Short Story Review: “The Idol of the Flies” by Jane Rice

(Cover artist uncredited. Unknown, June 1942.)

Who Goes There?

The story of Jane Rice is one of the more quietly tragic in the history of fantasy and horror fiction—but not because of her personal life. Actually, Rice seemed a pretty well-adjusted woman, and it’s not like her career took a nosedive on the part of some grave career error; she did not, for instance, get wrapped up in Dianetics or something like that. Rather, Rice’s career as a writer was forever hampered by the fact that historically speaking, the magazines have been a poor market for fantasy; there just has never been that much demand for fantasy in the magazines. When John W. Campbell launched Unknown, Astounding‘s fantasy-leaning sister magazine, in 1939, he went out of his way to publish fantasy that was a lot more than just occult horror and heroic fantasy, like in Weird Tales; its scope was far more ambitious. Rice made her debut in Unknown in 1940, and a good third or so of her total output would be published in this magazine, in the span of just three years, despite her career spanning more than half a century.

And no, she’s not to be confused with Anne Rice, nor are they related in any way, although you may be tempted to confuse one with the other!

Rice’s fiction (from what I’ve read of it anyway) is unique, even among the Unknown stable of writers, for its often rural locales, being inspired by Rice’s Kentucky upbringing, and for a mean streak that would almost make Flannery O’Connor blush (almost!). Her werewolf story, “The Refugee,” appeared in that magazine’s final issue, and has been (rightly) reprinted quite a few times over the years. Unfortunately, Unknown‘s sales were never high, despite being issue-for-issue stronger than Astounding, and when Street & Smith, the publisher for both, pulled the plug on the former because of wartime paper rationing (Astounding itself barely survived World War II), several stories which had been purchased were left stranded. At least one, Anthony Boucher’s “We Print the Truth,” would see print in Astounding, but what would’ve been Rice’s debut novel, Lucy, not only did not get published, but it got lost in Street & Smith’s files; it’s been lost media for nearly eighty years. The loss must’ve been devastating, and except for a spat of short stories in the ’80s, Rice would never be nearly this productive again.

Placing Coordinates

“The Idol of the Flies” was first published in the June 1942 issue of Unknown, which is on the Archive. The weird thing about this one is that there aren’t any reprints that are in print, and only some are reasonably cheap; you’d actually be better off finding the older sources. Perhaps the anthology of most interest here is Witches’ Brew: Horror and Supernatural Stories by Women, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini. Another curious anthology reprint is Children of Wonder: 21 Remarkable and Fantastic Tales, edited by William Tenn of all people, with Rice’s story appropriately falling under the section called “Terror in the Nursery.” There’s also the single comprehensive collection of Rice’s short fiction, The Idol of the Flies and Other Stories, but unfortunately it’s a collector’s item; the copies I see on eBay go for over a hundred bucks, which even for me is ridiculous.

Enhancing Image

Pruitt is seemingly a normal boy, except for the fact that he’s an orphan, now living with his spinster aunt and having a private tutor. Pruitt’s parents died… somehow, and now the boy mostly goes off and does his own thing: in his case this “case” tends to involve torture of some kind. A sadistic kid might bully his little sister, or pull the legs off a bug one but one, but Pruitt’s brand of sadism is amplified by him seemingly having the power to order flies to do his bidding. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. And his tutor, Ms. Bittner, is deathly afraid of flies. Personally I find flies to be way more annoying than scary, but to each their own.

Most of the fantasy published in Unknown is not horror, but “The Idol of the Flies” most certainly is; if the stuff with the flies doesn’t creep you out enough, then Pruitt doing things any normal child can do almost certainly will. Not only does he pull epic pranks on the adults in the house, but he also bullies a local man with severe scoliosis (or something like that), physically tormenting him to the point where I actually wondered if Pruitt might kill him. Oh, and if that’s not enough for ya, read about what Pruitt does with a toad and twig—or maybe don’t, it’s not for the faint of heart. What makes these things so disturbing is that you don’t need anything supernatural in order to make them possible, and indeed much of the story reads like non-supernatural horror. How does the whole controlling-flies thing figure into it, though? Because of course something fantastical has to be going on, and there has to be an explanation for how Pruitt is able to use all these flies for his schemes.

The interior artwork for the story (which I’ll get into more in the spoilers section) shows Pruitt with an idol he’s made out of coal tar and which resembles a fly. Where did Pruitt get the idea to do this? I don’t remember us being given a clear answer on that, but that doesn’t matter too much. You might think he’s an incarnation of the devil like it’s The Omen or something, but I’ll just say right now it’s not that. It would be one thing if Pruitt was a demon in a human’s skin, but he’s just a normal-ass child; he does what he does because he loves nothing more than to hurt others, as if he were a child’s innate desire to destroy taken to its logical extreme. I suppose he’s like the kid from Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” though God help us if he had reality-warping powers.

We don’t get much of a line into Pruitt’s mindset, but when we do, it’s pretty ugly. He comes off like a Flannery O’Connor character in that rural grotesque way, though this was published several years prior to O’Connor’s first story. I’m sure O’Connor never read a Rice story in her life, but I can’t help but feel like there’s a connection…

Pruitt scuffed his shoe on the stone steps and wished he had an air rifle. He would ask for one on his birthday. He would ask for a lot of impossible things first and then—pitifully—say, “Well, then, could I just have a little old air rifle?” Aunt would fall for that. She was as dumb as his mother had been. Dumber. His mother had been “simple” dumb, which was pretty bad—going in, as she had, for treacly bedtime stories and lap sitting. Aunt was “sick” dumb, which was very dumb indeed. “Sick” dumb people always looked at the “bright side.” They were the dumbest of all. They were push-overs, “sick” dumb people were. Easy, little old push-overs.

