Hopping back into that ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales that’s available for all of us to read online it’s time to read the next story: “The Electric Chair” by George Waight.
We’ve already looked at the first sentence, so, like last time, we’ll expand that to the first paragraph:
The facts were carefully hushed up at the time. Strange stories, it is true, began to be whispered in the clubs about the eccentricities of Dr. Ainsworth and his electric chair, but nothing definite ever leaked out. Now that that weird scientist is dead and buried, the true story of what happened in his laboratory can be made public for the first time.
Last time, when we read J. Schlossel’s “Invaders from Outside,” I got on his case about writing in a journalistic, “telly” style, and sounds like Mr. Waight is headed in the same direction. This is definitely journalistic in feel. A good reporter doesn’t want to “bury the lead.” Good fiction authors, on the other hand, want to take their readers on a journey that starts somewhere interesting then ends with the death of the weird scientist after his eccentric experiments in electric furniture. But let’s not judge too early! And though I, personally, prefer to begin in the middle of something scary/weird/exciting as it’s happening, at least in “The Electric Chair” we’re starting with the promise that something scary/weird/exciting is about to happen. Let’s call that a (distant) second choice for opening a short story.
The story is set in 1919, which sounds like a long time ago to we residents of the far-flung future, but was only six years before this magazine was published. I’ve often advised against fixing actual dates to science fiction stories but that only counts if you’re looking forward, and, say, trying to show the world of the year 2001 from the perspective of 1968. You end up getting in a certain amount of trouble if your story lasts at all. See Blade Runner, Terminator, 1984, Space: 1999, etc. But if you’re going six years in the past, that’s, obviously, not a thing.
This kind of sounds like a Hollywood log line:
…if a man were confronted with a mystery stranger even than the mystery of death, he would choose death rather than face the greater mystery.
I share the expressed doubts of the brain specialist on that score.
I’ll admit to a general fondness for short stories with mini chapter breaks, like this one. It feels somehow… I’m not even sure… really struggling to find the right word here… quaint, to me? Comfortable? I don’t know, but I bring it up here as a reminder that each and every one of your readers will come into everything they read, including your work, with some set of general fondnesses like that, as well as general dislikes. There’s no rule to either follow or break on this score, so toss those numbers in there if it feels right to you, or don’t if it feels wrong.
I want to go back in time ninety-three years and delete the word surprizedly. Please contact me if you have the necessary time machine. That aside I do kinda dig George Waight’s fin de siècle Europhilia and the gentility of these gentlemen. I would love to be described as “affability itself.” Wouldn’t you? It’s a little early, but screw it, let’s break out the port, get these women out of here, and discuss the grave matters of the day!
I’d like to draw your attention to the description of the room, and link you back to a discussion of “atmosphere”:
Sinclair had never entered the laboratory before. His first impression was a swift recollection of schoolboy days, when he had worked in a room that presented just such an unbroken array of bottles and balances and strange-looking instruments, except that here there seemed to be more of them. His attention was attracted by a line of cases on the right of the room apparently containing a series of waxworks, of which he did not immediately appreciate the significance. It was as he was moving over to examine these that he first became aware of a strange sensation of dizziness stealing over him. The room darkened and he felt that he was about to fall. The voice of his host sounded for a moment as from an immense distance before it trailed off into nothingness.
Notice how little actual detail there is in there. No numbers are specified, no measurements given. The list of objects in the room belong to general categories, one of which reveals the POV character’s lack of understanding of them: “strange-looking instruments.” But for me, this is key: His first impression was a swift recollection of schoolboy days… The exact size and composition and contents of the place are secondary (if that) to the emotional connection Sinclair has to it—the space evokes a memory. The space is about his feelings for the person who inhabits it.
I’m going to stick with this paragraph to go back through some other things. Though I do like the old fashioned feeling of the writing and wouldn’t change it, it is clear to see where our man Waight might just have been padding the word count:
His attention was attracted by a line of cases on the right of the room apparently containing a series of waxworks, of which he did not immediately appreciate the significance.
This being rather firmly in Sinclair’s POV (fairly unusual for the time, actually) there’s no need to tell us his attention was attracted by something. Describe it, and we get that the description is coming from him, so clearly his attention has been drawn to it.
This sentence just has extra words:
It was as he was moving over to examine these that he first became aware of a strange sensation of dizziness stealing over him.
Most contemporary editors would trim it back so it would read:
As he moved over to examine them, a strange sensation of dizziness stealed over him.
