Short story: “Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory”

“Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory,” by Orson Scott Card

First appeared in the Chrysalis anthology, volume 4 (1979); collected inĀ Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories and Maps in a Mirror (on Google Books)

Maybe 4,000 words?

This story has stuck with me over the years. The main character is riveting from the start because he always wants something and he usually finds some way of getting it. It’s funny how enjoyable an “unlikable” character can be. Even if I didn’t admire Howard’s cleverness and ruthlessness, I would still want to read a story about him manipulating people and/or getting his comeuppance. Part of the appeal is seeing what depths of selfishness he can sink to, and how effectively he can rationalize them.

Another thing that’s stuck with me (from Maps in a Mirror) is this quote from Card’s writing teacher Francois Camoin: “When you have a word embodied in a story, the word itself should never appear. So don’t ever say the word ‘guilt’ in this story.” This strikes me as great advice, even though, like most writing advice, I wouldn’t take it completely literally. A story like this shouldn’t be explicit about the really important stuff. It should make the reader’s mind keep working on that stuff, seeing it again and again, maybe naming it for themselves rather than having the name supplied.

Here I should make a confession: I’m the type of reader who needs things spelled out. One of the things I said about “The Beach” was that I appreciated how blatantly vague it was. By being obvious about it, the story allowed me to see its vagueness as a technique and therefore, in some sense, feel that I “understood” the story. This is probably a flaw in my style of reading; I can’t bring myself to really enjoy a piece without “understanding” it in an analytical, English-departmenty way. Anyway, “Eumenides” leaves its tiny Furies unexplained, but the connection to Howard’s crime becomes clear late in the story. It’s made almost explicit: “No little monster is going to be born.” I can’t decide if the story is better with that line or without it. It’s the kind of tidiness that both satisfies and disappoints. By giving such a blatant hint at what the infants “mean,” the story stops readers from seeing them as ruined versions of Howard’s baby girl, or as images of his monstrous self, or as something else altogether. And yet that line also gives the story some extra unity.

One thing I’m not a fan of is that late in the story, when the wife and daughter show up, they both seem flat and overly convenient. They exist mainly to amplify and shed light on Howard’s torment. Alice is tough and bitchy and all business, and I cannot believe she put up with Howard’s manipulations for so many years. I find it easy to believe that Howard raised a daughter with martyr tendencies, but Rhiannon’s angelic blandness irritates me. Also, the idea that she went and “laid her head on his chest” without Alice pulling her away strains my credulity.

Another minor thing I have some trouble with is the statement that Howard “could not remember” what he had done. If we read this as literally true, we would have to accept that Howard is capable of suppressing a recent, upsetting memory so completely that he can no longer access it—which isn’t something that even sociopaths are capable of doing. We have to read this line as Howard telling himself he can’t remember. I guess I would find that easier to swallow if the phrase were “didn’t bother to recall” or “couldn’t be bothered to dredge up” (that is, if I could hear Howard’s voice in the line), or if the statement were the literal truth: “He didn’t remember.” This might seem petty, but something that irks me about a lot of commercial genre fiction is when a story depicts a mostly realistic, believable world and then fudges a few details (like psychology) for dramatic effect.

(Side note: I wonder if people with birth defects are offended by this sort of deformity = repulsiveness thing. Card doesn’t comment on that in his notes in Maps in a Mirror, though I know that after writing this story, he had at least one kid with congenital disabilities. The story could easily be read as suggesting that incest-related deformities are even more unspeakable than the act that produced them. Hard to imagine it without that central image, though.)