101 Weird Writers #33 — Stephen Graham Jones

The Metaphysical Prisons of "Little Lambs"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

JonesStephenGrahamStephen Graham Jones (1972) is an American writer who writes both stories and novels. His most recent books are It Came from Del Rio (2010) and The Ones That Got Away (2010); plus he has a new collection due later this month called After the People Lights Have Gone Off. Jones has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and Black Quill Award, as well as a winner of the Texas Institute of Letters Award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in fiction. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Asimov’s SF Magazine, Weird Tales, and multiple best-of-the-year compilations. “Little Lambs” (2009) is a perfect example of Jones at his chilling and slightly experimental best, evoking as the story does both weird classics and more avant garde work from the likes of Mark Danielewski. Returning contributor Timothy Jarvis pays ample tribute to the disorienting fiction of “Little Lambs” with a sort-of-fiction of his own: a one-of-a-kind fictive essay, if you will, depicting a cast of characters in their own throes of deranged perception, thanks to their own exposure to Jones’s story. I have a feeling readers will be able to sympathize.

– Adam Mills, editor of 101 Weird Writers

***

The official story is that a team of geophysicists, Earth scientists, naturalists – an environmental research expedition investigating the impact of fracking on the ecosystems of Siberia – were the first to discover the artefact. That’s what you were told. You were also told no one had laid eyes on it before. Yesterday Gunnardottir broke it to you that you’d been lied to, that the expedition had been military, that a Buryat shaman had built a shrine around the thing, that when the soldiers had realized the significance of their find, they’d shot her, in the head, then didn’t even bury her body, but hung it from a tree, for scavengers to get at. You now wonder if perhaps the artefact might be punishing you, and the team, for that somehow.

It’s impossible to say exactly what it, the artefact, is. It manifests itself differently to different people. The one constant is that it’s something that tells this particular story. You, and the team, call that story, ‘the tale’. Jackson says, to him, the artefact itself is a codex on ancient vellum. For Liu, it’s a battered, rusting clockwork orrery, and the tale is a voice droning in her head when she winds it up, sets the planets wobbling round. Gunnardottir sees the artefact as the decapitated head of an ibex on a pole, with scything horns, a grizzled tuft of beard. This head speaks the tale in a whimsical sing-song. For you, the artefact’s just a slim clothbound hardback, a black-and-white photograph of rolling Wyoming plains on the dust jacket. A light dredging of snow. The sky grey and close to the ground. When you open the book the tale’s there, set in a modern serif typeface.

Whatever form it takes, the artefact cannot be moved, it’s just too heavy. The others have put a tent up around it. You’re not quite sure why.

Gunnardottir’s an Earth scientist, Jackson’s an archaeologist, and Liu’s a speculative physicist. Their work focusses primarily on the properties of the artefact itself. To them, the tale is just a secondary phenomenon. You, you read the tale.

*

Siberia. The word conjures, for many, bleak tundra, scrub, permafrost, polar bears, caribou. Terrible cold. But that’s only a small part of a vast region. The artefact is located about fifty miles west of Lake Baikal. This is southern taiga, dense forests of spruce, pine, and larch, with a thick carpet of moss underfoot. The area has a rich wildlife: brown bears, wolves, and elk; eagles, capercaillie, and thrushes; toads, frogs, and lizards; in the rivers and streams, trout, perch, and pike; and, in summer, bees, wasps, dragonflies, and clouds of midges. In the far distance, there’s a spiring mountain range, grey rock, peaks snow-tonsured. The winter months are cold, but the rest of the year is mild, even, in July and August, hot. It’s not like the Wyoming of the tale, where ‘even when it’s not winter, it’s winter.’

You knew the tale from its strange, compelling, musical opening sentence: ‘We’re not supposed to walk through the structure, but for eight years we’ve been watching it from sixty-two feet away, too.’ It’s a short story by a North American author, Stephen Graham Jones, called ‘Little Lambs’. It’s the story of four hapless soldiers, stuck out in the wilds of Wyoming, guarding ‘the structure’, a huge skeleton of ‘rebar and iron girders and I-beams and chain-link,’ ‘the metal guts of a prison built in West Virginia in 1918,’ that one night was gone from where it was supposed to be and ended up there, amid undulating grassland. The walls of the prison, with nothing left to support them, collapsed, killing all inside. The tale is about that. But it’s about a lot more than that too.

