1972: Harlan Ellison’s Basalisk

imageA short tale about one man’s capture during (presumably) the war in Vietnam and is return home. The story won the Locus Poll award for Short Fiction in 1972. It was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novella, but lost. He did, however, win the award the following year. It is collected in Harlan Ellison’s “Deathbird Stories”

Our main character, Lance Corporal Vernon Lestig, finds himself in the jungles of enemy territory when he sets off a booby trap. The pain is excruciating and described in vivid detail. Through intermittent waking and fainting he experiences being captured and moved and when he finally wakes he is missing a leg, is partly blind and in an enemy “hooch”, which I learned is just a hut, not boozing at the bottom of a bottle at a Viet Kong drinking establishment. At the hooch he is tortured , and easily gives up everything he knows. Including personal information, and military secrets and strategies. Some time passes and he is eventually rescued. The rescuers discover him and a massacre of enemy combatants.

Home side, his eyesight has slowly returned and he is tried for his betrayal of the military information. In the end he is paid off for the loss of limbs and sent home, where he discovers the shame he has caused his town, family, and friends. His wife has remarried and his sister has changed her name and moved away. The townspeople even attack him for what he has done. They even take up arms similar to the hunt for Frankenstein’s monster, torches and all. At first attacked in his old home he escapes. He looks for sanctuary in a church, but it ends up being the location of his final stand. Lestig unleashes a fury on the townspeople, being stopped by a woman with a discarded police issue pistol.

Throughout the injury, torture and battle scenes a lizard-like creature, the basilisk, is witnessed by us, the reader, in predator like scenes, and sometimes by Lestig in his own reflection. In the final scene, we see the Basalisk sitting at the feet of Mars, Roman God of War, as his pet observing the carnage. In the initial scene of Lestig’s capture, the Basalisk touches Lestig and Ellison compares the encounter to vampirism. I am unsure if the Basalisk actually created a monster out of Lestig or if this was how he saw himself, similar to the swan transformation in “Black Swan” or if he is just a representation of the inhuman rage and fury that has entered Lestig’s person. I choose to believe the latter. To me the story is about the monsters that war turns us into, and that sometimes, you have to be a monster.

I thought this story to be written very well. There were a lot of long, intense, run on sentences, which would seem out of place anywhere else, but they were always followed by a short, but powerful statement, and made that simple statement all the more powerful. Ellison’s descriptions were very powerful calling on a wide variety of unrelated concepts to get the intensity of his point across. It was an enjoyable short little read, brilliantly told.

Thanks for reading. Check back for a ton of goodies from 1973!

image from http://raggedclaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/harlan-ellison_deathbird-stories_ny-collier-books-1990_cover-art-by-jim-burns-600×990.jpg

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