Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Middle Shelf Story: Neil Gaiman's "Other People"

“Time is fluid here,” said the demon.

He knew it was a demon the moment he saw it. He knew it, just as he knew the place was Hell. There was nothing else that either of them could have been.
What will Hell be like? People have pondered the nature of everlasting torment for ages. When discussing the topic with his disciples, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah, who wrote of the damned that “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched,” an aphorism that grows in horror the more you meditate on it. Stephen King re-imagined that awful passage in his story “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French,” positing Hell as a place where you were forced to relive your final moments without comprehension of their importance. Neil Gaiman takes the same concept and flips it on its thematic head in “Other People.”

“What happens now?” he asked.

“Now,” said the demon, in a voice that carried with it no sorrow, no relish, only a dread flat resignation, “you will be tortured.”

“For how long?”

But the demon shook its head and made no reply.
The setup is so simple that explanation almost ruins it. Suffice it to say that a man is tormented for aeons by a demon who first inflicts physical agony on him with a bevy of torture implements. But only after his flesh is torn, only after his skin hangs about him in shreds, only after he is irrevocably maimed does the real agony start -- the recitation of his life’s wrongdoings.

When, finally, the Lazarene’s Daughter, which he had grown to know intimately, had been cleaned and replaced on the wall in the two hundred and eleventh position, then, through wrecked lips, he gasped, “Now what?”

“Now,” said the demon, “the true pain begins.”
Gaiman probably didn’t have a theological point in mind when he penned the story. But he strays perilously close to total depravity, the idea that every bit of our personhood is touched with evil and that we constantly bleed that evil out into the waiting world. Heady stuff for three-and-a-half pages of text, and made all the more effective by an ending that wraps itself around you and refuses to let go long after the book has been returned to the shelf.

You can read “Other People” in
Fragile Things.

21 comments:

kitty ramone said...

this, along with "The Price" from 'Smoke and Mirrors' are easily my favorite Gaiman stories.
Simple yet terrifing

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, I like "The Price," too. But then, I'm a felinophile. Gaiman has a nice version of him reading the short up on Last.fm. You can listen to it here.

Liz said...

I bet Professor Richard Dawkins would hate this story. I bet, upon reading/hearing it, he would diss it like mad. I bet he'd have all sorts of good arguments for doing so, and to do so with. And that is one of the few things I would ever admire him for!

Loren Eaton said...

So I'm guessing you're not a fan of this particular Gaiman piece, eh?

Liz said...

Not really! Only just read it today, and "denounced" it on my twitter/opera as "Christians are sick bunnies"! :)

Loren Eaton said...

Uh, you are aware that Gaiman isn't a Christian, right? He's Jewish and -- as far as I can tell -- religiously secular.

Liz said...

Yuh: I am aware he probably calls himself atheist or agnostic or something now. I am aware of his Jewish heritage. (Many people have a bit! :) ) But he has rather an interestingly mixed upbringing - parents Scientologists, sent to a C of E boarding school?! I think like most people (even Christians like C S Lewis knew this) he holds to the *architecture* of the traditional faith of his.. predecessors. Surrounding culture. The usual thing. Which for so many of us in the West for so long has been a culture of monotheism. Also check out this chart on dualism: http://www.neopagan.net/Dualism.html

Liz said...

And let me just question parts of that story! Why is it so good for the man to endure such a session of Negative Psychoanalysis? How does it help anyone he *has* hurt for him to realise it all like that? Supposing it *does* have some moral purpose: why does he have to be tortured both physically and mentally to reach that state? & WHAT is with all the porno-sadism??

(These aren't Dawkins' questions - he would have his own - these are mine!!)

Actually: the story sounds unconsciously like a school for abusers: which some would argue constitutes most of organised religion!

OK: when the whole sorry torture for Man A is over and Demon A has left the room - how and why, btw? Does he leave by another door? Fall through the weird floor? Ascend to heaven now he has done his work like a good demon? Vanish in a puff of smoke? Disintegrate? Quantum leap? WHAT?? Terry Pratchett might have told me: Neil Gaiman does not!

And what about anything good Man A (who at the end becomes Demon B) has done in his life?

Liz said...

To cut to the chase: I know there is a school of (Christian) doctrine that says souls are annihilated in Hell, not preserved and punished eternally. Gaiman may be going for the blended sentence, here!
The thing is - if a God or Satan were to do that - would it have any point, to arrange it so?

If, say, the demons are annihilated, or just vanish into ether once their job at training the next demon to take over from them is done? A non-supernaturalist generally believes in a professional legacy. But s/he's usually thinking of something positive! :)

So: say another possibility were the case in Gaiman-hell and the demons, once their task is done, ascend to Paradise, purified. (Which would make it more like purgatory or hells in some eastern religions.)

So.. a bit better I suppose.. but still for me problematic. For example, how can a soul be purified, by an experience like THAT - also especially if it makes him as cynical as the businessman (?) in this story?? If he can't remember one good thing?

Loren Eaton said...

Hmmm. Where to begin?