The others had been sceptical about how useful a literary scholar would be to the team, but your identification of the text change their minds about that, persuaded them the authorities had been right to send you along after all. But they’ve not seen much value in the research you’ve done since. You’re still on good terms with Gunnardottir, but the other two are a little sneery.

*

Last night, you and Gunnardottir cooked a hare stew; Gunnardottir has good woodlore and knows just how and where to set a snare. Once you’d browned off the meat, and added the vegetables and stock to the pot, you both sat on a log by the fire, you keeping an eye on the simmering stew, Gunnardottir smoking her acrid roll-ups, and both of you talking about the tale.

You were discussing the setting. Gunnardottir scratched her head.

‘I don’t know why they, I mean the soldiers, find the wildness, and the isolation, the cold and the snow, quite as oppressive as they do. Even the Northern Lights. I think it sounds like a beautiful spot.’

‘Of course you do,’ you said. ‘I wouldn’t like it at all, sounds bleak. But that’s beside the point, really.’

‘How do you mean?’

So you explained to her. How ‘Little Lambs’ is weird fiction, a nebulous, but potent genre, how the setting is an engagement with a particular trope of the Weird. How the Weird has inherited, from the Gothic, a particular relationship with the landscape. That the original Gothic often used pathetic fallacy for atmosphere; the landscape often imposing, gloomy – an apt backdrop to dark and terrible events. That weird fiction takes this further, that, in the Weird, the landscape is often not just sublime, but actively threatening. That classic examples of this can be found in the stories of Algernon Blackwood, in particular ‘The Wendigo’ and ‘The Willows’, and in the naval stories of William Hope Hodgson. That it resonates with the idea, commonly found in weird fiction, that the cosmos is indifferent or even inimical to human life. How, in the Weird, the world can also be a sham, no more real than a scene painted on scrim. This may, you explain, account for Russell’s claim, in the tale, that the Northern Lights aren’t what they seem.

Then Gunnardottir asked you about Jones and his work. So, as you sat, lit by the fitful firelight, stirring the pot from time to time, you told her all you know.

Jones is a writer of Blackfeet Native American descent. He’s prolific, and his work ranges over many genres and themes: bizarro pulp, post-apocalypse, horror, ghost story, serial killer, hard-boiled, personal reminiscence, and more. These modes are never kept pure, are always miscegenated in bizarre, powerful ways. Jones can also be formally tricksy, wrong-foot his reader, achieve strange effects. His style can be difficult to parse, veers from register to register: from breathless vernacular to wry aside, from technical and scientific discourse to breathtaking poetry. It’s also completely unforgiving, never holds the reader’s hand, never makes it clear what this word means, or who this character is, when they might have been encountered before. It’s hard work, but all the more rewarding for that.

You explained to Gunnardottir that much of what constitutes weirdness in fiction comes from the slippage of categories, the blurring of boundaries, the mixing of seemingly incompatible modes, forms, styles. Jones, you told her, restlessly distorts, melds, hollows out in all his work. But he also sometimes writes more straightforward weird tales, where the mode is nominally realist, and the focus is on some irruption or rent that’s as terrifying and strange for the characters as it is for the reader. And, you said, ‘Little Lambs’ is one of those tales.

Gunnardottir looked over at you, nodded, then gestured with her thumb at the pot.

‘I think the stew’s ready.’

*

You shouldn’t be writing this all down. The regulations expressly forbid anyone from keeping a diary or journal. But you keep this account online, this blog, which you do using the smartphone no one knows you’ve brought out here with you, so, should anything happen, there’ll be a record. But it’s got to stay hidden for now. Which is why you post all of the kitten pictures. They’re cover. You’re sorry about those.

