The Professor’s Dog and Other Stories
By David B. Schock.
PenUltimate, Ltd., 2022.
Paperback, 155 pages, $11.95.
Reviewed by Jonathan R. Eller.
David B. Schock’s wide-ranging career as a newspaper editor, filmmaker, and non-fiction author draws inspiration from a life spent close to nature in the towns and rural settings of central and western Michigan. He found an older friend and mentor in the prominent twentieth-century scholar, cultural visionary, and fiction writer Russell Kirk, who directed Schock’s unusual bicameral Ph.D. dissertation: a stand-alone critical analysis of ghostly tales, and a companion volume of Schock’s own short stories radiating out from the elusive intersection of the supernatural tale and the tradition of humane letters. Inevitably, a second collection evolved from this rich creative base, ten tales culminating in the new collection’s title story, “The Professor’s Dog.”
Readers of this volume will find all ten stories insightful and carefully crafted, and they are worthy of the authors who inspired Schock’s abiding love of speculative fiction. They span several genres, and are unified by the underlying question implicit in each narrative: “What if our ‘normal’ were this instead of that?” The “what if” that he describes in his intriguing introduction is the same kind of extrapolation we find in the masters he acknowledges, including Ray Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft, C. S. Lewis, Gerald Heard, and Russell Kirk. Schock’s stories sometimes echo these other masters, but his style, subjects, and themes are distinctly his own.
The opening tale, “Snuzee Babies,” is gripping, eerie, and a great example of slowly rising terror in the best tradition of early Ray Bradbury stories. The coffin-womb awakening of the Snuzee babies brings to mind Bradbury’s little-known short-short story “Interim,” found in Bradbury’s first story collection, Dark Carnival (1947). But “Snuzee Babies” stands on its own to good effect. The chilling passages explaining the cold indifference of these super-children, their lack of human compassion, is reminiscent of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (also known as Village of the Damned). The final horror of these creatures slowly unfolds to great effect, and the final tragedy—the enslavement of all mankind—is very Wellsian in the telling, and very original in every way.
“Children of the Forest” is equally appealing in terms of engagement and narrative quality, but it is so very different in its focus that it forecasts the wide range of fictional approaches found throughout the entire volume. The narration is firmly in the tradition of George MacDonald’s myth-based stories and C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, but it also suggests the narrative style of William Morris; one might think of Morris’s first novel-length romance, The House of the Wolfings, but this resemblance (child-rearing wolves) is merely a point of departure—“Children of the Forest” is a most original blend of myth and legend in the fairy tale tradition.
“Dutiful Wife” offers the same kind of narrative engagement found in certain mid-century stories by Gerald Heard, who was highly regarded by both Ray Bradbury and Russell Kirk. In fact, Heard’s opening sentence in “The Chapel of Ease” (“Terror’s quite different from horror”) was a conviction shared as well by Bradbury and Kirk, and this observation could stand as well for David Schock’s overall sense of supernatural fiction—a conviction that ripples throughout the ten stories of The Professor’s Dog. In “Dutiful Wife,” the living word of the Bible is foregrounded in very subtle ways, and we sense (as the author intends) that the minister’s view that “the transition from this life to the next was a doorway” might just be a bit oversimplified. There are shades of Nathaniel Hawthorne here, as Schock, for the most part, avoids didacticism in presenting this cautionary tale.
“To Be Forgotten” is a very short vignette or reverie that captures the wish-fulfillment undertones of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. In this “what if,” the magnitude of purgatory is individualized in terms of the length of time that historical memory of the dead remains among the living. The narrator finds meaning in “learning as much as possible” while in this state of existence, leaving the reader with a final tantalizing clue: “I’m learning that many things could have been different.”
“The Old Prescott” is a more substantial and engaging story—the swift and silent entrapments of the Old Prescott Building are almost, but not quite, imperceptible. The skyscraper lures flawed humanity with the same kind of mystery that we see in the more benevolent homes and tenements of John Crowley’s 1980s fantasy masterpiece Little, Big, but in Schock’s tale the cause is demonic, leaving us with a profoundly mistrustful narrator whose life will follow the course of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.”
