“Replacements”

This week’s subject of weird fiction discussion over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Replacements”, Lisa Tuttle, 1992.

This is one of those stories that isn’t cosmic horror, doesn’t use a conventional monster, and introduces a disturbing element into our world which doesn’t – at least immediately – threaten it.

Our protagonist is Stuart Holder, an editor at a London publishing firm. He’s walking through the littered streets of London one morning on the way to the train station. Normally, he’d get a ride from his wife Jenny whose career in publishing has been more successful than Stuart’s. But there was an argument that morning, and Stuart decides to walk.

He comes across a disgusting, unknown creature half dead in the gutter.

It was about the size of a cat, naked-looking, with leathery, hairless skin and thin, spiky limbs that seemed too frail to support the bulbous, ill-proportioned body. The face, with tiny bright eyes and a wet slit of a mouth, was like an evil monkey’s.

He instinctively loathes it and crushes it under foot. The act’s violence surprises him since he’s not given to killing much of anything except insects. The creature isn’t dead, and he stomps on it again, almost screaming, and is disturbed when he sees a “smart business suit” looking at him doing this with “a sick fascination on her face’. That, of course, brings to mind the nicely dressed woman at the beginning of the story. We’re not told it’s the same woman, but maybe it is. Maybe she liked what she saw dying in the gutter that day and somehow got her own.

Arriving at work, he sees his secretary and other women in the office act rather furtively and take a bag from a lingerie store off their desk. 

Later, he calls his wife at work, but she doesn’t answer. We are told Jenny is not a petty person who would carry a grudge over from this morning. 

Going home, he notices the body of the creature is gone, and, when Jenny gets home, there is an unpleasant surprise. 

She has adopted as a pet (without consulting him) a live version of the same disgusting creature he killed.

The supposed give and take of their marriage falls apart over the pet which Jenny is weirdly fond of. She wants to keep it and Stuart doesn’t. This is not an issue that can be compromised on, she says. He answers that the compromise will be them trying to understand the other’s feelings. Stuart thinks this is how wars start. But he gives ground. Jenny won’t respond to reason like taking the creature to a vet. At first, after he requests that, she claims she did, but, when Stuart confronts her about the identity of the animal, it’s clear she didn’t. Jenny doesn’t even know what the creature is or what it eats or where it’s from. 

“In fantasy, he stopped his foot, he controlled his rage and, staring at the memory of the alien animal, he struggled to see past his anger and his fear, to see through those fiercer masculine emotions and find his way to Jenny’s feminine pity”. 

And, exercising his empathy, he feels the “Glowing and warm, compassion” that fills Jenny’s heart toward the critter. 

Jenny takes to sleeping on the couch with the animal whom she won’t leave. She accuses Stuart of wanting to kill it – which he does – but he denies it. Stuart can’t kill the creature because that, to him, would be like killing Jenny. 

Then Stuart is horrified to find out his secretary has one of the creatures in the lingerie bag at work. She says she can’t leave it alone. He asks what her boyfriend thinks about this. “I don’t have a boyfriend”, she says. Stuart makes the secretary promise not to bring the creature in again, but he suspects she will. And he knows he probably won’t hold firm in his demand since a lot of things in the office won’t get done if he does.

(Spoilers ahead)

Stuart goes home that night to find Jenny unapologetically feeding the creature with some of her own blood. She says both she and the creature like it. He asks her to give the creature up. Holding “the scraggy, ugly thing close”, she tells Stuart this is nonnegotiable. He can accept it or leave. 

So he leaves. He gets an apartment and doesn’t see any more of the creatures. 

One night, on the train home, he sees an attractive woman well dressed with a gold chain on.  She leaves the train the same time he does and, since he’s now single, he wonders if he can strike up a conversation. Just then, he notices, close to her body and under clothes, is one of the creatures at the other end of the chain. 

He quickly goes away and finds himself back at his old house. He longs for Jenny. At the window of the house, he sees the creature spread eagled against the window “scrabbling uselessly; inside, longing to be out”. The curtain opens and Jenny pulls the creature away. Jenny is on the other side of the curtains with the creature. 

I got the sense this story is, if not “social commentary”, at least a commentary on the human condition.

The title of the story is “Replacements” after all, and for Jenny and the secretary the creatures, who showed up by accident in their lives, become replacements for men and male love. You could see this story as a metaphor for misplaced female pity and the need for masculine violence to protect women from their own misplaced impulses. Strengthening this interpretation is an aside, early on, that Jenny asks Stuart to kill bugs for her. However, it seems she is nonchalant about a much more plausible threat. 

Stuart rather fails the masculine test in this reading. His male protectiveness and impulsive violence show what should be done to the creatures. Even if they have no disease, don’t practice mind control, their taste for human blood is disturbing. But he won’t risk offending Jenny fearing he will lose her, which he might have, but he definitely loses her by too long delaying his assertiveness.

And, while Stuart likes to think of their marriage as having give-and-take, he knows that it’s mostly give on his part given his past arguments with Jenny. He also won’t assert himself in the office because he needs the secretary. 

In short, you could argue this story is about the dangers of males relying too much on women to the point where they don’t do what is necessary. On the other hand, is feeding your new pet with your own blood really that bad? (I’d argue, yes, but we see no indication that the creatures’ menace extends beyond that.)

You could also see this story as a commentary on how pet crazy certain people can be in prioritizing pets over human relationships. In this interpretation, the creatures are not just replacements for men but humans in general.

Whatever the case, Stuart now has to live with the knowledge that, in unknown London apartments, women are holding strange beasts to their breasts, beasts with a taste for blood. It’s a relationship that Jenny finds all to the good.

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