Poe Week: Review: The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories

Poe_Week

By Juan Miguel Marin

decapitated_chickenQuiroga, Horacio. The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories. Margaret Sayers Peden, trans. Ed Lindlof, illus. University of Wisconsin Press, [1976] 2004. $15.95 USD. ISBN-13: 978-0299198343.

For Edgar Allan Poe’s spiritual son, H.P. Lovecraft, everyday reality can become a refuge from “real” reality. As we read in the oft-quoted opening of “Call of Cthulhu”: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” For Lovecraft, it is the encounter with ultimate reality that drives us mad.

The New England reality that shaped Poe’s world also shaped Lovecraft’s. But what if Lovecraft’s world had been South American? What if his house in the midst of placid, quiet, frigid, Rhode
Island had been a rancho somewhere in the midst of noisy, turbulent, sweltering Amazonia? I believe you would come close to the only Latin American author to have been called Edgar Allan Poe’s spiritual son: Horacio Quiroga. In contrast with Lovecraft, for Quiroga, you can’t find any refuge. It is everyday reality that can, at any moment, drive us mad.

As you can read in a New Yorker review cited on the back cover of UWP’s translation of his weird tales, “Quiroga’s stories are, like Poe’s, full of psychological shocks and eerie effects, and are bracingly, if ruthlessly, realistic.” UWP’s translation of Quiroga should be commended, its language as shockingly effective in English as in the original Spanish. The editors recognized Quiroga’s translatability, a quality he shared with his muse Poe, though not with Lovecraft. I have never read a successful Spanish translation of Lovecraft’s “abhorrent grotesqueness and malignity – half-ichthyic and half-batrachians.” On the other hand, Poe’s “Black Cat” does not lose much in translation from English to Spanish. Neither does it lose much when the cat becomes in these stories a chicken or a snake, everyday animals for Quiroga. Poe’s cat retains in Quiroga’s chicken or snake the original’s cosmic mission: being a natural deliverer of supernatural angst.

I have no idea who decided to throw Quiroga’s, in the original Spanish title, Tales of Love, Madness and Death upon me and my fellow school students. Perhaps it was that the adventures of Don
Quixote chasing windmills that turned into ogres failed to cause as much excitement as it may have in 16th-century Spain. Had I been a parent at the PTSA meeting, I would have complained that my kid was asked to read the collection’s title story, “The Decapitated Chicken”.

Everything in that story you could find in the most lurid sections of many newspapers. Quiroga’s genius lies in taking advantage of the literary form and showing us the horror of what we often dismiss too lightly. If you find yourself numbed by so many tragedies in the news, then go ahead and read the title story. Quiroga’s decapitated chicken will de-numb you.

As for the story “The Pursued”, it could have easily be titled “The Paranoids”. And as Quiroga knew, paranoids are the only ones who know what really is going on. I bet he probably began his
paranoid horror writing career when he was two months old. That’s when his father, while on a boat returning from a hunting expedition, accidentally shot himself. Keep that in mind if you read about the snake in the boat scene in “Drifting”. The snake then gets way bigger in “Anaconda”, an adventure story in the vein of Poe’s Arthur Pym. “Anaconda” is both good adventure and good literature. Take away the literature and you have B movie Anaconda with Jennifer Lopez. Take away everything good in Quiroga’s “Anaconda” and you have Anaconda: Offspring with David Hasselhoff.

Only one story gave me nightmares. (Spoilers ahead) Do not read “The Feather Pillow” if you have one of those. After I read the story, I took my pillow, ignited it, and celebrated the death of the only Lovecraftian creature in a Quiroga story. And this one is as real as the flesh-eating pelican in Poe’s Arthur Pym. While none of the Cthulhu Mythos monsters exists (as far as I know), Quiroga’s monster lives as the cousin of these critters. I know because, after reading “The Feather Pillow”, I verified its last sentence with the encyclopedia. I then ran to the kitchen and got my mom’s matches.

You can purchase The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories through Amazon.com.