First, welcome to ISLF! It’s always nice to see new commenters, and I hope you keep coming back.

Next, I understand some of your points regarding the piece, although the idea that there’s something inherently bent in human nature has precedence in both religious thought (Luther, Calvin, Aquinas, etc.) and atheistic thought (Baudelaire). Even if the story is “sick” -- and I would maintain it isn’t -- it’s a bit of stretch to connect it with and use it to denounce a single worldview.

Finally, ISLF is a blog about reading and writing genre fiction, as you’ve probably gathered. Though we do sometimes talk about theology, politics and science, we try to keep the conversation focused on the stories. Additionally, we have readers from just about every background and viewpoint, and because of that we strive to keep the tone peaceable. For example, equating organized religion with abuse falls outside of the bounds of acceptability, much in the same way that a comment connecting atheism to genocidal totalitarianism would also. Anyone who decides to hang around has to speak in an irenic manner.

Again, I’m glad you stopped by. I hope to see you around some more.

Liz said...

Hi! Nice to see your reply! (I checked back, but didn't find it until now! :) )

Well I didn't know the Baudelaire position on human nature! Though as I think one can see, most of my comments *were* about the details of the Gaiman story.

Well: I like the title of your blog: it's very evocative, somehow! It seems to be a literary blog, which I enjoy: though you say it mainly focuses on "genre" fiction, which I also enjoy!
I'd say ISLF was literary, with a Christian bent. This remark confirms it: "For example, equating organised religion with abuse falls outside the bounds of acceptability". Maybe: but I can tell you that it wouldn't on an atheist forum/site, such as that one run by the aforementioned Richard Dawkins! Which however I cannot endorse, seeing as I am a neo-pagan! :)

Liz said...

Hmm yeah: I find this story very abusive, really: perhaps that's why it's attracted my criticism.. (Bear with me: you'll find some things interesting about my views!)

So let's see.. from what perspective *is* Gaiman writing this story, do people think? What can we say/know about that?
Well: it's pretty unmistakeably from a Western, dualist, monotheistic-influenced (bounded) position.. someone such as a Japanese (manga-writer) would see/write a story *with the same brief, quite differently*. Probably taking it all a lot less seriously. (Or making out that the businessman was a reincarnated knight who could battle the demon, you know!! :) Or makin' out that the demon would agree to come home and be his butler.. sorry, just regurgitating some manga plots that took my fancy!! :D )

A similarly whimsical/satirical approach might be the one taken by a Westerner who is a thoroughgoing secularist: visions of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld are currently going through my mind: or the audio of the BBC

Liz said...

Radio 4 comedy drama series, "Old Harry's Game". *That* has often struck me as making some quite profound points through humour (though the latest episodes are not engaging me as much.) You can look it up on Wikipedia or the BBC website!

So: Neil Gaiman: humorist: definitely not. Satirist: probably not. I think he's better described as a horror writer. (Of a rather limp-wristed sort, I find: but a horror writer! I've heard a Christian friend say horror is a good genre for people of that faith to write in, because it "takes good and evil, and spiritual matters, seriously". So - horror is basically dualistic??

Well: I can see Mr Gaiman must be pretty preoccupied with the devil, going by the amount of time/space he grants Satan/Lucifer in his lengthy Sandman series of comics. He takes hell seriously. However, he also says Lucifer can close it and go and be a nightclub owner if he wants - very po-mo! :)

In my next post I'd like to say sth abt the difference between THIS story and visions of C S Lewis..

Liz said...

..of whom it may surprise you to learn, I am a great fan! Oh yes!

You will note that most modern (British, anyway) non-fundy Christians will maintain, if they believe in hell, that: "it is not a real lake of fire" or "it is not really bat-winged demons poking people around in a cauldron viz. 14th-century illustrations of Dante". When you ask them what it is they will say: (like in a - serious - interview on Radio4) that it is an "absence of God". Well: that's a bit too abstract for the lower levels of the human brain to chew on: so it's not surprising that American pastors wanting to terrify/control kids rely on more traditional (though still updated!) portrayals in their Hell Houses. (Yes it's a minor interest of mine!)
C S Lewis: It's quite a while since I read his The Great Divorce (the title being a counter to William Blake's The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell, I believe).. but I remember being quite taken with it. As I remember, the main theme is the narrator being taken on (initially, a coach!) tour..ou to learn, I am a great fan! Oh yes!

You will note that most modern (British, anyway) non-fundy Christians will maintain, if they believe in hell, that: "it is not a real lake of fire" or "it is not really bat-winged demons poking people around in a cauldron viz. 14th-century illustrations of Dante". When you ask them what it is they will say: (like in a - serious - interview on Radio4) that it is an "absence of God". Well: that's a bit too abstract for the lower levels of the human brain to chew on: so it's not surprising that American pastors wanting to terrify/control kids rely on more traditional (though still updated!) portrayals in their Hell Houses. (Yes it's a minor interest of mine!)
C S Lewis: It's quite a while since I read his The Great Divorce (the title being a counter to William Blake's The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell, I believe).. but I remember being quite taken with it. As I remember, the main theme is the narrator being taken on (initially, a coach!) tour..

