AN EXPERIMENT | Stephen Langlois.
S P O I L E R S B E L OW , A S A L W A Y S
“Cronenbergian,” as it turns out, is a pretty established term in the film world. According to Wikipedia, something Cronenbergian typically features “body horror”–the intertwining of physiological and psychological horrors, the celebration of bodily deformations, the more bizarre the better. A la David Cronenberg, of course.
I thought of Cronenberg because today’s story will naturally remind readers of that Cronenberg/Jeff Goldblum classic The Fly: like the film, the story mixes high-level dramatic conflict with gross-out camp and general science gore.
In my view, today’s story is far more than a work of bizarro fiction–though it has all the trappings of the terminally obscure bizarro scene: violence and gore, a generally casual approach to the horrific and obscene, and the kind of gallows humor that’s shunned by all but the most depraved readers and writers. This piece, “The Experiment,” features all of those bizarro goodies. However, unlike stories typical of the bizarro scene, its protagonist is quite complex and the story’s logical and emotional heft goes far beyond what I commonly expect of the Literature of the Weird.
My reading experience went something like this:
“Ewww… ha-ha…. eww…”
And that Hmmmm at the end is what transforms this from a hysterical work of gross-out absurdity to something special and deep, something that pings around in the reader’s skull like a ball bearing slick with brain juice and literary ambiguity.
For the record, this author brings his A-game when it comes to comical absurdity. Check out this setup:
“I’m here about the job,” she said, trying to hide her discomfort.
“What do you know about matter transference?” the man asked with impatience, ushering her inside. He didn’t introduce himself, but Sara knew from Craigslist his name was Raymond Bruce—Dr. Raymond Bruce, though she had yet to spot any credentials or framed diplomas.
“All you really need to know is that’s the transmogrifier,” said Dr. Bruce, pointing to the cylinder in the far corner. “And that’s the receiver module,” he said, pointing to the other cylinder.
“Got it,” said Sara.
Yes, Sarah found her job–as a lab assistant for a crazy fat man running failed teleportation experiments–via a Craigslist ad. We know from the start of this piece that reality and its assumptions are going to be thoroughly fucked with. It’s all in good fun, of course.
Until Dr. Bruce starts testing his matter transference pods using living subjects–dogs and cats and rabbits–and various hilarious atrocities transpire. Cute and cuddly animals are reduced to steaming piles of furry ooze, then start coming out anatomically misconfigured–a sort of mix-and-match physiology–barfing up their innards and dying, etc.
But I was especially captivated by our seeming cipher of a protagonist. As our point of view character, she is emotionally flat throughout, a reality that makes the conclusion of the story all the more powerful. This character is deceptively passive.
Consider Sarah’s personality traits:
- Sarah has a knack for unconsciously attracting the sad, the troubled, the dysfunctional; she’s a magnet for pathos and failure.
- She is largely unfazed by everything that transpires in this amateur teleportation lab: exploding animals? No problem. Teleportation? Meh. A crazy, fat pseudo-scientist who voluntarily steps into a smoke-belching death machine in the name of science? Okay!
- In fact, the most emotional she becomes is during her feeble efforts to comfort the scientist after each of his test subjects is liquified, horribly mangled, or dispatched in the manner of an over-microwaved potato. This last trait signals a sort of codependency, as if she’s bound to obey and affirm others’ neuroses. When Doctor Bruce belittles or harangues her for one reason or another, she seems to accept this abuse in stride.
All of which sets us up for the story’s left hook of a closing line–as we’re about to discover whether or not Doctor Bruce survives his test or ends up splattered or crispy like previous test subjects:
…maybe Sara would open the door to find the worst thing of all: That the experiment had finally succeeded and nothing at all was changed.
If we think about the implications of a successful test, it stands to reason Doctor Bruce’s ability to create a working teleportation device would render his lab assistant obsolete. Given Sarah’s codependency issues (that’s my reading of her, anyway), this rejection would be unacceptable. Then again, if the final test of this device actually fails, then there will be no employer to abuse her, which seems equally dire a fate in Sarah’s mind. So this story leaves Sarah with a catch-22: she both wants and doesn’t want Doctor Bruce to survive. Being too passive a character to resolve this dysfunctional relationship on her own, her future will be determined by the mad science in which she has become entangled.
Like I said: very Cronenbergian.