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Little: Murmurous)

Bentley LITTLE: Murmurous Haunts (1997)

Review by Michael Edwards

      This is a limited-edition collection of short stories by Bentley Little published by Dark Regions Press; I am told it is officially out of print, but it does appear to be obtainable from selected second-hand book dealers, and my copy, when purchased recently, looked brand-new.
      Within a day or two of getting it, I had read all the stories, so they are certainly readable enough - but in the end I felt a bit disappointed by most of them. The ideas behind them are quite intriguing, but I found most of the stories inconclusive. While I feel this might have been because the story lines are just so unusual that there is no obvious way to bring them to a conclusion, I thought it might have been nice if the author could have thought up a conclusion that had some of the inevitability that really makes a story truly satisfying.
      It's no use trying to analyze Bentley Little's fiction in a logical way, trying to find explanations for everything weird that happens, whether in scientific terms, or in terms of the supernatural. You are simply presented with the events in the story, and left to make of them what you will.
      The overall impression I get from his novels and short stories is that they are based on some situation or event or phenomenon that in itself is quite ordinary - but Little vastly magnifies this to grotesque and impossible proportions, and then explores the consequences you might expect of that. This can be seen in some of his novels, such as The Store (which describes how a huge chain store arrives in a country town, puts many small business owners out of business, and totally destroys all sense of community), The Mailman (which, once again in a small country town, builds up a whole world of fear around a particular mailman who seems to have an indefinably sinister aura around him, and who can destroy a whole community while doing nothing that cannot arise out of the normal duties of a mail deliverer), or The Ignored (which hugely magnifies the concept of people who seem to be ignored by everyone because they are just so forgettable, and builds a whole grotesque world around The Ignored).
      This exaggeration of concepts or phenomena which in themselves are fairly ordinary can also be seen in some of the short stories in this collection. It certainly leads to interesting results, even if it doesn't really make sense from a rational point of view. Perhaps Little is telling us that, ultimately, life doesn't make sense - a bleak and nihilistic notion I dislike intensely, don't want to believe, but which won't leave me alone, so that I have spent most of my life struggling with it - to no end, so far. (I've written a little more about this view of life in my review for Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene.)
      The stories in the collection are listed here; further down I will give a few comments on each one.

The Backroom - Blood - Projections - The Garage Sale - Estoppel - The Beach - The Mailman - The Murmurous Haunt of Flies - In The Warehouse

The Backroom (1985)
      This is the story that made the most sense to me - and by far the most shocking story, too. I cannot give too much away without spoiling the story for those who haven't read it. But imagine yourself going to a cockfight in a dark, dingy building with boarded-up windows in a really dangerous, sleazy urban district; you go in and find two rings where cocks are fighting and inflicting horrible injuries on each other - and around them is a cheering crowd of boozy, stoned men. The whole place is suffused with a palpable aura of sheer evil. Further back in the hall, there is another ring where two pit bull terriers with razors attached to their feet are fighting.
      At the very back of the hall, there is a door leading to a back room where you need special approval to go in. Imagine what might be going on there - well, this story tells you, and tells you in spades.
      It's a shocker - and this is one of those stories that genuinely made me feel almost guilty for reading it, made me feel voyeuristic, as if I was gloating over, wallowing in, shocking evils that don't really belong in this world. I almost felt as if I should stop reading it - but of course, by this time I was long since hooked, and had to continue, to find out what was going on. It doesn't let you down - and you would never guess it in advance. Interestingly, the first-person, nameless narrator of the story himself refers to that primal impulse in us all which compels us to look at traffic accidents or watch snails dissolve after we pour salt on them. Has any of us never, once done something like that?
      I have further comments about the rest of the story and how it makes its impact on the reader - but, because it does give away the crux of the story, I have put this on a different page of
spoiler information. Please don't go there unless you have already read the story, or don't mind having it completely spoilt. There is no further warning or prompt: clicking on the link takes you straight there.

Blood (1990)
      To my mind, a rather inconsequential story about a man who sees a face in the boiling water while cooking macaroni and cheese. There also seems to be a whispering voice in the bubbling sound of the water, saying "Blood. Blood." He kills a dog and puts some of its blood into the pot; and then the voice wants human blood. Again he obeys, not quite knowing why he feels compelled to.
      In this series of goings-on, the spirit of his long-dead father seems to be conjured up, in a manner and for reasons that are totally incomprehensible to me. Some of the action seems to be dreams, and the exact border-line between dream and reality is not completely clear; but to me the whole story has the essential lack of meaning and shapelessness of the more confusing kinds of dreams themselves.
      Disappointing stuff, to me at least. If a story must feature blood-letting, at least there must be a point to it - it must be an essential part of a good story.