Liz said...

..of Hell, with Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald as his guide! Hell is portrayed as very modern, rather (sub)urban: however it reminds one of the shabby side of town: "the side facing the railway station". But Lewis doesn't portray many working-class people inhabiting it. Most of his denizens are middle-class people doing pretty much the same middle-class things as when alive; usually being very boring. Their afterlives are drab, lackluster, and lacking in joy - and actually, THAT's the kind of Hell I can imagine a Richard Dawkins (him again) actually hating the most (and more "importantly", possibly having some kind of secret latent *belief* in!) rather than the grand guignol version: Lewis was a much more subtle writer than.. PLENTY of other people.
So. Back to our friend Gaiman's story: He kind of "modernizes" the idea of the demon and so on; by making him sans bat-wings (the Dante pics have bat-wings!).. but the tortures are rather medieval. That would, I suppose, be in line with most of..

Liz said...

..modern horror - modern anything: our tastes aren't tutored to be very subtle!

So. Can anyone tell me where did the demon go?? Where do any of the story's fans think it did/should go? At the end? What is the eventual destination of the souls? (Since we read they DO go through some sort of a process?) What is the purpose of all this cruelty? (oh & you know what? Though I enjoyed Paradise Lost as a teen, no-one ever could tell me why Satan would want to do God's dirty work for him: apart from "misery loves company", which argument Milton actually uses!)

So? What is the REAL end of the story? Does Man A on becoming Demon B have any knowledge that he *has* to do to Man B what Demon A did to him? Or does he just blindly "copy"? (Now that *is* a classic pattern of abuse! :) )

And just *what* is a Lazarene's Daughter, anyway?? (No, no: don't tell me: I Googled this story and came up with some replies on a couple of Gaiman boards that rather gleefully went into all sorts of details I hadn't thought of! :( )

Liz said...

"Now as he spoke, he hated himself.. no room for anything except the pain and anger".. see what I mean about this being NOT a very positive story?? :) And the bit about the last stage of the torture-analysis where he "opens his heart".. you know, I don't think one does that to someone one knows is out to hurt, not help! And secondly, I don't think this demon has great power over the man: why? Because it can't, or doesn't want to, make him tell lies - or swap his memories for just anything - SO - all the man has to do to stop feeling "hate and anger" is to recall a few good memories!! And then the demon, to go on torturing him wouldhave to try to mess them up: and it would have to tell lies to mess them up: so the man could just turn round and triumpantly say: "Ah I told you: liar!" Or do the manga idea of fighting the demon - with a big samurai sword! :) Or - East European folk tale here: Do a bet with the demon. Make him take you to a farm and clear you some land. In exchange, promise him the harvest of what

Liz said...

..ever grows above ground the first year, and whatever grows below the next. Make sure to rotate your crops! :) Grow wheat the first year, beets the next! Demon you are NOWHERE, man! :D

Well. That's what a good pagan does! The folk-tales which still contain *our* values are about *outwitting*, not capitulating to, various local devils, fairies, trolls, etc. That's what a good Trickster-worshipper like me does! Come and talk to me on Twitter as @oneoflokis if you want to discuss it - or Gaiman stories, or anything!

:D :D :D


(Oh and sorry abt the multiple posts if it troubles you: I did this all on a mobile phone: it's not an iphone so has a character limit! The same goes for the duplication in one post: blogger sometimes reacts with my opera mini software, however I try to edit it! :( ;) )

Loren Eaton said...

Liz,

My apologies for taking such a long time to respond to your comment. Truth be told (and I'm rather embarrased to admit it), I forgot that I had your unanswered comments on this post.

Regarding the story, I'm not sure it would be profitable for me to comment further. These exchanges already run longer than the original post. But I do want to make a quick comment about the blog. While I definitely have opinions on ultimate things, I really do want ISLF to be a place where people from multiple backgrounds can interact in a respectful way. After all, we've featured guest writers who are both pious believers and devout skeptics.

Anthony Burdge Jessica Burke said...

I know this is an older post & am just commenting to thank you for it. I got lost in the middle of the commentary-- all of which combined to run longer than BOTH your post & Gaiman's piece. And I don't see your piece as denouncing or trashing Gaiman. Actually, I'm teaching Gaiman's story to my Freshman comp class & was looking for an angle to help me use the piece to introduce students to reading literature from a complex angle (more than a simple emotional response). Your essay actually connects what I want to show them via Gaiman's work and another piece of lit-crit, the intro to Thomas Foster's _How to Read Literature like a Professor_. So I hope you don't mind, I'm going to use your essay in class giving you & your blog full credit of course (I'm just printing up the post as is minus the commentary). Thanks again!! ~Jessie

Loren Eaton said...

I'd be honored, Jessie! I'm glad you found it helpful.

Truth be told, I think I got lost in all the commentary myself. I never imagined that "Other People" would prompt such a passionate response. For what it's worth, I really like the story, and I don't believe that Gaiman is romanticizing torture or sadism in it. Quite the opposite.