“Men Without Bones,” by Gerald Kersh, 1954
This one has my favorite windup and pitch so far, I think. In this case the story’s told to a nameless worker loading a banana boat in Puerto Pobre, Peru—interesting how so many of these narrators remain nameless, the better to grab you by the collar and make you listen, I suppose. Here you have your obligatory gratuitous banana boat tarantula-spotting, and then a delirious, feverish man staggers on board, pleading to be smuggled to the States to escape his tormentors: “‘Men without bones,’ he said, and there was something in his voice that stirred the hairs on the back of my neck. ‘Little fat men without bones!'” I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that.
The poor fellow, Dr. Goodbody, is recently returned from a jungle expedition on which every man was lost. Their leader, the illustrious professor Yeoward, was investigating a confluence of native folk tales about gods who came out of the sky, long ago, in a great flame. Their Indian guides abandon them early on out of fear of the “bad place,” but eventually the Professor and his troupe find the ancient remains of a huge machine… and that’s not all. Our malarial man explains:
“They are nothing to be afraid of, actually. It is they who are afraid of you. You can kill them with your boot, or with a stick… They are something like jelly. No, it is not really fear—it is the nausea, the disgust they inspire! It overwhelms! It paralyses! I have seen a jaguar, I tell you—a full-grown jaguar—stand frozen, while they clung to him, in hundreds, and ate him up alive! Believe me, I saw it. Perhaps it is some oil they secrete, some odor they give out… I don’t know…”
And just when you think you’re in for some good Cold War alien xenophobia, Kersh hits you with a big old guilty ’50s sci-fi melodramatic twist! Shall I tell you? Oh, what the hell:
“Who said anything about Martians?” cried Doctor Goodbody. “No, no no! The Martians came here, adapted themselves to new conditions of life. Poor fellows, they changed, sank low; went through a whole new process—a painful process of evolution. What I’m trying to tell you, you fool, is that Yeoward and I did not discover Martians. Idiot, don’t you see? Those boneless things are men. We are Martians!”
“Not With a Bang,” by Damon Knight, 1949
Oh jeez, another addled spinster type. I guess they’re the scariest kind of woman, is that right? This one is Louise Oliver, the last woman left alive on earth after an unspecified nuclear/plague one-two punch holocaust. And Rolf Smith, the last surviving man, is assiduously… well, courting doesn’t seem like the right word. He’s putting the pressure on poor Louise to go all the way, for the good of mankind, of course. And because she was raised to be a nice girl, and in addition is seriously unglued by the shock of all this mass destruction, she won’t unless he marries her. Problem is, all the ministers are dead.
Not only is Smith very invested in saving the human race here, but he needs her tied to him. He had been an assistant in a lab working on an antibody for the plague, and when hell broke loose he swiped all 40 ampoules—somehow the word “ampoule” never fails to conjure mid-20th century apocalyptic fiction. But one of the plague’s early symptoms is a kind of sudden-onset immobile rigidity, and she’s already saved his life with an injection once. It could easily happen again, and he knows he needs her by his side at all times if he’s going to stay alive. Plus, “he thought desperately, If I’m lucky, I’ll get at least two kids out of you before you croak. Then I’ll be safe.”
See, the fact that there aren’t any ministers to marry them isn’t the only problem. Louise is holding out for a nice man, and Rolf is most definitely not one of those. In fact, he’s a real dick. But he promises her a wedding dress, which is apparently the way to a shell-shocked spinster’s heart. Louise finally agrees to forego the minister, and with blandishments of love, Smith excuses himself for a minute, all the while consumed with his bad man thoughts:
Just a few more hours he’d have to speak to her like that, and then, in her eyes, she’d be committed to him forever. Afterward, he could do with her as he liked—beat her when he pleased, submit her to any proof of his scorn and revulsion, use her. Then it would not be too bad, being the last man on earth—not bad at all. She might even have a daughter…”
But don’t worry, fate is not kind to Rolf Smith. Louise may not be the flinty heroine I was hoping for—I’m guessing she’s not to be found in this book at all—but she has her principles, all right. As Smith feels the first onset of the rigor mortis-like plague symptoms hit, the bathroom door closes behind him:
[H]e was aware of a tiny click as the door, cushioned by the hydraulic check, shut forever. It was not locked; but its other side bore the warning MEN.
(Photo of blobfish courtesy of NORFANZ/Kerryn Parkinson.)