By Randy Stafford
Finch, Paul. King Death. Spectral Press, 2011. 22 pp. $8.00.
It is 1349 and England is in the grip of the Great Mortality, what later generations will call the “Black Death”. A caravan goes down a road, its coaches weighed down with tapestries and ermine-trimmed robes and gold cups. It is a train of the dead met by only one of the living.
His name is ‘Rodric’, a knight in black armour. The skull painted on his visor and shield proclaims him “King Death”, though he was born a peasant and was a mercenary before the Pestilence. But it is a handy mask for scaring the few living he encounters as he travels a land of unburied bodies, deserted villages and castles, looting where he can.
And then he meets one more of the living, a young page who believes his disguise, who offers to lead him to a castle full of riches, where all are dead, and only asks, at the end, to join his kin in death.
Thus begins Finch’s short story.
He gives us a quiet, unpeopled land of fallow fields, bloated bodies, and a smell of death that no perfumed sachet can conquer. The agony of the boy, the callousness and peasant cunning of Rodric as he seizes his one chance at a fortune, are shown well and often. The atmosphere is despondent. Even the hardened Rodric almost feels sympathy for the noble dead he finds, once his social betters and not yet his equals in death. The scenes are just what you want in a post-apocalypse story: moody and lurid.
And that was the beginning of the problem for me but maybe not for you.
It’s unfair of me to penalise Finch for my own limitations and one is that I generally don’t like historical fiction unless it has a substantial fantastical element in it. Otherwise, I often find myself always questioning if a particular detail is true and deciding I might just as well read an actual history of the time rather than fiction set in it. That was not the case here, though.
Instead, having read several books on the Black Death, I was too familiar with the setting. I questioned those unburied bodies when historical accounts have the English maintaining their social coherence during the Plague and burying their dead in a well-ordered fashion. Life went on there in the midst of death. Marriages were made, land transferred, boys apprenticed. The Plague never approached anything like the mortality rate we see and hear of in this story.
In short, things were bad then but not that bad.
And, while I hoped for a story of dwindling and threatened life or a desperate, fantastic revel in the manner of “The Masque of the Red Death”, I got, ultimately, a classical horror story ending which, for me, didn’t work here tone-wise.
Your experience, though, may be different because Finch is an effective writer. He’s not given to anachronistic characters or language. The story is so full of medieval terms, most having to do with arms and armour, that there is even a two-page glossary at the end.
And, beyond the formulaic climax, the story’s concluding imagery is satisfying.
While I was disappointed by this story, I did like it enough to go to Finch’s personal website. I’m intrigued by his Medi-Evil series of anthologies featuring historical horror and fantasy. I suspect, with another historical setting, my critical brain will let Finch’s prose take full effect.
If your brain is more flexible than mine and thinks King Death sounds like your thing, you may have to wait awhile. This chapbook appears sold out, but, of course, the story may be reprinted elsewhere in the future.