Short Story Club: “Oh He Is”

We start the discussion of this week’s story with Lois Tilton’s comments:

Strangely unsettling tale of enchantment and jealousy. The tone is sufficiently surreal that it doesn’t seem too strange to see the enchanted children kept in storefronts, that they seem to have no parents, that there seem to be no other adults in the town but Walter, Fleur and Nina. But it’s not quite enough to keep me from wondering why the piper abandoned the children in the first place, which leads to a whole lot of wondering about other matters. Are there other flocks of children on the hilltops outside other towns?

Commenters on the story liked it:

R.J. Isle Burroughs said: Brilliant. Haunting. Beautifully told.

Liz Catalano said: Mesmerizing. I was impressed with how the tone of the story mimicked the theme… drawing you on and in (although not, I have to say, against my will!!). Well done, Karen.

Martin didn’t care for it:

When, at the conclusion of the story, the piper is strangled, “his face flew from scorn to pity to lust.” Even in a fable I find this an unlikely series of facial emotions for someone being murdered. His murderer then “built a cottage next to him and planted herbs and spices at the head and foot of his coffin, starting with lavender, thyme, anise, lemon and rue.” Leaving aside the fact lemon is not a herb (lemon balm is), Heuler is again relying not on the precision of her prose but on an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.

‘Oh He Is’ is one of those stories which requires its world to be unpopulated. The three characters who live in the town appear to be the only residents and they are allowed to play out their little drama in isolation. This betrays a lack of interest in the world Heuler has created; how it fits together, how it came to be, how it might really smell. Into this void she simply throws anything she thinks might stick.

Neither did Maureen:

The ending, with Piers’ body incarcerated in a glass-lidded coffin, reminds one of Snow White, and the cottage built next to the coffin, heads off into fairytale realms, but to what purpose? And that is the problem I have with this story. What is its purpose? I don’t want to be grimly utilitarian about the uses of fiction, but I see no developing argument in this story at all. There are nice images, images that don’t work, there are fragments of story that sometimes vaguely link up, but I do not believe this is a postmodern fairytale so much as someone striving for effect, it not being entirely clear what that effect is. Of all of the stories so far, this is, I think, the one I like least, because it tries so hard and delivers so comparatively little.

And green_knight in the comments there:

This is a writer who fails at the very basic level of _writing coherent sentences_. And she’s overfond of ‘there was.’ Considering how often we writers are told that there’s a fierce competition for very few publishing slots out there, I’m kind of completely baffled at the thought that this made anyone want to acquire it. Reading her biography, I see that she’s doing reasonably well, which puzzles me, because for me there are fundamental things missing from this story; it fails in ways that I cannot get past.

See also Heuler’s own comments on her story in this interview.

12 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “Oh He Is”

  1. “For a while I thought the dolls might be a way to resolve the story, but you have to be careful with mechanical dolls or they take over.” Karen Heuler on ‘Oh He Is’ …

    One of the things that bothered me a good deal about this story was Walter’s mechnical doll-substitutes. I kept thinking about Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ and the doll, Olympia. But I look at this comment of Heuler’s and it really sums up how I feel about the story … what on earth does it mean? ‘Might be a way to resolve the story, but you have to be careful … they take over’? How very arch, and how very unsatisfying.

    I gather from this I’m supposed to see at least some of the storefront children as in fact being dolls, but there is something deeply disquieting about Walter’s belief that the dolls will help the children. Are they perhaps on display to confuse the piper if he returns, or is this some kind of deeply embedded commentary on the way conemporary society views children? Really, the more I look at this story, the more it confuses me, and I don’t think it is because, as Heuler suggests, the story itself is surreal (I credit myself with being a sufficiently experienced reader to deal with ‘surreal’), so much as that she herself doesn’t really seem to know where it begins or ends.

    I am exceedingly curious to know what other people think.

