When I think of compliments as they apply to fiction, the word "unsettling" springs to mind. The best of Rod Serling's work was unsettling. Tales like "To Serve Man" and "The Shelter" and "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" touch deep places in the human psyche. They pick the scabs of the worst of our experiences, and they do so in such thorough and creative ways that they stick with you long after you read them or watch them.
Stephen King's stories are unsettling. So are Joe Lansdale's and Laird Barron's. I'd heard from a number of speculative fiction fans that George R.R. Martin's "The Pair-Shaped Man," which won the Stoker award for best novelette in 1987, was just such a tale. I read it last year and it blew my mind. It's a creeper--a story whose esoteric/exoteric treatment of perception and revulsion gets under the skin and festers. Martin's story is about usurpation, loss of identity, marginalization and judgment.
In The Twilight Zone: The Movie, there's a segment in which a young boy with supernatural gifts has the ability to create any environment he wishes. The adults in his world placate him, fearful of how he might exact his revenge if they don't. In one haunting scene, the innocent who stumbles upon this nightmare world is shown the boy's sister's room. The sister's figure is huddled in the dark, silently watching a snow-filled television screen. It's not until we get the reverse-angle shot of the horrified youngster that we see she is silent because her brother has removed her mouth.
That sense of inarticulation, of being trapped, is perfectly rendered in this story. Martin's observational qualities, from the eponymous weirdo's physique to his love of cheez doodles and scads of Coke, render this an uncomfortable read. I mean, the Pear-Shaped Man probably lives on your block. We have one on ours, I can tell you that--only ours is like 6'8" and shaped more like a giant string bean. When he walks down to the mailbox, that cigarette smoldering in his hand, I usually look the other way.
His smile...it's kind of creepy.
Of course, everything is relative; maybe to him, I'm the Pear-Shaped Man.
Martin's a gifted stylist and this one is a real treat--probably the most horrific of the stories I've included in my dream anthology thus far.