*

Most assume the artefact materialized one day, sometime after Jones wrote his story, that it’s what’s important, that it wants to communicate with us, and that it just happened to try using the tale. But some people don’t think that. You don’t think that. You think the artefact might always have been here, waiting to be discovered. You think that the tale’s the thing and the artefact merely a conduit, and there are others, some powerful individuals, who also hold this view. You don’t know what it means that Jones wrote his story, what it means that it clearly has an early twenty-first-century setting, but you try not to get bogged down in that. But that’s why you’re here, on what is a scientific expedition, why you’re analysing the tale itself.

But the whole team are trying to make sense of the thing, one way or another. It feels, though, more like you’ve been charged with interpreting it as an arcanum, as a sacred mystery, than with interrogating it in a rational way, that you’re less researchers than hierophants.

*

It’s hard out here. Lonely. And you’ve all grown to hate the artefact. Gunnardottir says she thinks it’s a kind of gall, a canker. That would make the tale a parasite, you suppose. The words, larvae, feeding, growing, waiting to burrow their way out. Or perhaps the tale is a virus? It seems to have infected you all.

 

This evening, after supper, Liu started lecturing the rest of you on what she called the ‘haecceity mutability’ of the artefact, how she speculated it was related to quantum fluctuation, though her instruments had not so far detected any evidence of particulate-waveform instability. Her talk was esoteric, and you lost the thread. Daydreamed. She seemed suspicious, antagonistic. You don’t think she quite believes what the rest of you tell her about how you see the artefact, fears, even, she’s the butt of a joke.

Anyway, you drifted off, started musing on science and weird fiction.

It’s often argued weird fiction is a secular, nihilist, materialist offshoot of the supernatural Gothic, and you think this is, broadly speaking, true. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the ground of Western knowledge, you’d argue, shifted. While in most areas of culture fidelity to the rational tenets of the Enlightenment was maintained, new paradigms arose in the most abstract areas of thought, such as: mathematics, philosophy, and cosmology. These new paradigms eroded some of the certainties of empiricism. Despite this, though, the prevailing models remained rational, and the irrationalities of the new sciences were banished; Riemannian geometry, entropy quantum indeterminacy, and so on, were effectively occulted – deemed crypto-discourses, they were hidden from plain sight. And so, by and large, the situation remains. While the Weird had existed in various strains before that time, those tremors gave rise to a slew of fictions which take their energy from the collapsing together of two things before held apart: science and the occult. The Other of earlier Gothic modes was supernatural, for the Weird it is material; the fictions both revel in and cower from the things the new abstruse sciences tell off: the voids, the abysses, the gulfs of time.

Then, once the Weird was established, came the rupturing event of the Great War, and the rationalist ideology of the Enlightenment was dealt a severe, perhaps mortal, blow on the bloody mire of the Somme. There was a general turn back to the religious: to a Christian God who’d guided the allies to victory, for some; for others, who sought to come to terms with the loss of so many, to spiritualism. This intensified the Weird.

It occurred to you then, as you were zoning out while Liu droned on, that ‘Little Lambs’ is specifically concerned with the collapse of the binary opposition between science and the occult. Right at the outset Tad (you all called him ‘Tad’, the narrator, though it’s a name used for him just once, by Manny, the ex-lumberjack lost in the structure) says the team are watching the structure ‘on so many monitors and at so many wavelengths that sometimes you just want to step outside the bunker, see it with your eyes.’ He says it’s only then you can ‘be sure it’s real, that it’s still here.’ The suggestion is, of course, that the paraphernalia of scientific measurement fails when the Weird is encountered, that it must be met in the raw. Further, the tale melds science and the occult in an archetypally weird way. The original incident, the bizarre translocation of the prison’s skeleton, at first seems something from science fiction, achieved by technological means, but the reader then discovers the team’s best guesses are that it was the result of an intense dream, or of a bizarre sigil walked into the prison’s corridors by an inmate. The leader of the small group, Russell, believes in this second explanation, and gets the other members of the team to walk complex patterns on a mirror of the prison’s floor plan he’s got them to lay out in rocks. This is like a parody of a scientific experiment, one which shades into superstitious ritual. And ‘Little Lambs’ engages with ‘weird science’ in other ways too: in the way we’re told lightning won’t strike the structure, which recalls the role lightning plays in Victor Frankenstein’s decision to abandon his occult studies and turn to science; and in the way Tad can’t bear, because of its lingering warmth, to think of the shirt Manny gives him as an artefact to be catalogued, processed, dissected.