But again, if I were editing an anthology in which this exact story appeared I would never make that change, though I would suggest it if George Waight wrote this story today and it was set in 2018 (or 2012) rather than 1919. The language is a changing, evolving organism—that’s for sure. And there are places and reasons for pulling back and writing in a previous style. I’ve done it myself with a series of jungle pulp stories I’ve written for Pro Se Productions, the first of which is available now. That’s a thing I did for a specific reason in a specific venue and not a voice I’ve adopted as my “normal.”
The room darkened and he felt that he was about to fall.
This is another example of telling us he felt something when just describing the feeling is enough since we’re in his POV.
The transition from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3 is a classic example of what Lester Dent would call “A surprising plot twist to end the [second] 1500 words” and his first admonition for the third 1500 words: “Shovel the grief onto the hero.”
This got me thinking—is this about the halfway mark?
Nope—it’s about a third of the way in, actually, and I estimate the story at about 5300 words. Anyway… this was written and published before Dent wrote his formula, but here’s a solid plot twist at about the one-third mark. Maybe that will mean something to us later.
I’ve never encountered this before: the nightmare of a dream. Is that something people used to say, or is George padding again?
Though I think some harsher contemporary critics would rail against the “Before I kill you, Mr. Bond,” speech that Ainsworth gives here, in this case it’s a necessary evil… or is it?
Could he have just reminded poor Sinclair of the story of the German soldier and left him to draw his own conclusions? I might have done it that way, myself, putting the whole thing on Sinclair and making Ainsworth a crueler villain for it.
Or am I just a sick bastard?
Speaking of which:
He went across the room and came back with a glass case containing a model in wax of a man’s head. The nose had completely rotted away, the teeth were entirely outside the mouth and festooned round the protruding tongue like a necklace. It was difficult to imagine anything more revolting.
That’s pretty badass for 1925.
This whole thing with the threat of exotic diseases is really clever, adding a layer to the Let’s Make a Deal aspect of this experiment in torture. It also forces me to revise my previous thought that I’d remove all of Ainsworth’s explanations. It’s definitely become more necessary with this twist, otherwise previously unknown to Sinclair, and adds a layer of sadism to the villain. And, after all, we want to see our villains being villainous, don’t we?
That said, have we accidently run across an early example of torture porn? “The Electric Chair” was published eighty-three years after Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” so maybe not so early at that.
For what it’s worth I maintain that this sentence:
Suddenly the rat rolled over on the floor of the cage and commenced to struggle violently.
…is just as good without the offending word:
The rat rolled over on the floor of the cage and commenced to struggle violently.
Boy, doesn’t take long for Sinclair to run through some options then flip the switch. Personally, I would have lingered on this a lot more and gotten deeper into Sinclair’s life. We’re given only a cursory sketch of a character here. He’s a war veteran, he’s not married… He doesn’t even mention poor Mildred by name in his considerations of the dangers of diseased love. We don’t really know what he has to live for, what plans he might formulate to either escape the trap in the first place or, should he choose the syringe, what he might attempt in terms of both identifying and treating the disease (though let’s all take a moment to bask in the glory of modern medicine not available to Mr. Sinclair of 1919) and bringing Ainsworth to justice.
Interesting that in the final chapter we switch over to Ainsworth’s POV—assuming Sinclair has just killed himself. Had the story, up to that point, not been so firmly grounded in Sinclair’s POV, that switch would have been much less effective. One scene, one POV, always!
Lester Dent calls for: “Final twist, a big surprise. (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the ‘Treasure’ be a dud, etc.” and our man Waight delivers with the revelation that the chair, syringe, and gas are all harmless. It’s not the world’s most creative, clever, or surprising twist, but maybe it felt a bit more fresh in 1925.
And then, according to Dent: “The snapper, the punch line to end it:”
When they reached him, he was quite dead.
Ah, the old “died of fright” gag. I think that was probably old in 1925, too, no?
So kind of a fun little exercise in 20s torture porn—building off World War I post traumatic stress and the rather timely danger of infectious disease.
“The Electric Chair” seems to have slid into obscurity, along with its author. I tried to find anything about George Waight but couldn’t. The only listing I’ve found for him is for just this one story, apparently the only thing he ever published—at least under that name. Back in the pulp days it was common for authors to adopt a list of pseudonyms. But even then, by now, most of those have long since been “outed.”
Alas, thank you, George Waight, wherever you are!
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