Come to think of it, one of the few things that gives me the creeps is one of tried-and-true staples of horror: creepy children. Maybe it’s because someone young like me probably has anxiety about the prospect of parenthood, or maybe it’s because it feels so unnatural for a child, who after all has experienced so little of the world, to do things that are so heinous, or maybe it’s just because human children are the least adorable children in the world (consider that a baby crocodile is cuter than a human child) and they just suck, but creepy children will almost always get me to some extent. Pruitt is exceptional, even in the pantheon of bastard fictional children (let’s not forget Village of the Damned while we’re at it), in he seems to do everything of his own volition; it’s not like he’s brainwashed or being controlled by a demonic overlord, although that is a possibility. Thankfully, for how dastardly her pint-sized villain protagonist is, Rice has something just as dastardly in mind for her creation.

There Be Spoilers Here

So we’ve had animal abuse and Pruitt ruthlessly bullying a disabled man, but just how evil is he? He hasn’t actually killed another person, has he? He’s like six or seven years old, he can’t be that bad! Well…

We’ve heard before that Pruitt is an orphan, now living with his late dad’s sister, his parents appearently killed in an accident—which, as it turns out, was no accident. Pruitt’s been a little shit to his aunt and tutor, and also basically everyone else, up to this point, but we’ve not quite plumbed the depths of his sadism until now, in this tangential but horribly revealing passage wherein he reminisces (pretty happily, mind you) on the death of his parents—or more accurately, how he killed them:

This was the way he felt when he knew his father and mother were going to die. He had known it with a sort of clear, glittering lucidity—standing there in the white Bermuda sunlight, waving good-by to them. He had seen the plumy feather on his mother’s hat, the sprigged organdy dress, his father’s pointed mustache and his slender, artist’s hands grasping the driving reins. He had seen the gleaming harness, the high-spirited shake of the horse’s head, its stamping foot. His father wouldn’t have a horse that wasn’t high-spirited. Ginger had been its name. He had seen the bobbing fringe on the carriage top and the pin in the right rear wheel—the pin that he had diligently and with patient perseverance, worked loose with the screwdriver out of his toy tool chest. He had seen them roll away, down the drive, out through the wrought-iron gates. He had wondered if they would turn over when they rounded the bend and what sort of a crash they would make. They had turned over but he hadn’t heard the crash. He had been in the house eating the icing off the cake.

I was expecting, at some point, for there to be a reveal that Pruitt is the way he is because he’s possessed by some demon or supernatural power, but no, it seems he’s been this way for as long as he was able to conceive of such horrid acts. I think what’s scary about all this is that while they are extremely rare, children (especially as young as Pruitt) who are so malicious do exist in the real world—only they don’t worship an idol made of coal tar. It’s also disquieting how (like a real child) Pruitt uses his youth and presumed innocence as a weapon, playing puppydog with other people so as to deflect blame; sure, they think, he might be a bit of a rascal, but ultimately he’s just a child! Except that children are perfectly capable of doing horrible things—they’re just too ignorant to know better.

If I do have a problem with this story, it’s that the climax is rather abrupt, though I suppose it’s easy enough to anticipate if you know your demonology. The twist is also pretty strongly alluded to in the story’s interior artwork, courtesy of Kolliker.

What happens when you deal with the devil for your fly-manipulating powers? Eventually the devil comes to collect. He’s called Beelzebub here, which, ya know, lord of the flies and all that, though the story’s title seems to refer to both Beelzebub and the coal tar idol Pruitt uses. Anyway, despite his single-digit age, Puitt gets sent to HELL, which is pretty epic. Normally I’d be disturbed by such an outcome, but Puitt is shown to be such an irredeemably evil creature that in the context of a story’s world where the devil (and presumably God) exists, maybe it’s best to kick this kid off the top of the highest mountain.

While I take issue with how the climax is paced, I find the ending immensely satisfying. How often does a child in a story (particularly of this vintage) get killed off, and on top of that said child is also the protagonist! Truth be told, it would’ve been too dark if Pruitt had gotten away with everything, so as weird as it is to this, it’s fitting that Rice give him the fire-and-brimstone treatment. I also think it may be too on-the-nose for Bittner, in the final scene, to be reading a textbook entry on Beelzebub (perhaps in worry that readers might not get who “Asmodeus” is), but the dramatic irony of her being unaware of Pruitt’s fate is also satisfying. If what we’ve been reading prior to the climax was discomforting, watching this little shit doing all these things and not get punished for it, then the ending is worthy compensation.

A Step Farther Out

Did not think one of the oldest stories covered this month would also be the scariest, but I’m gonna say “The Idol of the Flies” is thoroughly disquieting. Ironically the demonic climax might be the least scary part of the whole ordeal, if only because the protagonist is devilish enough on his own. Pruitt has to be one of the most evil children in literature, and he’s arguably the most evil main character we’ve come across—yes, even more than Kornbluth’s Mindworm, which is more amoral than sadistic. Just letting you know that if you haven’t read it already, expect some animal torture and abuse of the disabled; this thing doesn’t mess around, all the more remarkable given its vintage. I can’t say I’m totally surprised, though, as the quality of the average Unknown story is much higher than average; really I would say the average Unknown story beats out the average Astounding story nine times out of ten. Rice showed herself to be a master of horror in the making, and it’s a shame that because of Unknown‘s premature death and the loss of her debut novel made her career as a fantasist screetch to a halt.

If you’re looking for a horror story about how children are vicious little monsters just in time for Halloween, boy do I have a recommendation!

See you next time.


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