Last Words on the Million Writers Award

I’ve made my way through all the stories up for the Million Writers award, and I stand by what I said the other day about Matt Bell’s story. It’s still got my vote.

That said, I want to write a bit about Cat Rambo and Jeff VanderMeer’s “The Surgeon’s Tale.” When I realized this story was about bringing a corpse back to life, my interest flagged. I’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein many times, and I wondered what they could possibly add to that old story. I should have known better.

“The Surgeon’s Tale” is deeply weird and satisfying. The story takes place in an era of transition — a time when magic is dying out and science is taking the upper hand. The world is shifted just slightly from our own. The signs of the shift come in little unfamiliar turns of phrase. The narrator says his parents are “Preservationists,” as if this is a well-known profession, but the profession proves to be full of more mystery than is common in the mundane world. The narrator uses his preservationist background, his knowledge of science, and his dabblings in ancient books of magic to try to bring a woman back to life. He fails with most of her body, but succeeds in bringing her arm back to life.

From the story:

“She wasn’t moving. Her body still had the staunch solidity, the draining heaviness, of the dead. What I had taken to be a general awakening was just the water’s gentle motion. Only the arm moved with any purpose—and it moved toward me. It sought me out, reaching. It touched my cheek as I stood in the water there beside her, and I felt that touch everywhere.”

I found the resurrected life of the arm, and all that this brings to the narrator, perverse and moving. I don’t want to take away from the story’s surprises, but suffice to say the authors use the arm in some disturbing ways, as well as in some tender ways.

By the end, the story had won me over. I think it stands as proof of how archetypes work. They are archetypes precisely because they are evocative. Most powerful archetypal themes (such as that of the attempt to bring a dead person back to life) are in no danger of becoming cliches if the author goes the distance with them. These authors are not afraid to let the resurrected arm be just as weird and poignant as it needs to be. The result is that, while I do think of Frankenstein as I read the story, “The Surgeon’s Tale” is its own story.

It would be well for me to remember this. There may only be so many archetypes in the world, but that doesn’t seem to limit the wild weirdness of where writers can take them.

This concludes my series of posts on the Million Writers award. If you haven’t voted on your favorite story yet, you can do so here. I look forward to learning the results.

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