Projections (1987)
      A group of apparently teenaged boys are out and about the town, a little bored, and wondering what to do. They decide to go to a cinema where a movie called The Endless Horror is about to start, thinking this seems rather cool. To their surprise, the movie starts depicting events which include the man who is sitting next to them in the audience, and then a woman also sitting nearby. Then the boys themselves start appearing in the movie - it seems to be foretelling what is going to happen next in their lives. They go out in shock, but feel compelled to keep coming back time and time again - the movie never seems to end, and shows all the time, and never repeats any parts of itself.
      There are further comings and goings, various events which it would be pointless to try to summarize here - for instance, when someone is about to get up and leave the cinema, the movie seems to know and seems to give you very quick flashes of your future alll in a split second, in an almost subliminal way. But in the end, all this, and the story itself, seems to peter out into no particular conclusion or resolution.

The Garage Sale (1987)
      A rather confused story about the mania that supposedly overcomes frequenters of garage sales, inducing them to turn up before dawn at garage sales clearly advertised to begin at 8.00 a.m. I found this story so confused and puzzling that I really cannot comment further on it.

Estoppel (1988)
      This story is about a man who discovers that speaking any statements about himself makes them instantly true, and explores the possibilities this could lead to. But there are also hidden dangers, and he ends up resolving to live like a down-and-outer, minimizing contact with other people, and never speaking another word again. (He dares not say "I am mute", because that would make it true, and he then couldn't say the opposite thing to reverse that condition. He also has a narrow escape when he just in time stops himself saying, as an experiment, "I am a giraffe".)
      In this case, I do not hesitate to speak about the end of this story without a spoiler warning - because the author himself denies you the conclusion he leads you to expect.
      Towards the end, the first-person narrator spends much time devising a final statement to speak aloud to resolve the situation and avert some of the confusion he thinks he may have caused to others and to himself. The author makes quite a bit of the build-up to this, and I expected the last sentence of the story to consist of this final statement; and, as I approached the final paragraphs, I even hid the text lower down the page with my hand to avoid reading it prematurely.
      The man's final statement was not the last sentence of the story. It doesn't come at all - and there are no clues that I can detect as to what it might be. The story just ends in mid-air.
      The story is based on an intriguing idea; but the end is a disappointing cop-out, as far as I am concerned.

The Beach (19??)
      Richard and his son Billy are holidaying by the beach in Ireland; a couple of days ago, his wife Maureen has died in a mid-air collision between two aeroplanes, and this has been featured prominently in the television news. Billy has seen these reports, but apparently not made the connection, and he thinks his mother has been delayed in Rome. Richard agonizes over when and how to tell Billy; but Billy meanwhile knows the truth, and is wondering why his father is apparently living as if nothing had happened.
      Things get confusing as the bodies from the wreckage come into the story - and it is unclear whether some of the people have really survived, or whether this is merely an illusion that is somehow created. I won't give away any more now; but I cannot draw any conclusion at all from the ending of this story.

The Mailman (1988)
      As a little boy Jack has an unpleasant encounter with a circus dwarf who accosts him and demands to be given a quarter (that is, a 25c coin). At other periods in his life, he seems to encounter dwarfs who also demand a quarter, and these dwarfs appear to be the same person, and yet completely different persons, even of different races.
      When he moves to a new house he discovers that the mailman who covers his district is a dwarf only about three feet tall, and he has an absolute horror of seeing him; his life is turned upside down as a result of his evasive measures designed to ensure he never sees the mailman. He goes to the post office to complain about the mailman, seeking to have him transferred to a different route, and his hands become sweaty when the postmaster turns back and calls the mailman in question - but he is surprised to see that the mailman is of normal size. The postmaster and mailman are nonplussed when he insists that his mailman is only three feet tall.
      This obsession with the dwarf (who is still demanding his quarter), and the ambiguity about who really is the mailman, leads to a drastic climax - but, unfortunately, one out of which I cannot make any sense.
      By the way, this story has no connection with
Little's novel The Mailman, beyond the general idea of someone developing an abnormal fear of a particular mailman. It precedes that novel, and it would appear quite likely that this story provided some inspiration for the novel, at least in general terms. But it is not an early or preliminary version of the novel, shares no characters in common with the novel, and the plots are completely different, too, other than the general theme of a sinister mailman.

