The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Monday, April 17, 2006

"Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall" by Frank Belknap Long: An Appreciation by Nicholas Ozment

"Nothing cruel about poor old Humpty Dumpty. He'd tear your heart out. A lovely goofy old egg. Where's the cruelty then? I'll tell you. The picture that devilish fantasy conjures up is the essence of cruelty. A smashed, quivering, alive egg, in torment, scattered, spilling its yolk." --from "Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall" by Frank Belknap Long.

I am here to sing the praises of Frank Belknap Long's science-fiction story "Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall" (1948). But before we praise its merits, let's be clear about one thing: the Orban boy's loop--the "loop of hollow metal, twisted into a perfect arch like a gigantic croquet wicket [. . .] riddled with holes and an eerie radiance was spilling out of it"--is what we in the storytelling biz call a MacGuffin. It functions to get the plot rolling, much like the serum that transforms Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. As Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre (1981), Robert Louis Stevenson's serum wouldn't bear up under scrutiny, but it is not the main point of interest anyway--the reader is interested in Jekyll's transformation, and the potion Stevenson throws in merely to provide a pseudo-scientific basis, a sop to those readers who need such rationale to aid their suspension of disbelief. Much the same can be said for the Orban boy's gizmo--it's there to get our protagonists over into the blue world.

"Humpty Dumpty" does contain science-fictional elements, but they are not what the story is about. Plain and simple, "Humpty Dumpty" is a horror tale that posits a What If. What if those cruel nursery rhymes were true? What if we found ourselves inhabiting their twisted logic and demented outcomes? It is a scary story for precisely the reason one of Arthur Machen's characters in "The White People" (1899, 1922) famously argues, "What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. [. . .] And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad." In other words, fairy-tale fancies that we took for granted as children would, if we were to encounter them as sober and sane adults, put sharp blades to the tethers of our sanity. Long's story is a story about madness.

I first came across "Humpty Dumpty" as a young boy perusing my father's bookcase. It was in Robert Silverberg's anthology Strange Gifts (1975). The story was a strange gift indeed to my budding imagination, opening up whole new realms of possibility to me. It was one of the first stories that taught me to ask, "What if?" And the pursuit of that ability is why, twenty-odd (very odd) years later, I am a writer primarily of fantasy and horror. What if you looked in the mirror one day and it was not your face looking back at you? What if you bumped into a wall and instead of bouncing off, you slipped through it into another place? What if you were walking up the stair and met a man who wasn't there? Or, as Long asks in his disturbing little story, what if Humpty Dumpty really did have a great fall?

The story's pulp-era science, with its "Seral blaster," its rocketry and gadgets, is pretty dated now and didn't make much of an impression on me the first time I read it. In fact, when I revisited it years later, I had completely forgotten it was ostensibly a sci-fi story! What I remembered was that image of the broken egg-man, "completely bashed in, a flattish horror swimming in its yolk." That's what got under my skin. That, and the clockwork blue world where the headless bowmen periodically unleash death according to some unvarying, incomprehensible program . . . and the crooked man who ran a crooked mile: literally a "jigsaw giant, bent nearly double" who goes "reeling and stumbling over the plain, as if in unendurable agony" . . . and the floating "gear-and-wheel-filled spheroid" that swings down out of the sky—the only thing in the world that speaks, but merely to repeat and amplify whatever you say in "a vibrant echo that means absolutely nothing." It has no discernable purpose--one of the characters comes up with a rather elaborate hunch that "it's simply a weird regulatory mechanism that sweeps down at long intervals. A kind of cog in the clockwork setup--a stabilizing flying pendulum that's needed here to keep things moving on an even keel." Whatever it is, it, like everything in this world, has some analogue in nursery rhymes, as if this is a world glimpsed into by children--"but the author of the Mother Goose rhymes remembered his dreams of childhood more vividly than most men."

In case you have not yet read it, I will not give away the ending. I will say that Long demonstrates what can be done when one carries a "What if?" to its logical extreme. And "Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall" I submit to you as exhibit A for why asking such questions is a spellbinding pursuit. The science fiction here is, as I noted earlier, dated and pedestrian. But the dread, awe, and wonder that Long evokes is timeless.

And you'll never read Mother Goose the same way again.

Link to story.


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