Ceremonies are a key trope in weird fiction too, and ‘Little Lambs’ is full of them, from Russell’s ‘experiment’ and repeated ritualized suicide attempts, to Tad’s walks through the structure and exchange of objects with Manny. What you reckon is that in the Weird, random arbitrary ritual replaces both the secular liturgy of taxonomical classification and religious ceremony, lays bare the meaninglessness of both these things.

Then you think, all those walks through the structure, they recall the procession, with ‘solemn and measured step,’ of the Red Death through the seven chambers of Prince Prospero’s imperial suite in Poe’s story. You don’t know what to make of that.

*

Gunnardottir’s in a foul mood this afternoon. Earlier, just after lunch, while she was taking some measurements of the artefact, the ibex head got the little finger of her right hand between its teeth. It had never done anything before save tell the tale, eyes rolled back in its head. In getting the finger free, Gunnardottir wrenched it badly, dislocated it, and now she’s got it strapped to her ring finger, curses from time to time; she says it still hurts pretty bad, though she’s been guzzling painkillers.

Earlier, while you were reading some interviews with Jones online, she came over, asked what you were doing. You told her. She sneered.

‘I meant, how is what you’re doing going to help us here?’

‘What if the tale is the thing?’ you replied. ‘Someone’s got to look at it.’

‘And the artefact itself just a Trojan Horse? I don’t buy it.’

She rolled her eyes, turned to go.

‘Hang on,’ you said. ‘I’ve a theory. I don’t actually think the tale is the thing, not exactly. I reckon it’s a kind of Trojan Horse itself.’

She sighed.

‘How? Like, what for?’

‘Well… For weirdness, I think.’

‘Huh?’

‘Look at this. It’s from an interview with Jones.’

You tapped the screen of your laptop. You’d highlighted part of one of Jones’s responses. It read: ‘I think what weird fiction tries to do, is unsettle you to some degree. But it also wants to make the world bigger than you ever thought it was, or could be.’

‘Do you see?’ you asked Gunnardottir.

She shook her head.

‘Maybe the Weird is what we’re dealing with here. Something transformative, infectious. Maybe the artefact wants to change things.’

She snorted, walked off. Then stopped. Said, without looking back, disdainful, ‘This is a problem for science, not the liberal arts.’ Then went on.

‘Well,’ you called after her. ‘How are you getting on with it then?’

After that, riled, you went for a long walk in the woods. Mused on the nature of the tale, of its weirdness. It was pleasant to walk there, the moss springy beneath your feet.

When you got back to camp, you found Gunnardottir sitting on a log by the campfire, smoking one of her roll-ups, smoke pluming from her nostrils. She waved you over, and you crossed to her.

‘Look, I’m sorry,’ she said.

You sat down next to her, smiled.

‘It’s fine. I understand.’

She took two long draws, smoked the cigarette down to her fingers, to the dun bloom on the skin there, pitched it into the fire. Then turned to you.

‘What did you mean then?’

‘Huh?’

‘About the Weird.’

‘Oh right,’ you nodded. ‘Well. And, by the way, stop me if this is tedious, or incoherent. What I think it is this. Bear with me. What do you know about Kant?’

‘Not much.’

‘Well, I’m not an expert. But what I do know is that he wanted to bring about this radical paradigm shift in philosophy, one that changed everything. He said it would be like the Copernican revolution in astronomy. Copernicus placed the sun at the centre of the universe, and Kant wished to place the human mind at the centre of experience. What he argued was that it’s the mind that shapes and structures experience, that no one can ever have direct experience of the stuff of things, what he called the noumenal, but only of that stuff as mediated by the senses. He called these perceptions, the phenomenological. And his revolution mostly succeeded. This idea of the phenomenological’s one of the foundations of all modern thought.’

While you were talking, Gunnardottir took out her tobacco and papers, deftly rolled another cigarette. Then, when you were finished, she put it between her lips, struck a match, inhaled, lit it, shook out the match, chucked it on the fire. Then she turned, squinted at you through the smoke wreathing up.

