Gavin De Becker’s 1997 bestseller “The Gift of Fear” has always rubbed me the wrong way. The book itself is a relatively even-handed look at risk assessment, but listening to the author speak, and to the book’s numerous enthusiasts, in practice the book is the holy text of the church of “being afraid of everyone and everything all the time is best practice.” I mention De Becker’s book because the opening story of the new collection of short stories “Where I’m Crawling From and Other Stories” by West Tisbury playwright Wayne K. Greenwell is basically a reductio ad absurdum on this idea of constant fear in all directions. The story “Been Lāden with Terrorette’s Syndrome” follows a vacuum salesman’s descent into paralytic fear, as both he and his wife go to further and further insane lengths to feel “safe.”
Greenwell self-published the book of surreal short stories, and he’ll talk about it at a presentation aptly called “A Bright Evening of Dark Comedy,” next Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 5 pm at the West Tisbury library. Last summer he directed “The Grand Manner,” a reading of a play about Katharine Cornell at the Vineyard Haven theater that’s named for the actress. His one-act plays have been produced in New York, Seattle, and at ArtSpace and Pathways on the Island.
Greenwell said he turned to writing short stories in order to be “more of a conductor of my own symphony.” In a recent email, he noted that writing the stories allowed him to draw characters more fully and have fun with their nuances and interior thoughts.
I read a lot of old sci-fi. Part of the fun is seeing extrapolations from old world paradigms to impossible futures (in “The Time Machine” H.G. Wells imagines a far future, where humans have literally split into two different species as a natural consequence of 1890s English class structure). Greenwell’s “Pre-Coitum-Posterous” reads like the creators of “Black Mirror” (a contemporary reworking of “The Twilight Zone”) decided to lighten up and do a comedy episode.
The premise is that GMO creamed corn destroys your ability to bring sexual activity to its denouement, so whenever you want to get intimate, a company man has to invade your boudoir and spray your junk with a proprietary chemical that restores la petite mort — at your own expense. This takes place in the middle of the act (the company man wears a hazmat suit and carries two cans, marked “XX” and “XY”).
I imagine a future where readers will find our concerns about GMOs as quaint as we find the threat of giant irradiated ants leveling cities. Some writers might be tempted to draw some poetic comparison between the fear of GMOs and of the loss of virility, a perfect storm of fears for those in their twilight years.
From 1902 to 1909 Albert Einstein worked at the patent office in Bern, and referred to it as “that worldly cloister where I hatched my most beautiful ideas.” The last story in the collection, “Einstein’s Love Proof,” concerns said time period. A more obscure side of Einstein, but perhaps becoming more well known, is his equal passion for physics and females. The story follows Einstein’s abortive attempt to mathematically prove his romantic devotion, only to incidentally unlock the secrets of the universe, and upon being rejected, use those secrets destructively. I know for a fact it is fictitious, because the real Einstein never got that obsessed or upset over any specific love interest.
Greenwell’s title story of the book, “Where I’m Crawling From,” is a short, perfect case study of small petty people being small and petty to each other, an advertisement for the total annihilation of the human race more convincing than a genocide documentary, all accomplished with nothing more than an argument over dinner. An astounding achievement.
There are 12 stories in the collection altogether, available on Amazon and at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes. Copies will also be available for purchase at the West Tisbury library event next Wednesday.
Michael Craughwell, better known as Michaelcthulhu, makes giant swords and watches horror movies when the rest of the Island sleeps.