“Beautiful Monsters” by Eric Puchner


It’s the midway point in my 2014 Short Story Reading challenge. For week twenty-six I drew the three of spades. Spades are designated for “darker” stories, and this one certainly qualifies. I own it as part of the 2012 volume of The Best American Short Stories series, which I heartily endorse as a good investment if you’re a fan of the short story form.


This is also my first reading of Los Angeles author Eric Puchner. He has also published a well-received collection of stories titled “Music Trough the Floor” (love that cover picture) and the novel “Model Home.”


This particular story was first published in Tin House.


In the Contributors’ Notes section of the Best American Short Stories collection I have, Puchner writes that this story “…was a real departure for me. I’m not a big reader of science fiction, though the first stories I fell in love with as a boy were Ray Bradbury’s magical Martian creep-outs.” Being a Bradbury fan myself, that was certainly a point in his favor and part of the reason why I added this story to my Deal Me In roster this year.

Beautiful Monsters is a story about an (unnamed) boy and girl who are “Perennials,” the primary citizens of a future world where aging has been determined to be a disease, cured scientifically by fixing the age of children just before adolescence. The children of this world, however, hold jobs and take care of themselves and each other just like adults in our own familiar society. The world of the boy and girl is disturbed one day, however, when they see an “old” man in their yard, eating apples directly from their tree. In the future world of this story, there still exist people who have not been cured of the aging “disease” and are the pariahs of society. They have their own camp in the hills near the city of children, but a forest fire has apparently destroyed their reserves of food, leading them to forage nearer the civilized parts of the world and encroach upon the dominion of the Perennials.

The two children see that the old man in their yard is also injured and help him, at least initially. They become fond of him by degrees, even though, as an adult, he exhibits many traits strange and unfamiliar to them. At one point, they put on a puppet show for the old man’s entertainment, pretending to be children from the man’s world, and reveal something of the nature their strange world:

“Hello, red puppet.
Hello, white puppet.
I can’t even drive.
Me either.
Let’s play Capture the Graveyard.
In seventy years I’m going to die. First, though, I will grow old and weak and disease-ridden. This is called aging. It was thought to be incurable, in the Age of Senescence.
Will you lose your hair?
I am male, so there’s a four in seven chance of baldness.”

And later in the puppet show:

“Everyone will have to pay more taxes, because we’ll be too feeble to work and pay for our useless medicines.”

I suspect this last is how their world came about. The aged have become too much of a burden on society as a whole. A chilling thought to ponder in today’s real world, where the future of health care is a frequent topic of conversation and debate.

I should point out that the story features the annoying (to this reader) quirk of not using quotation marks for dialogue. What’s up with that? To me it’s just a gimmick that distracts from the real story. This wasn’t one of my favorite short stories in this year’s project, but I think that’s more because of the subject matter since I found the writing to be quite good.

Have you heard of – or read anything by – this author? Have you explored any of the Best American Short Stories of ____ series? What short stories have you read lately?

(below: Eric Puchner )