‘What’s this got to do with the tale?’

‘Well, for starters, there’s that bit where Tad says, “If you look at the structure long enough, you lose a kind of perspective and it just becomes a tangle of rust-colored lines. They don’t move or anything, and it’s all in your head anyway.” You know that bit?’

She grimaced. ‘Of course I do.’

It was a stupid question; you all knew the tale front to back and back to front, could quote from it verbatim.

‘Well, the way Tad describes the structure seems to allude to the duckrabbit made famous by Wittgenstein, or, even more closely, a Necker cube. Do you know what they are?’

Gunnardottir shrugged, so I took a stick and drew the figures in the dirt.

Duckrabbit cube

‘They’ve both to do with perception. Can be seen in two different ways. As a duck or a rabbit, as a cube facing one way or the other.’ You gestured with the stick. ‘But you can’t see them both ways at the same time.’

‘Okay. So?’

‘So, what I couldn’t work out is why Tad says, “It’s all in your head anyway.” I mean, why draw attention to that when that’s the natural interpretation?’

Gunnardottir dragged on her cigarette, shrugged.

‘So what if it’s there to get us to question the obvious reading? What if the implication is that it’s not all in your head? This is something Wittgenstein hints at in his discussion of the duckrabbit. That the shift isn’t one of perception, but of external reality. In the tale, things play up, external reality is not stable. This kind of unreliability is, I think, is a core trope of the Weird. It’s what gives the Weird its transgressive energy.’

‘What do you mean? How so?’

‘You see how this idea is antagonistic to phenomenology, to the primacy of experience? That key tenet of the Kantian revolution?’

‘Are you saying the Weird says that you can experience… What was it? The noumenal? Experience it directly?’

‘No, of course not. But it does dramatize the encounter. And that encounter tends to drive the characters of weird fiction mad.’

Gunnardottir ground out her cigarette, brushed a shred of tobacco from her lower lip.

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘But then you have the idea that one of the prisoners has, by dreaming hard enough, or by walking a certain sequence of corridors, wished the steel guts of the prison hundreds of miles away. Doesn’t that go against what you’re saying?’

‘In a way, I guess. But think of it like this. What’s another modern concept, perhaps the key other?’

Gunnardottir shrugged.

‘Structuralism. Again, it comes from the thought of Kant. Kant believed that philosophical enquiry ought to be conducted in an architectonic, systematic, and not haphazard way. Structuralism grows out of this principle. It’s the idea that certain structures underlie all aspects of the world, and that these structures shape human knowledge. In the tale, through a powerful act of imagination, or a specific sequence of corridors walked, the prison’s bones are shifted to the Wyoming wilds, and the whole edifice of power collapses. Of course, those seventy-eight prisoners and guards die. But that just shows the insignificance of folk in the face of the mysteries of the noumenal.’

‘I see. Sort of. But what does that all mean? What does it tell us about the nature of the tale? Of the artefact?’

You frown, scratch your head. Then have an idea, turn back to Gunnardottir.

‘There’s a turn away from the anthropocentrism of phenomenology and structuralism in the late nineteen-sixties, in the work of thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, but it’s a turn towards interconnectedness, flux. What I think the Weird does, has been doing since the late nineteenth century, is also turn away from anthropocentrism, and through the power of the imagination, weird science, chance, and ritual, offer a glimpse of the world of things that’s normally hidden, of the noumenal. But as I’ve said the vision is bleak, deranging. There’s no vitality in the noumenal, only madness. It’s indifferent or actively hostile to humankind.’

Gunnardottir peered at you, then began rolling another cigarette.

‘I think “Little Lambs” doesn’t just show the Weird in operation, but offers a commentary on it too. It’s metaweird, you know?’

Gunnardottir handed you the cigarette she’d been rolling. You shrugged, took it from her. She set to rolling another for herself. When she was done, she struck a match lit your roll-up, then hers. Then you both smoked in silence, staring into the fire. You sucked the acrid smoke into your lungs, feeling its burn. It was the first cigarette you’d smoked in years. It made you light-headed. When you’d both smoked your roll-ups down, tossed the butts in the fire, Gunnardottir turned to you.

