Sunday, April 23, 2017

"An Invitation to the Hunt" (1960)

George Hitchcock, author of the short story "An Invitation to the Hunt," is no relation to Alfred, though I discovered the story originally in one of Alfred's story collections. George is listed in Wikipedia as an actor, poet, playwright, teacher, labor activist, publisher, and painter (though not to be confused with George Hitchcock the Rhode Island artist). He was the editorial and publishing force behind Kayak, a poetry magazine based in San Francisco and then a book publisher, putting work into print by Margaret Atwood, Robert Bly, Richard Brautigan, Raymond Carver, and many others. He died in 2010 at the age of 96.

Though "An Invitation to the Hunt" has many elements of genre commercial product, it was published first in a literary magazine called the San Francisco Review, which also published Albert Camus, Cynthia Ozick, and others. (Note: much of this from internet sources.) So the story appears to come with a certain literary pedigree. This is also apparent in the quality of its language and its precision. Still, in many ways it's also typical of the rote shock twist endings popular in mystery, science fiction, and other short stories and TV shows at the time. "An Invitation to the Hunt" is now obscure. It's not online and can only be found in a few out-of-print anthologies, with titles that give you the drift: When Evil Wakes, Realms of Darkness, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories My Mother Never Told Me. That's most of what I know about this story and author.

For this piece, it's obviously necessary to give away the ending, so if that's a problem you can come on back and revisit this piece a few weeks from now or whenever you like after you read the story. I'll be here.



The simplest way to both summarize and give it away is by noting its most obvious sources, which might also account for its obscurity as I can see now it's really pretty derivative, if in a somewhat calculated or even sardonic way: Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." When I was 11 or 12—I remember it was summertime—"An Invitation to the Hunt" hit me very hard. Fred Perkins is a modest clerk in an anonymous "Agency" located somewhere in exurban California (likely Southern California). One day, he unexpectedly receives an invitation to a formal hunting party put on by the town's elite class. It has the air of a recurring tradition. Perhaps you've figured out already what I never saw coming in 1966 or 1967 (and forget for the moment the inconvenient questions, we'll get to those): it turns out Perkins is the object of the hunt.

I see now that the story is thoroughly class conscious, and articulate too, which also shores up its literary bona fides. Something about Perkins, perhaps his social position, made me think of my father, a schoolteacher and a slender and scrappy man with a temper, but inevitably diminished by class, as are we all. Don Knotts and Billy Martin were two more figures I saw him in, two ends of a kind of spectrum. I was reading the story at the age when the idols I had made of my parents were giving way to reality, and I was feeling the usual resentments of disappointment. I have always had a hard time growing older. That was part of it too. My mother was hard of hearing and that embarrassed me. It didn't matter that she was recognized as successful in her career as a social worker. My father was tough but small, with three missing fingers on his right hand that had been shot off in a gun accident. Some of my friends couldn't eat with our family because of that. I thought they were nuts but it made me self-conscious about him, feeling his shortcomings, his distinguishing features, as humiliations to me. This is adolescence I'm talking about. That's all I can say in my defense.

So much shame is involved at that moment, encountering these blunt social realities of winners and losers, and in a way there's no one to blame but your parents, who backed up all the lies. But they never did, exactly. We're talking about primal emotions here, and maybe this is just my own experience. It still feels a little like betrayal, after all the happy-talk in social studies classes about equality and democracy. And I'm even speaking about this from the vantage of white privilege. I know it's even worse for others. For some of us, the illusions of childhood are shattered hard—there is no Santa Claus, love ends, pets die, and class barriers are real. "An Invitation to the Hunt" probed hard at the latter, implicitly and explicitly. Finding leftist politics as well as literary leanings in George Hitchcock's biography, coupled with the evidence of my own raw reaction to the story, makes me more certain he knew what he was doing.

