October 8, 2019 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
If “The Smell of Cherries” drew me into A Treasury of American Horror Stories, it was “The Screwfly Solution” (which oddly was picked for Michigan) that left the most lasting impression. If you’ve never read it before, you can find it here. It is a great story, if simultaneously deeply awful. One thing nearly got me to not read it – the name of the author “Raccoona Sheldon” sounded like an absurd pseudonym. I was right, as the real author was Alice Sheldon aka James Tiptree Jr. but I am extremely glad I got over that reluctance.
This story was recently covered by the H.P. Lovecraft Literary podcast to an unexpected amount of controversy – some listeners took umbrage that the hosts suggested readers might see parallels between elements in the story and certain contemporary social and political movements. I was a little shocked how angry some listeners became at the hosts even raising the prospect that one might see a linkage between Incels or the push-back against #MeToo and the culturally sanctioned violence against women in the story isn’t the same as saying there is a literal war against women, but I doubt we’ll relitigate that debate here.
Let’s just get this out of the way – this story fucked me up. Spoilers, obviously… Actually, just read the story. You won’t regret it, if the underlying elements of hyper-misogyny and genocide aren’t enough dispell your interest. It is dark.
I don’t usually have nightmares, but I did after reading this – the sequence in the airport mostly. I was used to stories where, despite something distressing or terrifying happening, ultimately everything worked out, even if everyone did not survive. That’s not the case here. Humanity is doomed. Aliens short-circuited men’s sex drive and blurred it with violence. The apocalypse was in slow-motion but no-less total. Our protagonist was one of the few survivors of the global femicide and probably one of the few people rational enough to notice that the earth’s new owners had started to arrive, all to give us that Twilight Zone turned up to 11 ending line – “I think I saw a real-estate agent.” Damn.
I think the story hit me particularly hard as that was the age I starting becoming aware of how many girls I knew who had been subjected to sexual harassment and abuse (I’m sure there were boys as well but that was even less acceptable to talk about so I retained some Candide-level ignorance on that point for a while). I was pretty sheltered and was frankly a little naive. I appreciate deeply that I was trusted by some of my friends and classmates in those years (and others later on) who shared their own experiences with violence, sexual and otherwise, but it was very much a time of emotional vertigo for me, as I came to terms with the fact that the world was not nearly as safe as I imagined it to be and that harassment, assault, and rape wasn’t something confined to books. Likewise I was forced to confront some of my own distorted notions about relationship and how interacted with certain people. Maybe following my crush around from class to class and at after school events wasn’t cute or, as movies made it seem, romantic. Maybe it was creepy as hell and might make her feel unsafe. Admittedly these were small steps, but I think ultimately it was an important part of growing up.
One final note – anyone running Masks of Nyarlathotep should consider including young Alice Bradley and her parents as NPCs in the Nairobi chapter. It seems like a fun bit of inclusion that fits historically and lets a science fiction great make a brief appearance in the campaign. We’ve already got Mao and Jomo Kenyatta..