The year 2021 (C.E. or A.D. according to taste) is almost over. It contained many good things including, most recently, Magister Nicolaus Copernicus, our new Christmas cat, so I will not complain about the pandemic. My New Year's resolution for 2022 is to return to writing the occasional short fiction review. Here, ahead of time, is the first fruit of that glad resolution:
“To the Honorable and Esteemed Monsters Under My Bed” by E.
A. Bourland, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September/October,
For several reasons, this story ought not to work. The idea
that the monsters under a child’s bed are real was done to death long ago. Its
diction is decidedly twee and the boy’s voice is not that of an
eight-year-old as it purports to be. The fate of the boy’s sister, who has
disappeared, drives the plot but is never revealed. Moreover, at the end, the
story, which was strongly grounded in a kind of reality, turns meta. Any one of
these factors would be enough to sink pretty much any fiction. Plus, it is told in
epistolary form, which is an open temptation to any writer to get lazy.
Yet work this story does. To begin with, it has considerable
charm. Here’s how the first letter opens:
honorable and esteemed monsters under my bed
I dare the
impertinence of addressing your toothy conventicle. I hear you down there, creaking, muttering, grinding your teeth,
scrabbling your claws. Your horriblenesses, how
you overwhelm me with dread! Indeed, so frightened am I, I dare not lie back in
restful repose, but rather can only
sit upright in this bed, one arm extended from the redoubt of my blanket to compose by moonlight this letter, which
I hope you might spare from your
diabolical schedule a moment to consider.
Bourland clearly loves words, not indiscriminately but well.
The whimsy of the elocution is nicely balanced by the physicality of the sounds
of “creaking, muttering, grinding […], scrabbling.” Language like this can
accomplish a lot. Immediately, it establishes the character of the boy—his
self-assurance, his intelligence, and his lack of fear above all.
Under-the-bed monsters are notoriously less clever than they
think themselves. So they write back:
Good evening. Heh heh heh! We have received your missive and discussed your request but must respond in the
negative. As monsters, our dedicated mission is to instill nocturnal dread in children. […] Kindly dangle your
eight-year-old toes off the end of the
bed to allow us toe-tasties.
Back and forth the correspondence goes, with the boy
protected by a nightlight and two stuffed animals, one of which has been
captured by the monsters. The monsters try to trick the boy into their clutches
and he, of course, consistently outwits them. In the course of these exchanges,
the reader learns that the boy’s absent father is a space-hero, off on a prolonged
mission to save humanity. Also that the boy is pushed around by bullies at
school, that his teacher is a petty tyrant, and that the man who has taken the
father’s place in the mother’s affections is a “banging-threatening-looming”
sort who may be responsible for the sister’s disappearance.
Briefly, it is possible to read this story as a war between
imagination and reality, with reality having all the power. Happily, this is
not the direction the plot takes. Instead, the boy escapes bullies, teachers,
and his B-T-L father substitute. Not, however—and this is essential—through trickery
but by honoring a difficult pact he has made with the honorable and esteemed
creatures under his bed. Because he has made a promise and honored it with a
sacrifice, the ending, in which he becomes a genuine hero, feels earned rather
than declared by auctorial fiat.
It all, mirabile dictu, works perfectly.