The Murmurous Haunt of Flies (1997)
      A young couple - Jan and the unnamed first-person narrator - are visiting the narrator's grandfather on his farm, and he speaks vaguely about an old building on the property, referred to as a bath house, that he hints may be haunted in some way, but without really indicating what he means. The couple have vague nightmares about the bath house while staying with the grandfather, although it's not clear why; and the place has a bad reputation amongst the locals, too, who think the mutilation of hogs, found covered with flies, is connected with it somehow.
      As the story built up, increasingly centring on the bath house with its brooding, sinister atmosphere, and the couple eventually go and take a look and find it haunted by millions of flies which seem to have a strange collective power, I expected a drastic climax of some sort. Well, I got that - after a fashion - but if I expected things to be made clear, I was bound to be disappointed. This strikes me as one of those rather pointless "haunted house" stories which gives the impression of trying to lead up to a drastic climax, but which fails to make sense of anything.
      Perhaps it's just me - but I found this story rather disappointing, once again.

In The Warehouse (1997)
      A clerk works in the main office for a large grocery store chain, and their files are stored in a huge warehouse, in a huge maze of shelving reaching almost up to the ceiling. While retrieving forms, he sees a dirty and injured old man lying on the ground in one of the corridors who looks to be the victim of serious violence. When approached, the man betrays no recognizable emotion, but says, "They come". The clerk hears footsteps coming, moves out of sight, and, looking through cracks between stored files on shelves, sees executives kick and otherwise abuse the old man, then walk away again. Later on he sees this happen again; and when he raises it with a fellow worker, he is warned not to raise the alarm, but just drop the matter. Nevertheless, he continues looking into it, and becomes embroiled in the violence himself.
      To say much more would be to give too much away - but I have little more to say, anyway, because, once again, this is one of those rather enigmatic stories that are full of vague, inexpressible resonances, but which make little sense (to me, at least). I'm not saying this, or any of the others in this collection, is a mediocre story - but perhaps I don't have the cast of mind to properly understand Little's stories on an intuitive level.

      So, in summary, this collection is interesting, but a little disappointing, and, in the end, does not really fulfil my idea of a good short story. I must admit that this reaction to short stories in general is very common to me, so perhaps I just lack a feeling for the subtlety that is often found in short stories. Novels tend to state things, even shout them at times - but short stories sometimes whisper them, or even merely suggest them indirectly; and maybe I am not good at picking up the suggestions. It is also possible that Bentley Little's above-mentioned tendency to present strange, inexplicable happenings without even the pretence of an explanation does not fit in very well with my rather literal and logical mind.
      However, if you like Little's novels, or are interested in exploring his work, don't let this somewhat middling review of the collection deter you from buying the book - if you can find a copy of this limited edition, that is (a more extensive collection of Little's stories is rumoured to be due out within a year or two). I am sure Bentley Little fans will consider it an essential part of their collection, and I don't want to say anything to deter them from that - it is quite possible, even likely, that my outlook is limited by an incompatibility between my way of thinking and the author's way of thinking.

Michael Edwards,
Victoria, Australia.

E-mail me about this book.

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Original text copyright (C) 2001, by Michael Edwards.

More material on this web site related to Little

      Book listing for Bentley Little

Further links

      Although the book is officially not in print any longer, copies of it may be obtained from Don Cannon, who has a number of copies which are available for sale (as of 28 September, 2001); the current price for a copy is $18.50 U.S. (plus shipping costs). Don ships internationally, and accepts the four major credit cards, as well as Billpoint. His postal address is P.O. Box 918, Fullerton, CA, 92836-0918 U.S.A.; telephone (714) 449-1739; fax (714) 449-0810; and e-mail doncannonbks@earthlink.net.
      Don Cannon stocks books in the following categories: mystery/crime fiction; military/adventure fiction; western fiction; science fiction, fantasy, horror; entertainment (film, T.V., stage, music); and modern fiction as well (that is, not in a particular genre). If you wish to contact him to obtain a copy of Murmurous Haunts, I recommend that you check with him for any other books in these categories that you might be looking for, while you're there. I've found him to be prompt and helpful with enquiries, and the books I've received from him have arrived in perhaps the closest to perfect condition of any books I've ever purchased anywhere.

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last modified on Sunday, 14 October, 2001.