‘What does that all mean?’

‘Oh, I don’t know.’

‘There’s an old saying where I come from. “Ég kem alveg af fjöllum.” “I come entirely from the mountains.”’

‘What does that mean?’

‘It means, “I haven’t got a fucking clue.”’

*

This afternoon, you and Gunnardottir went out hunting elk with the team’s rifle. You stalked a small herd a fair way, Gunnardottir following their spore through the forest, you marking the trail with notches cut low down on the trunks of trees. Then you came to part of the woods where the boles lined up in neat rows, almost as if the trees had been planted like that, though they can’t have been, not out here. It must just have been chance. It was eerie. You pointed it out to Gunnardottir.

She looked about, shuddered.

‘Hmm. Reminds me of the structure.’

You nodded.

‘“He kept walking down all the halls trying to get an echo or something and then he just suddenly wasn’t there anymore,”’ she quoted.

‘Passages and corridors are another weird trope, you know?’

‘Really?’

‘Again, it comes from the Gothic. Secret passages in haunted castles, terrified flights from cruel monasteries through crypts, catacombs… A scholar of the Gothic, Manuel Aguirre, has argued they’re a device for skewing and expanding space. Tunnels go on and on or are confusing, labyrinthine, turn the heroine round so she ends up back at the dread place she’s fleeing. This, Aguirre argues, liminalizes the space, makes it unreal. It becomes a threshold, a place giving onto some dread alterior realm. A threshold that, once you’re stood on it, you’ve already crossed. In the Gothic, this spatial distortion is mostly hysterical, but…’

You’d been speaking in a whisper, as you followed Gunnardottir, creeping after the elk. Then you found yourself at the edge of a clearing where the herd huddled, grazing. Gunnardottir shushed you, hunkered down, took aim, shot one of the elk dead. The rest of the herd scattered.

You returned to camp, following your blazes, dragging the elk on a makeshift travois Gunnardottir made, too breathless with exertion for speaking. Now she’s flaying, gutting, and jointing the elk, outside, by the fire, and you’ve come back to your tent to write this.

What you were going to go on to say about corridors, passages, is that, while the contortion of space is most often psychological in the Gothic, the result of the derangement of the protagonist’s senses, in weird fiction it’s external, manifest in the world. In weird fiction spaces are always shifting, changing, and passages, in actuality, lead to impossible places or go on for ever. And, as scholar of science fiction and the Gothic, Roger Luckhurst, has argued, the Weird has a particular affinity with corridors, being (and you found this on the internet, so it’s verbatim), ‘itself less a genre than a portal or corridor that connects other genres together in momentary formations to make fugitive fictions and temporary hybrid genres.’ ‘Little Lambs’ is certainly an example of what Luckhurst has called the Corridic Weird.

*

After spending about half an hour in the tent with the artefact this evening, Jackson walked round and round the periphery of the camp, shining his powerful torch up into the branches of the trees that hem it in. You sat in one of the camp chairs, reading ‘The Damned Thing’ by Ambrose Bierce on your tablet, and from time to time glancing up to watch him pace. Halfway through his sixth circuit, eyes in the upper branches of a larch glistered in the beam of his torch. He startled, dropped it.

As he bent to pick it up again, you called out.

‘Just an owl, I think. Nothing to…’

‘I know.’

‘Then why…’

Snarling, he turned, shone the torch in your eyes. You raised a hand against the glare.

‘Hey!’

‘If you shut up.’

‘Alright!’

He lowered the torch, spat, then walked off into the trees.

‘Where are you going?’

He went on, without looking back.

Just then, there was a low hoot. You nodded. Then thought about how the tale was maybe like an owl pellet: a clump of fur and bone you needed to soak, tease apart, before the thing that had been eaten could be pieced together. But you don’t know where you were going with that.

Gunnardottir found Jackson ten minutes later. He’d hanged himself with his belt from the telecommunications rig. You heard Gunnardottir’s cries, went over. Jackson’s face had purpled, and his eyes bulged, but once you’d got him down and loosened the belt, he gasped, began gulping air. You carried him back to camp, settled him in his bed. His eyes rolled, his body was limp, but he was just conscious, muttered, as if in a delirium, very low. Listening close, you realised he was repeating phrases from the tale. Gunnardottir woke up Liu, who’d gone to bed early. She put some ointment on the lesions to Jackson’s neck, and is sitting by his bedside, watching him tonight.

