As I noted yesterday, Spring Break is an excellent time to catch up on some reading. I am particularly fond of short stories, especially ghost stories, which can thoroughly explore one or two ideas in a relatively bite-sized chunk. They’re perfect for casual reading while enjoying some downtime.
Like yesterday’s selection, today’s short story recommendation, John Collier‘s “Thus I Refute Beelzy,” comes from 11 Great Horror Stories, a collection of short stories that are not entirely horrific in nature, the title notwithstanding.
“Thus I Refute Beelzy” definitely is a horror story, with touches of The Omen and Children of the Corn; that is to say, it’s a little bit of “terror-tot fiction,” a term I learned recently from Alan Jones’s review of the film Let’s Be Evil, one of the scores of bad horror films on Hulu.
The whole story is very short—about five pages—and can be read in around ten to fifteen minutes. Indeed, there is a chilling recording of Vincent Price reading the story that is just shy of thirteen (mwahahahaha!) minutes long:
Within those five pages, though, Collier crams a great deal of characterization—and terror.
The story is about a six-year old boy, “Small” Simon Carter, and his overbearing father, “Big” Simon Carter, a dentist. Small Simon is clearly troubled, and spends his days in the far end of his long backyard, hiding among the thickets of some overgrown plants. It becomes pretty clear quite quickly that he’s performing some kind of Satanic rituals by drawing strange symbols in the dirt in the backyard, which has brought him into communion with “Mr. Beelzy” (as in, “Beelzebub”—get it?).
To be clear, Collier doesn’t spell this out explicitly, but the reader can fill in the blanks easily enough. The real terror, though, is not that Small Simon is cavorting with The Devil; rather, it’s the chilling exchange between Small Simon and his father, who is comes home early from work after two dental cancellations.
Big Simon is of the belief that a child should figure things out for himself, and should have the freedom to choose or not to choose what he does (for example, Mrs. Carter’s friend, who is also visiting for tea, asks if Small Simon takes a nap in the afternoons; Mrs. Carter replies that Big Simon lets Small Simon make those decisions). That’s all well and good, but you’ll recall—Small Simon is only six. Yet Big Simon insists on treating Small Simon as a little, rational adult, going so far as to insisting that his son address him as “Big Simon,” rather than “Daddy,” as the latter is too formal, and the former makes them more like “friends” than father and son.
Of course, that freedom is illusory, as Big Simon quickly browbeats Small Simon into an uncomfortable conversation. Big Simon asks Small Simon what he has been up to that afternoon, and Small Simon says—as children are wont to do—“nothing.” Naturally, this doesn’t suit the overbearing Big Simon, who cajoles his trouble young son, telling him he needs to find something interesting to do with his time.
The longsuffering Mrs. Carter cuts in that Small Simon has been “playing,” which ultimately leads to the boy’s confession: that he has been playing with his friend, Mr. Beelzy, whom Small Simon loves.
Big Simon won’t have any of it, and forces his son into a tedious, rationalist explanation of make-believe versus reality. Small Simon steadfastly refuses to say that Mr. Beelzy is fake, which earns the ire of his father, who sends Small Simon to his room with the heavily implied threat of a good spanking (Big Simon alludes to spankings earlier in the conversation, and also makes a lewd joke about a character in a play; the fact that he is a dentist—an occupation, unfairly or not, associated with sadomasochism is perhaps not a coincidence). When Big Simon goes upstairs to administer the beating, well… let’s just say you need to read it yourself.
The bizarre, New Age-y, pseudo-Freudian dynamic between the father and son is what makes this short tale so memorable. The tension between father and son is palpable, as the son is clearly weary of his father treating him as a little adult, ostensibly the equal of the father, even as the father is an abusive brute who takes pleasure in badgering his son.
At the risk of applying modern events to a story from eighty years ago (it was first published in The Atlantic in 1940), the story is, implicitly, a bit of a commentary on progressivism (or, at that time, the “new ideas” of modernity). Big Simon trumpets his “new way” of parenting, even throwing in some Freudian psychobabble—all the rage in the mid-twentieth century. He grants his son unhealthy amounts of freedom to “experience” things for himself, but then grows angry when his son draws conclusions at odds with Big Simon’s.
It’s the inherent tension of progressivism: on the one hand, every experience and sensation is up for grabs, as the “new way” takes over. On the other, there is harsh backlash when some draw the wrong conclusions from those experiences.
The result is, predictably, catastrophic for father and son. The son so rejects his father’s strident rationalism, he turns to a creepily childlike Satanism. Instead of happy boundaries—what every child craves—Small Simon is expected to figure everything out on his own, filtered through the heavy-handed ideology of his father.
The father’s implicit rejection of the old ways of doing things leads to his destruction, and leads his son down an even darker path. It may be a stretch, but I can’t help but see the progression of the twentieth century here: a turn to “new ideas” that ultimately rejected traditional ways—a period of arid atheism—followed by various demonic descents into either radical ideologies or New Age mysticism—or both.
Regardless, it’s a frightening little tale. The Devil is in it, to be sure, but not just as a roaring lion—he’s also the deceptive angel of light.