Even aside from the shock value—minimal for anyone reading now, perhaps, certainly minimal for me now that I'm prepared for it—the story has many nice touches. The ridiculous hunting outfit his wife Emily purchases for him, for example, which sends the family budget sprawling. It's pink. The ominous way his name appears in the published list of dignitaries attending the hunt. Oh—which reminds me. The one main pesky inconvenient question of this story, which most of the others point toward, is: How can the Perkinses and others not know that some person from the town (or persons?) is going to be the object of the hunt if it is an annual or regular affair? Wouldn't there at least have to be rumors? I think it might be the familiarity of "the" hunt in the title, but I see now that Hitchcock has left it vague whether it's a tradition, or a one-off event. The community seems familiar with it. Clearly the Perkinses are unsuspecting. By contrast, part of what makes Jackson's "The Lottery" ultimately so effective is that the townspeople know what the ritual is about. Here, not so much. I guess that's chilling in its own way, harking to the class distinctions.

But never mind. This final scene is sprung like a trap. It's wicked and effective. It certainly made quick work of me. In many ways, it was exactly what I looked for from these stories, but the dose here was high and I felt morally sickened or culpable myself in a way I never had before. I even put away the book and stopped reading stories like this for some time, for several months at least (later I would encounter similar limits in true crime literature and horror movies). I couldn't get these final images of "An Invitation to the Hunt" out of my mind, with images of my father or Don Knotts or Billy Martin superimposed upon Perkins. Another obvious source for this finale are Holocaust stories of people torn away forever from places they thought were safe, their worst possible fears realized, which often start as knocks on the door after dark. If nothing else I learned about the power of stories and reading from this ending of "An Invitation to the Hunt," and maybe (I hope not, because I still hope it's not really true) I learned something about life and class and power too:

He had set the alarm for six—an early start was called for—but it was long before that when he was awakened.
"Perkins? Fred Perkins?"
He sat bolt upright in bed.
"Yes?"
It was light but the sun had not yet risen. There were two men standing in his bedroom. The taller of them, who had just shaken his shoulder, was dressed in a black leather coat and wore a cap divided into pie-shaped slices of yellow and red.
"Come on, get up!" the man said.
"Hurry along with it," added the second man, shorter and older, but dressed also in leather.
"What is it?" Perkins asked. He was fully awake now, and the adrenalin charged his heart so that it pumped with a terrible urgency.
"Get out of bed," said the larger man and, seizing the covers with one hand, jerked them back. As he did so, Perkins saw the two lions rampant and the quartered shield stamped in gilt on the breast of his leather coat. Trembling, and naked except for his shorts, he rose from his bed into the cool, crisp morning.
"What is it?" he repeated senselessly.
"The hunt, the hunt—it's for the hunt," said the older man.
"Then let me get my clothes," Perkins stammered and moved towards the dresser where in the dim light he could see the splendid pink coat and whipcord breeches spread out awaiting his limbs. But as he turned, he was struck a sharp blow by the short, taped club which he had not observed in the large man's hand.
"You won't be needing them" his attacker laughed, and out of the corner of his eye Perkins saw the older man pick up the pink coat and, holding it by the tails, rip it up the center.
"Look here!" he began, but before he could finish the heavy man in black leather twisted his arm sharply behind his back and pushed him out of the french doors into the cold clear sunless air. Behind him, he caught a glimpse of Emily in nightclothes appearing suddenly in the door, heard her terrified scream and the tinkle of glass from one of the panes which broke as the short man slammed the door shut. He broke loose and ran in a frenzy across the lawn, but the two game-keepers were soon upon him. They seized him under the armpits and propelled him across the street to the point where Marine Gardens ended and the open country began. There they threw him onto the stubbled ground and the short one drew out a whip.
"Now, run! you son of a bitch, run!" screamed the large man.
Perkins felt the sharp agony of the whip across his bare back. He stumbled to his feet and began to lope across the open fields. The grass cut his bare feet, sweat poured down his naked chest, and his mouth was filled with incoherent syllables of protest and outrage, but he ran, he ran, he ran. For already across the rich, summery fields he heard the hounds baying and the clear alto note of the huntsman's horn.

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