When you have a kid and you’re a pop culture nut, one of the first things you realize is that someday, your kid will get into the attic and dig up something really inappropriate – the same way that we used to find old Playboys, comic books full of swear words, and gross, graphic horror stuff that haunted us night after night. There’s not much you can do, and it’s not like I’m going to throw away all my Preacher comics. (As for Playboy, I would gladly buy my kid a subscription if he would swear not to look at porn online. When I was a kid, the weirdest misconception I had about sex was that people regularly did it “wheelbarrow style.” Next to the stuff that’s on there now, that seems kinda cute.)
Of all the stuff I read that I shouldn’t, probably the sickest – and the one that’s stayed with me the longest – was Piers Anthony’s collection of short stories, Anthonology. This book was so sick that some of the stories are still burned into my mind. But before I get to the details, some context. Piers Anthony is a prolific sci-fi/fantasy writer who’s written several series of fiction, the most harmless being the Xanth novels. These are cute fantasy books, and that’s where I started with him when I was about 10-11. I remember enjoying Golem in the Gears, and reading a couple of his other books when I had my teeth yanked at age 12.
The farther you get into his ouevre, however, the more you learn about his sexual fetishes. You start to find whole worlds of peopel who walk around naked, and long fantasy sequences where people are almost naked but not naked, which makes them hot, and then they have sex with pigs, and some other stuff happens. Nothing too raunchy, until you get to some of the older stuff – and especially, those short stories.
I got Anthonology out of the library in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, when I was staying with my grandparents. I had read most of the guy’s other stuff, and even though I was hitting diminishing returns, I thought I’d give this a try. What I found were a series of fairly poorly written stories with bizarrely graphic scenarios that weren’t sexy so much as sad. A man goes to a farm where women are raised like cows, and he tries to have sex with one, and doesn’t enjoy it. A man who discovers a skin-tight, transparent suit walks around, seemingly naked, and then – in the surprise twist ending – he accidentally poops himself. Someone else has sex with a very, very tiny alien who sends his sperm into outer space. Classy stuff.
And then there’s the story about the aliens who torture people. I don’t remember the title, but I remember everything else about this story. And this is especially notable because most days, I can’t remember my own phone number.
Here’s the plot: an ambassador from earth lands on an alien world, looking to meet their leader and start diplomatic relations. A few other humans have come to this planet – but none ever came back. He’s greeted by two seemingly-normal aliens who take him to a special center, where he’s told he has to pass a test. The person administering the test is slightly mutilated – he’s missing an eye, some fingers. And that’s where we discover what’s special about these aliens: their entire society and its caste system is determined, not by class, heredity, or merit, but by how much torture you can take. Those first aliens we met, who were totally unharmed? They’re at the bottom of the barrel – total chickens. The torturer endured enough torture to become a torturer. The leader of the planet – well, he must have really meant business. And our human ambassador buddy has to prove that he’s worthy enough to speak to him.
So they strap the guy in and get to work. I remember the first ten things they did to him. Each set of procedures ran through five steps. Starting with his hand, they had knives (they sliced his finger down to the bone), fire (they burned one off), pulling (they yanked one off), squeezing (they squashed a finger in a vice), and finally, insects (they let scorpions or something sting his thumb). They gave him a chance to leave – but this guy was stubborn. So they went to work on his body.
The next cycle went: fire (they injected hot liquid in his eye), knives (they cut off half his nose), insects (they ran bugs into one of his lungs, eating it from the inside), yanking (I think his foot, or arm), and – get ready for it – squeezing: they squashed one of his testicles.
I seem to recall Anthony skipped over the rest of the details. It turned out that the human ambassador stayed stubborn – so stubborn that at the end, there was nothing left they could do to him. He was floating in a tank of water, and could barely talk, but he was the biggest man on the planet, and they appointed him the leader. Kind of like a Twilight Zone story – but totally, irredeemably sick.
Like I said, the most significant thing to me about this stylish little piece of literature is the fact that I remember so much of it. In a way, that gets to the heart of what young people learn from books and pop culture: they may learn style, and rebellion, and new and inspiring and subversive ideas. But they also learn gritty little things about how the world works, or how they’re scared it works. Boundaries are pushed. Secrets are revealed. The first time I put words to the concept of the “guilty boner” was after reading Stephen King mention one in passing, I think somewhere in Cujo. These little teachable moments, if you will, are what stay with you. I remember good stuff, too – like most of the jokes and tangents in Douglas Adams’ books. But I think I’ll remember that goddamn Piers Anthony story even longer.