Thursday, February 21, 2013

Short Story Review: Men Without Bones by Gerald Kersh

Men Without Bones
By Gerald Kersh
Originally published August 1954, Esquire Magazine

This is the first (and titular) story in the collection of short stories Men Without Bones by Gerald Kersh.

Our narrator here is a man working on a banana boat in Puerto Pobre, and he relates to us how another man, feverish and possibly mad, approaches the crew looking for safe passage from...THE MEN WITHOUT BONES.

He introduced himself as Dr. Goodbody, and tells our narrator, who then tells us, about the lost expedition that he was a part of. After a string of bad luck, all that was left of this group of explorers was Goodbody and Professor Yeoward, and they stumbled across the ancient landing site of a group of Martians.

That night, from out of the jungle that surrounds them, came the gelatinous humanoids...THE MEN WITHOUT BONES.
“They are nothing to be afraid of, actually. It is they who are afraid of you. You can kill them with your boot, or with a stick… They are something like jelly. No, it is not really fear—it is the nausea, the disgust they inspire! It overwhelms! It paralyses! I have seen a jaguar, I tell you—a full-grown jaguar—stand frozen, while they clung to him, in hundreds, and ate him up alive! Believe me, I saw it. Perhaps it is some oil they secrete, some odor they give out… I don’t know…”
As you can see, THE MEN WITHOUT BONES aren't really all that dangerous. The scary part isn't what they are. The scary part is what they represent.

This short story by the relatively obscure author Gerald Kersh should win an award for Best Title if nothing else. It ranks right up there with sci-fi madman Philip K. Dick's The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike. The story itself didn't remind me of PKD, though, but rather of a more science-influenced H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft sometimes used the heard-it-from-a-guy-who-heard-it-from-a-guy narrative device, where the narrator is only telling us a story that he heard, but wasn't actually a part of. Adding a middle-man between the protagonist and the reader gives us one more degree of separation from the truth, giving it an unreal quality. It makes it more difficult to tell if the story being told is "real" or just the hallucinations of a deranged mind.

It seems that this story is held in pretty high regard within science fiction circles, and probably with good reason, though I wasn't as impressed by it as everyone else seems to be. It was a good, quick read, but the final line (where the real bite of the story is located), loses its power after too much scrutiny.

So don't scrutinize it. Just read it, enjoy it, and feel morally superior because you've got bones.


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