  2. Bah. I didn’t enjoy this one at all, I’m afraid.

    Beginning from”…their eyes closed (it was late)” in the first line, and continuing into smell-of-the-wind, sugar-spun-souls midnight constitutional, the story felt stilted and overly artificial. Then we reach the fairy-tale connection, which doesn’t gain any points in my book – I’ve read some wonderful fairy-tale retellings and sequels, but I’ve read a lot more that were a lot less clever than the author seemed to realize.

    Plunging onwards, the story doesn’t really seem to go anywhere or do anything unexpected. There’s very little tension in a supernaturally seductive man coming into town and seducing everybody he meets. The mechanical dolls seemed a potentially interesting addition, but they weren’t anywhere near the heart of the story, and soon after their introduction they fade into irrelevance, not playing any further part. Nina and Fleur’s jealousy likewise goes nowhere, nor is it interesting in its own right. Finally, we conclude with a sudden murder that is the staple of melodramatic endings – almost as if there’s any sort of justification for Nina’s rage to show up now, when it hasn’t before and no reason is given for her regaining control of herself.

    There’s the surreal tone to the story’s favor, but I can’t say I’m impressed. The atmosphere is achieved mostly by deliberate awkwardness, not by portraying any particularly surreal events or characters, nor by finding any particularly resonant and compelling ways to describe the events in a surreal fashion.

    It occurs to me that I’ve just read a story touching on remarkably similar thoughts and themes – M. Rickert’s “The President’s Book Tour”, in the latest issue of F&SF. I hope I’m not derailing conversation by discussing a story not freely available to read, but F&SF is likely to have been read by some of this august assembly – would anybody care to comment on my little “compare and contrast”? “Book Tour,” too, dealt with tragic children, and coming face to face with the charming figure who caused the tragedy. And yet in “Book Tour:”
    The odd, tortured atmosphere is supplied by rich and painful descriptions, as well as the off-kilter narration-by-collective,
    The charmer is not supernatural – instead, his charm is convincingly portrayed, and we can understand how well it works, and be affected by it,
    The story revolves around clear characters, each of whom acts in a reasonable, independent, believable fashion,
    The story is laden with guilt and responsibility over what occurs – with some behavior clearly both understandable and reprehensible.

    Even if we don’t slide over to discussing “Book Tour,” those were all elements that worked well in that story, and I felt they – or some other worthwhile substance – were sorely missing in “Oh He Is.”

  3. I see the story as basically a mood piece, and I don’t think the author would disagree, since in her interview she says it’s about sensuality and fascination. The language of the story, with its straying streets and sipping smells, is focused on imparting emotion at the expense of meaning. The author bets the whole story on successfully fascinating the reader. So in that sense I agree with one of the story’s commenters, the author is indeed a little like the pied piper of the story.

    But in real life, there’s no universally enthralling tune. I guess this particular one must work for some people (like those two commenters), but I found the writing extremely awkward. The other facets of the story seem strictly complimentary to the prose, so when the language failed to impress me, the whole story failed.

  4. Me too I read this as a mood piece. It failed to get me in a proper mood to enjoy it, or probably I failed to get in. The use of language annoyed me. It reminded me of a couple of lyrics from a poem by the 19th century romanian poet Mihai Eminescu, who blamed the young poets of his time for “who string on a phrase empty words, only for their ringing” (aprox. translation).

  5. And I apologize for my use of the language. My English is self-taught and I seem to lose control over it every time I comment on somebody else’s usage of it.

  6. Not much to say about this one. I’m not as down on the writing as others here, as I did find the story atmospheric and thought it did a good job of describing the effect the piper had on the children and the main character. But as Maureen says, it’s not really much beyond atmospheric, and isn’t sufficiently well done to stand on its own as a mood piece (maybe if it were shorter), nor does it seem intended to – the ending seems to belong to a very different story, and yet doesn’t try to root itself in some sort of reality as that other story would. It seemed unbelievable both that Nina could fight off the Piper as she did and that she managed to kill him so easily.

  7. Was it Mark Twain who said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it”? I’m busy killing a few now; the others hiding in the corner are doomed. Thought you should know. Adverbs are next. And then maybe those dolls.

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