Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales

Michael Chabon

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  The Editor’s Notebook - A Confidential Chat with the Editor

  Tedford and the Megalodon

  The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter

  The Bees


  How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman



  The General

  Closing Time

  Otherwise Pandemonium

  The Tale of Gray Dick

  Blood Doesn’t Come Out

  Weaving the Dark

  Chuck’s Bucket

  Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly

  The Case of the Nazi Canary - A SEATON BEGG MYSTERY










  The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers

  Ghost Dance

  Goodbye to All That

  Private Grave 9

  The Albertine Notes

  The Martian Agent. - a Planetary Romance


  This Book Benefits 826 Valencia

  Copyright Page

  The Editor’s Notebook

  A Confidential Chat with the Editor

  For the last year or so I have been boring my friends, and not a few strangers, with a semi-coherent, ill-reasoned, and doubtless mistaken rant on the subject of the American short story as it is currently written.

  The rant goes something like this (actually this is the first time I have so formulated it): Imagine that, sometime about 1950, it had been decided, collectively, informally, a little at a time, but with finality, to proscribe every kind of novel from the canon of the future but the nurse romance. Not merely from the critical canon, but from the store racks and library shelves as well. Nobody could be paid, published, lionized, or cherished among the gods of literature for writing any kind of fiction other than nurse romances. Now, because of my faith and pride in the diverse and rigorous brilliance of American writers of the last half-century, I do believe that from this bizarre decision, in this theoretical America, a dozen or more authentic masterpieces would have emerged. Thomas Pynchon’s Blitz Nurse, for example, and Cynthia Ozick’s Ruth Puttermesser, R.N. One imagines, however, that this particular genre—that any genre, even one far less circumscribed in its elements and possibilities than the nurse romance—would have paled somewhat by the year 2002. Over the last year in that oddly diminished world, somebody, somewhere, would be laying down Michael Chabon’s Dr. Kavalier and Nurse Clay with a weary sigh and crying out, “Surely, oh, surely there must be more to the novel than this!”

  Instead of “the novel” and “the nurse romance,” try this little Gedankenexperiment with “jazz” and “the bossa nova,” or with “cinema” and “fish-out-of-water comedies.” Now, go ahead and try it with “short fiction” and “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.”

  Suddenly you find yourself sitting right back in your very own universe.

  Okay, I confess. I am that bored reader, in that circumscribed world, laying aside his book with a sigh; only the book is my own, and it is filled with my own short stories, plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew. It was in large part a result of a crisis—a word much beloved of tedious ranteurs—in my own attitude toward my work in the short story form that sent me back into the stream of alternate time, back to the world as it was before we all made that fateful and perverse decision.

  As late as about 1950, if I referred to “short fiction,” I might have been talking about any one of the following kinds of stories: the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war, or historical story; the romance story. Stories, in other words, with plots. A glance at any dusty paperback anthology of classic tales proves the truth of this assertion, but more startling are the names of the authors of these ripping yarns: Poe, Balzac, Wharton, James, Conrad, Graves, Maugham, Faulkner, Twain, Cheever, Coppard. Heavyweights all, some considered among the giants of modernism, source of the moment-of-truth story that, like homo sapiens, appeared relatively late on the scene but has worked very quickly to wipe out all its rivals. Short fiction, in all its rich variety, was published not only by the pulps, which gave us Hammett, Chandler, and Lovecraft among a very few other writers now enshrined more or less safely in the canon, but also in the great slick magazines of the time: The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Liberty, and even The New Yorker, that proud bastion of the moment-of-truth story that has only recently, and not without controversy, made room in its august confines for the likes of the Last Master of the Plotted Short Story, Stephen King. Very often these stories contained enough plot and color to support an entire feature-length Hollywood adaptation. Adapted for film and radio, some of them, like “The Monkey’s Paw,” “Rain,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” have been imitated and parodied and have had their atoms scattered in the general stream of the national imagination and the public domain.

  About six months ago, I was going on in this vein to Mr. Eggers, the publisher of this magazine, saying things like, “Actually, Dave, horror stories are all psychology,” and “All short stories, in other words, are ghost stories, accounts of visitations and reckonings with the traces of the past.” Emboldened by the fact that he had not completely succumbed to unconsciousness, I went on to say that it was my greatest dream in life (other than hearing Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” performed by a mariachi orchestra) someday to publish a magazine of my own, one that would revive the lost genres of short fiction, a tradition I saw as one of great writers writing great short stories. I would publish works both by “non-genre” writers who, like me, found themselves chafing under the strictures of the Ban, and by recognized masters of the genre novel who, fifty years ago, would have regularly worked and published in the short story form but who now have no wide or ready market for shorter work. And I would toss in a serialized novel, too, carrying the tradition all the way back to the days of The Strand and Argosy. I would—

  “If I let you guest-edit an issue of McSweeney’s,” said Mr. Eggers, “can we please stop talking about this?”

