all you know; after all you’ve seen?”
Keith didn’t give an answer then, but the last postcard Fenwick received from him hints again at Keith’s desire for a frontier:
Wish you were here – on the strict understanding that we’re soon to be somewhere else. With all the best wishes from the new frontier
Neither Keith nor the rest of the party is ever seen again.
Excellent, another Cthulhu collection to add to my tbr 🙂
While I dance around on the bare ground, hehehehe.