ON THE HIGHWAY: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 15

This week we’ll continue my ongoing series of posts where I’ve been reading a single issue of Weird Tales from 1925. If you want to read along in order you can go back to the beginning and start here. This week we have a rather short story called “On the Highway” by Cargray Cook, billed as “A Wild Ride, with Death at the Wheel.”

This story is so short—only about 1250 words by my count—apparently it didn’t rate its own illustration. So sad. Those little illustrations have been fun!

This one starts up with the first person narrator, Charles Claiborne, introducing himself, which can be clunky, but author Cargray Cook pulls it out with this amazing turn of phrase: “the absolute master of six millions of money.”

That’s—or that can be, at least—all I need to get grabbed into a story. Never underestimate the value and effectiveness of the clever turn of phrase!

Of course I Googled “Gordon-Rennet car,” but was unable to find anything—is that a fictional brand of car? In any case now we seem to be in for a race car story, but it must be a weird race car story… can’t wait! But still, there’s the end of the first column and nothing has actually happened. There is no action, just a vague promise of action—he has a speedy race car now and loves it.

It could be argued that in a story so short, you have some leeway in terms of “grabbing” your readers from the first sentence, but “the absolute master of six millions of money” aside, I think Charles should have been racing “On the Highway” in sentence one. That said, once the action starts up, his description of the feeling of driving the car is brilliant:

Seventy. Seventy-five. Eighty miles I made and still I pressed upon the feed for more. A kick with my left heel and the muffler closed and the ensuing silence seemed to startle the perfect mechanism into a more velvety swiftness. Not a quiver, not a sway, to the wonderful machine and the blood coursed through my veins with an exhilaration not to be described.

Note those opening one-word sentences, and the whole thing is describing Charles’s interaction with the machine and not just the machine itself. The character and the thing, the setting, are fully merged. That’s how you do it, right there. If I got this story in my online Pulp Fiction Workshop, I’d advise the author to move this paragraph to the very beginning of the story and start with this, then let us know who this driver is, his inheritance, and so on once we’re hooked in.

Now then, as with the other stories in this series of posts, I’m assuming you’ve read the story first, so spoilers aren’t an issue. This is one of those stories in which the first person protagonist is confronted with the fact of his own death, standing over his corpse in a sort of post-tragedy bardo. This is clearly reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which was first published in 1890, some thirty-five years before this story, and there’s every reason to believe that Cargray Cook was aware of it.

I then can’t help but wonder how many stories very much like this, with that reveal: “Oh, my God, I am the dead man!” had appeared even just in Weird Tales before and after this one.

I don’t have any particular gripe with that style of story and this one was fun and had some high points, but if you want to try a story like this, think more than Cargray Cook apparently did about why this character is put in that position.

Why did he crash and then have to be confronted with his own premature death on the day of his greatest happiness, when he seems like a perfectly decent chap who’s mother loves him, and all he’s guilty of is driving irresponsibly fast—and trying not to hit the innocent pedestrians in the road. And yet here he is, apparently punished for… what, exactly?

This is a story of a bad thing happening to a good person.

There’s a place for that, of course, but this one feels thin to me. I want to see some bigger reason behind this story, some message, if that’s not too strong a word.

Still, as for the writing itself, I’ll say “Some boat!”

 

—Philip Athans

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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