  The McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is the result of this noble gesture. Whether the experiment has been a success, I leave to the reader to judge. I will say, however, that while they were working on their stories, a number of the writers found within these covers reported to me, via giddy e-mails, that they had forgotten how much fun writing a short story could be. I think that we have forgotten how much fun reading a short story can be, and I hope that if nothing else, this treasury goes some small distance toward reminding us of that lost but fundamental truth.

  —Michael Chabon

  Tedford and the Megalodon


  He went in search of a relic of earth’s past, and came face-to-

  face with the mortal specter of his own!

  She’d brought some books with him on the way out, but had lost the lot of them on the transfer to the smaller boat. One of the lifting pallets had upset and spilled the crate down the side of the ship. His almanac had been saved, for which he was thankful.
  Among the losses had been his Simpson and his Eldredge; his Osteology and Relationships of Chondrichthyans; his Boys’ Book of Songs, Balfour’s Development of Elasmobranch Fishes, and, thrown in from his childhood, his Beadle’s Boy’s Library, including Wide Awake Ned: The Boy Wizard.

  Above his head, interstellar space was impossibly black. That night he wrote in his almanac, Velvet set with piercing bits of light. There seemed to be, spread above him, some kind of galactic cloud arrangement. Stars arced up over one horizon and down the other. The water nearest the ice seemed disturbingly calm. Little wavelets lapped the prow of the nearest kayak. The cold was like a wind from the stars.

  Thirty-three-year-old Roy Henry Tedford and his little pile of provisions were braced on the lee side of a talus slope on a speck of an island at somewhere around degree of longitude 146 and degree of latitude 58, seven hundred miles from Adélie Land on the Antarctic Coast, and four hundred from the nearest landfall on any official map: the unprepossessing dot of Macquarie Island to the east. It was a fine midsummer night in 1923.

  His island, one of three ice-covered rocks huddled together in a quarter-mile chain, existed only on the hand-drawn chart that had brought him here, far from those few shipping lanes and fishing waters this far south. The chart was entitled, in Heuvelmans’s barbed-wire handwriting, alongside his approximation of the location, The Islands of the Dead. Under that Heuvelmans had printed in block letters the aboriginal word Kadimakara, or “Animals of the Dreamtime.”

  Tedford’s provisions included twenty-one pounds of hardtack, two tins of biscuit flour, a sack of sweets, a bag of dried fruit, a camp-stove, an oilskin wrap for his almanac, two small reading-lanterns, four jerry cans of kerosene, a waterproofed one-man tent, a bedroll, a spare coat and gloves, a spare set of Wellington boots, a knife, a small tool set, waterproofed and double-wrapped packets of matches, a box camera in a specially made mahogany case in an oilskin pouch, a revolver, and a Bland’s .577 Axite Express. He’d fired the Bland’s twice, and both times been knocked onto his back by the recoil. The sportsman in Melbourne who’d sold it to him had assured him that it was the closest thing to field artillery that a man could put to his shoulder.

  He was now four hundred miles from sharing a wish, or a word, or a memory. If all went well, it might be two months before he again saw a friendly face. Until she’d stopped writing, his mother had informed him regularly that it took a powerful perversity of spirit to send an otherwise intelligent young man voluntarily into such a life.

  His plan looked excellent on paper. He’d already left another kayak, with an accompanying supply depot, on the third or western-most island, in the event bad weather or high seas prevented his return to this one.

  He’d started as a student of J.H. Tate’s in Adelaide. Tate had assured himself of volunteers for his fieldwork by making a keg of beer part of his collection kit, and had introduced Tedford to evolutionism and paleontology, enlivening the occasional dinner party by belting out, to the tune of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”:

  It’s a long way from Amphioxus,

  It’s a long way to us;

  It’s a long way from Amphioxus

  To the meanest human cuss.

  Farewell, fins and gill slits,

  Welcome, teeth and hair—

  It’s a long long way from Amphioxus,

  But we all came from there!

  Tedford had been an eager acolyte for two years and then had watched his enthusiasm stall in the face of the remoteness of the sites, the lack of monetary support, and the meagerness of the finds. Three months for an old tooth, as old Tate used to put it. Tedford had taken a job as a clerk for the local land surveyor, and his duties had exposed him to a panoply of local tales, whispered stories, and bizarre sightings. He’d found himself investigating each, in his free time, in search of animals known to local populations but not to the world at large. His mode was analysis, logical dissection, and reassembly, when it came to the stories. His tools were perseverance, an appetite for observation, a tolerance for extended discomfort, and his aunt’s trust fund. He’d spent a winter month looking for bunyips, which he’d been told inhabited the deep waterholes and roamed the billabongs at night. He’d found only a few fossilized bones of some enormous marsupials. He’d been fascinated by the paringmal, the “birds taller than the mountains,” but had uncovered them only in rock paintings. He’d spent a summer baking on a blistering hardpan awaiting the appearance of the legendary cadimurka.

  All that knocking about had become focused on the day that a fisherman had shown him a tooth he’d dredged up with a deep-sea net. The thing had revealed itself to be a huge whitish triangle, thick as a scone, the root rough, the blade enamel-polished and edged with twenty or so serrations per centimeter. The heft had been remarkable: that single tooth had weighed nearly a pound.

