Thursday, August 27, 2020

"Up Under the Roof" (1938)

I wanted to think a little about duds in short story collections. Somehow they are inevitable. I've never seen a collection without at least one. In fact, any collection with only a few is generally a very good one. I've never figured out if that's the law of averages, or a matter of my mood from story to story (or day to day), or something about commercial factors. Perhaps some stories are so good they make their neighbors look bad. To be clear, I wouldn't call this story by Manly Wade Wellman and his ridiculous name and Southern heritage a dud, but I wouldn't call it a horror story either. It comes from an early '90s collection (itself a compilation of three earlier collections) edited by Dennis Etchison, Masters of Darkness, which is somehow itself a big dud. Etchison the story writer is a separate issue. I'll be getting to him in time. But Etchison the editor seems to come with some baggage, maybe? It's not laziness. The premise is that the story choices are made by the writers themselves. This seems like a pretty good idea at first. Writers were even at liberty to revise or undo edits they didn't like in earlier publication of the stories if they wanted. As usual, I had hopes for overlooked gems but then was reminded who writers are, or what the publishing industry is, as many of their picks turn out to be tales they had a hard time selling in the first place, or didn't sell, for whatever reasons. Writers, at least by this evidence, are not very good at making these selections. Ray Bradbury's "The Dead Man," for example, could well be the worst Bradbury story I've ever read, and I'm a fan. There must be an art to editing anthologies after all!

At any rate, as I say, I would not call Wellman's "Up Under the Roof" a dud—it's pretty good, aching with a surprising sincerity and candid details given from a child's point of view in memory. But it feels much more like an anecdote from a memoir. Indeed, Wellman's afterword confirms that it's basically a recounting of real-life incidents. It's about a 12-year-old boy confronting his fear of living in a haunted house. It's an unusual situation in the first place in that he is the only kid in a home setting among adults who berate and ridicule him regularly. They want to have grownup conversations and can't tolerate his childishness. It's summer. He's forced to be by himself a lot. At night he hears strange noises from the space in the house under the roof above his bed. He finally banishes his anxiety by forcing himself to enter the space. After seeing for himself there is nothing there the noises cease. This story almost moves past memoir and into self-help, reminding me of good advice I once got about recurring nightmares, a kind of lucid dreaming trick. In these dreams, confronting and literally attacking the sources of distress often ends them for good. My brand of nightmare at the time tended to be mocking, taunting bullies and the remedy was literally to scream back at them and punch them in the face if I had to. Not recommended for waking life, of course. The violent scenes woke me promptly and the nightmares then tended to end.

So I completely approve of this kid and I like him too, and I liked the lesson and message and most things about the story, aside from the pinched Southern setting, which is only because I don't like the pinched Old South. Wellman is fine at establishing it. "Up Under the Roof" considerably softens my take on Wellman who has not otherwise impressed me much yet, though he is a "Master of Darkness" and has a story in The Dark Descent too and I will likely be seeing more of him. This story appeared originally in the venerable Weird Tales, which surprised me a little as it's much more preachy than weird. On the other hand, the creature the boy imagines from the noises does reasonably suit the weird mode, a kind of giant creeping sloshing amoeba. Honestly, for me, the self-help tone is refreshing. The reality of the noises is never shrunk from—indeed, Wellman insists on it—but the point of the story is dealing with fear. Could be helpful to some!

Complete Masters of Darkness, ed. Dennis Etchison
Read story online.


  1. Narrow fear to fear of failure and your self-help dream strategy in "waking life" (which you caution against,of course)is an almost perfect distillation of Dump's populist appeal: attack, fight back, the best defense is offense against your enemies, against your fears and failures. Trumpers like his balls, his hutzpah; fighting back against the libs makes him a mensch. And it helps him/them deflect/ignore his/their hate-mongering racism, misogyny, xenophobia, etc. So, yeah, trying that strategy in real life looks a lot like bullies and fascists.

  2. I wasn't thinking at all in terms of political or public displays of courage here, and neither is the story. But I would argue the sources of that in the first place are psychological and psychic courage, which we're all going to need in coming days and years, as it does appear it's going to get worse around here before it gets better. The other side (and it's happening all over the world) is taking their cue from mob dynamics, personality cult worship, and their own shared irrational fears, which isn't courage. We can do better.

  3. I know you weren't thinking in those terms. I read/see/feel everything this way these days; TDS. But the other side does construe his aggression, fighting back, owning the libs, as courage, even if it's really just being a bully. I hope we can do better.