One of the most powerful tales in the collection is “Mrs. Kaiser’s Radio.” It is, in effect, a demonic entrapment that turns out to be even more terrifying than “The Old Prescott.” Mrs. Kaiser, a nightmare when she was alive, becomes the disembodied means to lure a truly Christian woman into the trans-dimensional darkness beyond the electronic miracles of the old farmhouse radio. The atmosphere and narrative voice of an old folk tale remains consistent throughout; this is the longest story in the collection, and one of the strongest, strategically placed at the center of the volume.
In “Abaddon,” the protagonist, seeking revenge without realizing all the facts of his tragedy, never thinks to consider the name of his avenger, Mr. Abaddon. He has unknowingly invoked the destroyer, a most powerful fallen angel, and never realizes why he feels uneasy about the retribution exacted from his late wife’s tormentor. But was he really a tormentor? Why do her surviving poems focus on this other man? A mystery in the tradition of G. K. Chesterton, whose famous detective, Father Brown, encouraged forgiveness and confession from the guilty. The saving grace of forgiveness, perhaps the flip side of confession, is at the center of this story, and one hopes that the protagonist Dunlevy will find some kind of revelatory insight that transcends his vengeful desires.
“Through a Glass, Darkly” is a gentle supernatural tale with an effective final line that transforms cliché into literal (and powerful) truth. There are echoes of the theological speculations of Russell Kirk and Gerald Heard here—this tale, like others in the collection, invites readers to explore the will to believe miraculous things in spite of the challenges that stand in the way.
Schock’s collection concludes with two intriguing tales that push the boundaries of perception and reality in more contemporary settings. “Fat of the Land,” an engaging fantasy with subtle psychological overtones, explores the prejudices that torment the lives of those who cannot conform to culturally mandated physical “norms.” Hugo finds a waking dream reality where physical appearance is not judged and uses the creative powers of his own mind—powers ignored by his employers and friends—to gradually leave our reality forever. The “experts” who provide the outer narrative frames for this story want answers, but Schock’s effective empathy for this character leaves readers with questions that don’t need answers to lead us closer to the truth.
The various “what if” extrapolative situations gathered in this volume will appeal to different readers in different ways and they vary somewhat in terms of creative power. The sum of these various literary parts is revealed at the conclusion of the volume through the title story, “The Professor’s Dog.” Here Schock rewards us with the powerful creativity of an author who really understands what it means to be human. Fatal trauma transmits the essence of a lifetime of learning from a dying professor to her service dog; eventually, her essence is transmitted yet again to the youngest daughter of the dying dog’s new family of humans. There are miracles of love throughout this triple narrative, buried in everyday lives, making this a most fitting closing story. The great question for readers is one that we seldom separate into its vital component parts. The father, on seeing the changes in his youngest daughter after their dog has given its life to save her, perceives a mysterious but beautiful difference in her four-year-old personality: “I wonder what she’ll become, or what will become of her. Two very different questions.”
Overall, I admire David Schock’s success in developing his own voice through these stories; Ray Bradbury said that if you write emotional truth with sincerity, you automatically have a distinct style. Schock’s straightforward narrative technique encourages us to read on—his writing is unembellished and yet richly descriptive, psychologically revealing, and centered on the quest for meaning common to all of us. Schock narrows this quest for truth in fiction by attempting to follow Kirk’s expressed purpose for the tradition of humane letters, and quotes Kirk at the conclusion of his introduction: “What then is the end, object, or purpose of humane letters? Why, the expression of the moral imagination; or, to put the truth in a more familiar phrase, the end of great books is ethical—to teach us what it means to be genuinely human.”
Jonathan R. Eller is the Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus and retired director of the Ray Bradbury Center at Indiana University School of Liberal Arts.
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