Venus Envy — prologue

The following excerpt from Venus Envy is copyright 1989 by Matt Ruff:

Nocturnal Gothic

The obvious comparison is with American Gothic, the painting by Grant Wood. Of course they are not really the same, and not just because this is no painting. This is another place entirely than the farming Midwest, a Place where Wood never existed, not under that name at least.

Still, the basic similarities are there: the white farmhouse, the balding Farmer with round wire-frame glasses and pitchfork, the concerned-looking woman at his shoulder. But the sky above is velvet night rather than blue day, stars out but no Moon yet. In the farmhouse the lights are on, and in the peaked window on the top floor a shadowy figure peeps out from behind a curtain, trying not to reveal too much of herself or himself. Herself, looks like. As for the figures in the foreground, this Farmer is as ancient and balding as Wood’s, but not so expressionless—indeed, the lines around his mouth suggest an occasional smile, a laugh even, something you would never accuse Wood’s farmer of doing. His eyes behind the glasses are sharp and clear, and the three tongs of the pitchfork have a special gleam to them. Silver? Just behind him the woman—his wife, in this version of the Gothic—looks more angry than concerned, as if she’d like to hit someone. You wouldn’t want to lay bets on whether the someone would stand or fall, either. Instead of a red-and-gold pendant, this woman wears a tiny cross on her white-collared throat, not a cruciform but a miniature representation of a crossroads.

If the scope of our Nocturnal Gothic were widened it would reveal the strung wire surrounding the perimeter of the farm, wire barbed, like the tongs of the pitchfork, with silver. And standing just outside this perimeter, creatures that walk on two legs but seem too fearsome to be human. Add three more senses to our observation and there would be heard the howling of the beasts, smelt and yes, almost tasted, the thick stench of alcohol wafting from beyond the wire.

The figure in the upper farmhouse window draws the curtain back a little too far—it is a woman, young and almost indescribably lovely—and a particularly raucous howl rises on the night air. The Farmer, whose name is Brown, spins the pitchfork in his hands like a baton, and all at once it is not a pitchfork but a shotgun, double-bore twelve-gauge, loaded with silver buck. He empties both barrels through the wire and the howl disintegrates into wounded animal screams.

“That’s just right,” says Mrs. Brown, spinning the cylinder of an improbably huge revolver in her own hands. She is clearly tempted but does not open fire. Farmer Brown, his expression now broadened with a smile—he does smile—all at once cocks an ear, as if hearing something Other above the screaming. He nods.

“Martha,” he says, breaking the shotgun to reload, “you’d better set an extra place for dinner. Company coming.”

She squints at this; the house is under siege, after all, to the equivalent of a small army.

“Company? Where from, the Moon?”

Shaking his head.

“Further than that.”