*

You went back out to the rig after, to see if Jackson had damaged anything, or if there was anything otherwise different about it. He hadn’t, and there wasn’t. The mast, which lances up through the forest canopy, is ochre ceramic. You don’t understand the science behind it, but you know it has something to do with superconductivity; higher up the rig is kept very cold, and the foliage wilts away from it, as if the trees were cringing back. It’s the reason we’ve the internet in this wild place. It looks like a pylon of yellowed bone.

When you returned to camp, you found Gunnardottir sitting by the fire, staring into it, sat down beside her.

‘He keeps on going on about that sheep in the diaper,’ she said, without turning to you.

‘Who?’

‘Jackson. He’s running a high fever. Liu’s given him some penicillin, but has no idea what’s wrong with him. But he keeps rambling on about the sheep in the diaper from the tale.’

You picked up a bit of brushwood, threw it on the fire, watched it glow like hot wire, flare up. Gunnardottir turned, glared at you.

‘What’s the meaning of that sheep?’

You shrugged.

‘There’s something going on in the tale, some thematic around subverted masculinities, male hysteria, men as mother surrogates, the structure as a womb, the collapsing prison as the collapse of the patriarchal edifice. I’ve not quite teased out what yet, though.’

Gunnardottir snorted.

‘What’s the use of you if you can’t offer any answers?’

‘No, really,’ you stammered. ‘It’s a common trope of weird fiction. Male protagonists swoon like Gothic heroines, there are monstrous and uncanny maternities. The tale’s doing something with it, subverting it I think…’

But Gunnardottir cut you off.

‘Does everything have to be a symbol for you? Can’t a prison just be a prison? A sheep in a diaper, a sheep in a diaper?’

‘Well, on some level the prison is just a prison. You see…’

‘Shut up,’ she snapped. Then walked off.

You sat there, fists clenched, wishing you could have one of her cigarettes. Then you calmed, and your thoughts turned back to the structure. Tad says, even without walls, it’s still a prison. It certainly still believes itself a prison, is trying to reconstitute itself. Calling those bricks to itself across the void. If slowly, so slowly.

Then it occurred to you that the tale might be alluding to the imaginary prisons of Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione etchings. After all, they’re a key influence on the Gothic, and through it, the Weird.

carceri-d-invenzione-plate-xiv-first-edition-by-giovanni-battista-piranesi

Aldous Huxley described the Carceri as: ‘metaphysical prisons, whose seat is within the mind, whose walls are made of nightmare and incomprehension, whose chains are anxiety and their racks a sense of personal and even generic guilt.’ Which is a pretty good description of the structure in ‘Little Lambs’. And of the story as a whole. And of weird stories generally.

Tad says the structure is still a prison. But then he says, ‘maybe it’s more too.’ What’s the ‘more’?

*

You went outside, found no one about, realized Liu and Gunnardottir were still sitting with Jackson, crossed over to his tent. But they wouldn’t let you in. Gunnardottir yelled at you.

‘Don’t you think you’ve done enough?’

You don’t know what Jackson has told them.

*

You’ve been sitting, staring into the fire, thinking again about prisons, about that ‘more’. The tale. Maybe it’s imprisoned in the artefact. Maybe loosed, it will set the world free. Enweird it. You don’t know. But you do know you don’t need the others. Don’t need Gunnardottir and her cigarettes. You have the tale.

*

You know what you need to do now. You’ve already got the whole of ‘Little Lambs’ committed to memory, all of you do. You know Gunnardottir’s taken the rifle into Jackson’s tent with her. So you’ll have to use one of the hunting knives. It will be harder. You’ll have to creep up on them. You don’t think, try not to think, about what you must do after. But you do envision yourself loping through the forest, howling and yowling and jabbering the tale. And, at that, you grin.

One reply to “101 Weird Writers #33 — Stephen Graham Jones

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