This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “The Beak Doctor”, Eric Basso, 1977.
I came to this story with trepidation. Basso is a poet. This story was first published in the literary magazine Chicago Review, and the introduction compared it to surrealist Alfred Kubin’s work.
I was right to expect little.
This is an interminable story of meandering, overly detailed description. (It’s 31 pages long, and The Weird does not have small pages.) There is lot of tedious descriptions of, among other things, lights and the pattern of lights, I suppose as contrast to the story being set in some fogbound, unnamed port city of the mid-20th century.
The story, such as it is, involves a beak doctor who is called to examine a naked, raped woman. He is wearing, it seems, mask and goggles something like the black plague beak doctors with their bird like snouts full of herbs, spices, and dried flowers. (Not actually invented until 1619.)
He fills out a report and tells the man who found the woman, originally thinking she was just a lump of garbage in the street, to make a call to the police and the woman will be taken to the roundhouse.
The story then alternates between first person narration of the beak doctor making his way to the roundhouse and third person accounts of events elsewhere in the city including a warehouse full of junk and novelty gifts being sold, a masquerade party (with the figure of a trickster who ties several of these incidents together), a landlady’s body being bagged and drawing flies, and other incidents.
Eventually, after the doctor reaches the roundhouse, we find that a plague is occurring, a plague that sends people into permanent sleep as their bodies slowly dematerialize.
I suppose the fog, the sexual attacks on the plague victims, the figure of the father, the man who discovered that woman, all alone in the last paragraph, the lack of any real friendship or love shown makes this story a tedious disquisition on the atomization of human society in modern cities. However, its prose is clotted with long descriptions. Pretentiously, almost all of the dialogue is sans quotation marks.
This is a sample picked at random:
Incipient ticks of metal, enamel to enameled wood, replace the ticking of all the rundown clocks. Still some places left in the gaps between them to find refuge from these hazy lights. Prowl the streets and your shadow comes just short of reaching through the mist; it sweeps across the pavement, stretching out till it is one with the dark at the far end of a wide ellipse that reduplicates itself endlessly on other streets whenever someone, or something, moves off under the burning lamps. And if the light carried only a bit farther, the three of them would be going to meet the doubles of their hulking silhouettes. Now they are far from home, lost beyond any reckoning back. It is useless to hope that anyone would come to answer the door, if knocked. An upstairs window might open then slam quickly shut again, but often not before some object had come flying down: a flowerpot, shattered into a thousand fragments on the walk, scattering its contents form a mound of loam and upturned roots; or a wrench; or a rubber teething bone, after which they would hear the plaintive yelp of a dog. But no one came down to answer.
And that’s not even a third of the paragraph quoted.
Avoid this one.