“They Bite”

This week’s (actually last week’s subject for discussion over at the Deep Ones discussion group over at LibraryThing — I’ve been busy.

Review: “They Bite“, Anthony Boucher, 1943.They Bite

Boucher’s story smoothly and efficiently moves from spy story to odd folklore and legend to crime story to human story. That’s entirely in keeping with Boucher. He edited and wrote science fiction and mysteries and also did the first translations into English of Jorge Luis Borges.

We first see our protagonist Hugh Tallant hanging around a U.S. Army air base in the desert of California. It’s pretty clear he’s a spy, checking out the gliders there. He doesn’t seem to be working for any specific foreign power. He’s a freelancer.

Looking through binoculars can be a bit tiring on the eyes. He seems to see a “little and thin and brown as the earth” shape out of the corner of his eye.

An old acquaintance of his, Morgan shows up. He’s a “prospector” like Tallant. He knows Tallant from their days in China and implies he’s willing to spill some unsavory, if unspecified, secrets about Tallant. Blackmail is in the air. Tallant tells him to come back the next day, and they’ll talk about it.

Tallant goes to the local bar where the locals hang out and the soldiers drink desultorily and play pinball.

In conversation with the locals, Tallant says he’s renovating an old adobe known as the Carker place. It seems the place is held in dread and suspicion. One man tells him he should stay clear of the place just saying, before he leaves, “They bite.”

Tallant then strikes up a conversation with a young man, another visitor to the area. He’s a folklorist who’s been studying the Carker place. He asks Tallant if he’s ever seen “something very dry and thin and brown”.

Just “optical fatigue” says Tallant. The folklorist says different cultures have different names for the same things. The Indians who lived in the area called that figure a “Watcher”.

He then talks about the real case of Sawney Bean, a Scottish cannibal who killed travelers. (I believe the story inspired the movie The Hills Have Eyes.) Then there were the Bloody Benders who killed and ate travelers who stayed at their inn in Kansas. (We’ve met the Benders before in Sam Kepfield’s “Hell Home on the Range“.) Those European legends of ogres may be memories of similar events.(The Wikipedia entry on the Benders doesn’t mention cannibalism for what it’s worth.)

And the Carkers may be another. In fact, the folklorist speculates the Carkers may have been the Benders since they were not captured in Kansas. There were two attempts by the Army to wipe out the Carkers entirely but they failed, and, now, people just stay away from the adobe.

And the folklorist throws in some recent local news: a local priest getting some fingers bitten off in the confessional booth and wolves coming into prospectors’ cabins during the recent and very cold winter. The bartender mentions something “little and thin” that came into the bar one night and killed a customer’s dog and ate part of it before leaving.

Tallant’s not much on the folklore, but he thinks he’s got the perfect solution for his Morgan problem. He’ll murder him and bury the bones in the adobe where, in time, they will just be thought another Carker victim.

We learn more about what sort of man Tallant is from a dream he has that night, a dream of power, “a common dream with him”, where he is “the ruler of the new American Corporate State that would follow the war”. He barks out orders to lackeys which echo those of the Roman Centurion in the New Testament (Matthew 8:5-13) in the discussion of faith and obedience.

But he also sees the folklorist who tells Tallant he thinks he’s riding “the Wave of the Future”.  But

there’s a deep, dark undertow that you don’t see and that’s a part of the Past. And the Present and even your Future.

It’s not really a necessary scene. We already know that Tallant’s a bad man. He’s got a shady past, and he’s contemplating murder. However, it contemplates a new, post-World War Two social order.

Next day, Tallant takes Morgan’s head off with a machete and drags the body inside the old Carker adobe.

There he sees a curious figure made of clay and sticks that is something like a lizard crossed with a man (Boucher later compares the monster to a Gila monster) and looking like what Tallant saw out of the corner of his eye.

(Spoilers Ahead)

He sees a curious mummy there, seemingly a ten year old boy with “long and very white teeth”. Then he sees the “mummy” is breathing. He tries to leave the building but then sees a similar creature, except female, approaching the door.

The “boy” attacks him. He tries to take its head off but stumbles over Morgan’s body. The boy’s teeth bite into his left hand. Tallant takes his head off, but the teeth won’t let go and seem to be injecting a venom into him. He tries, unsuccessfully, to get the teeth loose from his arm.

The story ends with him chopping his hand off, the blood flowing into a red-stained stone bowl he saw earlier in the room.

The story’s final words:

The female stood in the doorway now, the sun bright on her thin brownness. She did not move. He knew that she was waiting for the hollow stone to fill.

Will Tallant become a monster? Is that how the Carkers replicate themselves and survived extinction?  Will the girl feast on his blood?

It’s an effective story which I enjoyed.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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