"Men Without Bones" by Gerald Kersh: An Appreciation by Sarah Monette
The story resembles Heart of Darkness, in that it is an uneasy meditation on the relationship between 'civilized men' and 'lesser creatures'--also in that as the narrator, the unfortunately but oh-so-appropriately named Goodbody, penetrates deeper into the jungle, he becomes increasingly alienated from himself. "I saw him get lost!" he says of his expedition leader, Professor Yeoward, and it is only much later that we realize what kind of 'lost' Goodbody means. Kersh literalizes this alienation, this losing of the self, brilliantly with the final revelation, as Goodbody (and by extension the frame narrator, and by further extension, the reader) is alienated not only from his society, but from his cosmology. Goodbody's identity has been stripped away from him piece by piece, just as he loses his supplies, piece by piece, in his struggle to re-emerge from the jungle: his superiority as a 'civilized' man, his courage as a scientist, now, finally his right to call Earth his home. The sudden revelation of the twist ending has all the stately inevitability of the moment of anagnoresis and peripeteia, recognition and reversal, in Greek tragedy.
This alienation of man from his epistemological self is coupled with the alienation of man from his physical self. Even before we learn Goodbody's name, we are told that his hands remind the frame narrator of "that gray, hairy, bird-eating spider." And thus the name itself strikes a discordant note; Goodbody's body is clearly not a good body.
We are thus prepared, sensitized, for the horror of the "little fat men without bones," a horror which does not depend so much on their power--"You can kill them with your boot, or with a stick," Goodbody says, just as the Nicaraguan boy kills the spider with his bare foot--as on their visceral loathsomeness, their scent and texture, the literal, physical nausea they inspire. Man's civilized self is of no use here: "I told him that ... although I pretended to be a man of science with a
detached mind, nothing would induce me ever to touch one of the things again." And for all Yeoward's bluster about science, he cannot bring himself to touch the creature either.
Kersh evokes the repulsive nature of the men without bones to such vivid effect that the final reversion to cosmology catches us off-guard, leaving us defenseless before the horror of the closing line as our world-view is wrested away from us and turned upside down. "Those boneless things are men. We are Martians!" It's hard to describe how brutally effective that sucker-punch is. Just for a moment, the Other--and surely the men without bones are one of the most chilling examples of the Other in modern short fiction--holds up a mirror and shows us our own face.
Link to story.