DARK MISCHIEF: Theodore Sturgeon’s Sinister Fables

Posted by on December 24th, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Like the fables of John Collier or A.E. Coppard, the Narratives of Theodore Sturgeon unite the folklore themes of unlimited moral privilege (via wish fulfillment) and the potential malignancy of Nature, with a wry, sly, moral skepticism; centering in stories like “Shottle Bop,” on the profligate fool; or, in “The Hag Seleen” on the wise child; or, in an occasional rarity like “Bianca’s Hands,” the murderous retardate. The command of one’s universe — the distillate of juvenile fantasy — becomes a nightmare in “He Shuttles”: an infantile wish (presumably) gratified, but denied childhood’s innocence.

Such innocence is parodied, in the Sturgeon story “Brat” by the basso-voiced worldliness of a “pro tem changeling”; whose apparent babyhood will become genuine only through an elderly woman’s affection. Sturgeon, in such stories, draws on the source materials, and the very tone, the wise earnestness, of folklore: maturity, with its reward of ripening, but also the penalty of corrosive cynicism. The two-faced benefactor is embodied in “A God in a Garden,” by an East Indian idol who grants the hero’s infantile wish: that whatever he affirms as true, will become true. His wife — maternally tender, but also reproving — isn’t privy to her husband’s pact with “that ugly little idol.”

One might, if one chose, trace the theme of a young man’s affinity with, and devotion to, a graven image, in an equivocal bond of faith, would appear decades later in the truly threatening, sinister idolatry of Sturgeon’s novella: “The Professor’s Teddy Bear.” During the 1930s, for John W. Campbell’s Unknown fantasy magazine, Sturgeon would produce one of his most fearsome deformities of childhood: It, a monstrosity born of spontaneous generation, a hulking Teddy bear evolved from corpse remnants, and fecal forest matter.

The agile vigor of Theodore Sturgeon’s style supplements the speculative ranging of his imagination; which finds lively pertinence in old moral questions, pertaining to ancient/contemporary issues of truthfulness, power, and humane consideration. Sturgeon’s biography as writer is itself a celebration of popular fiction at a pitch of alertness to the current world’s moral and social realities.

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