  Tedford had come across teeth like it before, in Miocene limestone beds. They belonged, Tate had assured him, to a creature science had identified as Carcharodon Megalodon, or Great Tooth, a recent ancestor of the Great White Shark, but nearly three times as large: a monster shark, with jaws within which a tall man could stand without stooping, and a stout, oversized head. But the tooth that Tedford held in his hand was white, which meant it came from an animal either quite recently extinct, or not extinct at all.

  He’d written up the find in the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science. The editor had accepted the piece but refused its inflammatory title.

  A year later nearly to the day, his eye had been caught by a newspaper account of the Warrnambool Sea Monster, christened for the home port of eleven fishermen and a boy, in three tuna boats, who had refused to go to sea for several days. They’d been at work at certain far-off fishing grounds that only they had discovered, which lay beside a shelf plunging down into very deep water, when an immense shark, of unbelievable proportions, had surfaced among them, taking nets, one of the boats, and a ship’s dog back down with it. The boy in the boat that had capsized had called out, “Is that the fin of a great fish?” and then everything had gone topsy-turvy. Everyone had been saved from the vortex except the dog. They’d been unanimous that the beast had been something the like of which they’d never seen. In interviews conducted in the presence of both the local Fisheries Inspector and one B. Heuvelmans, dentist and naturalist, the men had been questioned very closely, and had all agreed upon the details, even down to the creature’s length, which seemed absurd: at least sixty-five feet. They’d agreed that it was at least the length of the wharf shed back at their bay. The account made clear that these were men used to the sea and to all sorts of weather, and to all sorts of sharks, besides. They had seen whale sharks and basking sharks. They recounted the way the sea had boiled over from the thing’s surfacing and its subsequent submersion. This was no whale, they’d insisted; they’d seen its terrible head. They’d agreed on everything: the size of its dorsal, the creature’s staggering width, its ghostly whitish color. What seemed most to their credit, in terms of their credibility, was their flat refusal to return to the sea for nearly a week, despite the loss of wages involved: a loss they could ill afford, as their wives, also present for the interviews, pointed out.

  It had taken him a week to get away, and when he’d finally gotten to Warrnambool no one would speak to him. The fishermen had tired of being the local sport, and had told him only that they wished that anyone else had seen the thing rather than them.

  He’d no sooner been back at his desk when other stories had appeared. For a week, there’d been a story every morning, the relevance of which only he apprehended. A small boat had been swamped south of Tasmania, in calm seas, its crew missing. A ninety-foot trawler had struck a reef in what was charted as deep water. A whale carcass, headless and bearing trenchlike gashes, had washed ashore near Hibbs Bay.

  As soon as he could get away, he took the early coach back to Warrnambool and looked up B. Heuvelmans, the dentist, who turned out to be an untidy cockatoo of a man holed up in a sanc
tuary at the rear of his house, where he’d built himself a laboratory. As he explained impatiently to Tedford, in the afternoons he retired there, unavailable to his patients’ pain and devoted to his entomological and zoological studies, many of which lined the walls. The room was oppressively dark and close. Dr. Heuvelmans was secretary to the local Scientific Society. Until recently he’d been studying a tiny but monstrous-looking insect found exclusively in a certain kind of dung, but since the fishermen’s news, the Sea Monster story had entirely obsessed him. He sat in a rotating chair behind a broad table covered with books, maps, and diagrams, and suggested they do what they could to curtail Tedford’s visit, which could hardly be agreeable to Tedford, and was inexpressibly irksome to his host. While he talked, he chewed on the end of what he assured Tedford was a dentifricial root. He sported tiny, horn-rimmed sunglasses and a severely pointed beard.

  He wanted no help and he was perfectly content to be considered a lunatic. His colleagues only confirmed his suspicion that one of the marvels of Nature was the resistance that the average human brain offered to the introduction of knowledge. When it came to ideas, his associates stuck to their ruts until forcibly ejected from them. Very well. That ejection would come about soon enough.

  Had he information beyond that reported in the newspapers? Tedford wanted to know.

  That information alone would have sufficed for him, Heuvelmans retorted; his interviews at least had demonstrated to his satisfaction that if he believed in the beast’s existence he did so in good company. But in fact, he did have more. At first he would proceed no further upon that point, refusing all direct inquiry. The insect he’d been studying was apparently not eaten by birds because of a spectacularly malodorous or distasteful secretion, which began to rise faintly from the man’s clothing the longer Tedford sat in the stuffy little room.

  But the longer Tedford did sit, mildly refusing to stir, the more information the excitable Belgian brought forth. He talked of a fellow tooth-puller who’d befriended some aborigines up near Coward Springs and Bopeechee and who’d reported that they spoke of hidden islands to the southeast infused with the spirit of the deep upwellings, something terrible, something malevolent, something to be avoided. He’d reported that they had a word for “shark that devours the sea.” He displayed a piece of fisherman’s slate—from a boat he said had gone entirely missing—on which was written “Please help us. Find us soon before we die.”