“The Truth About Pyecraft” (1903)
The repellently fat Mr. Pyecraft is a patron of a London club, who usually pesters Mr. Formalyn, to the point that the latter eventually decides to write Pyecraft’s true story, for revealing an unbelievable, yet embarrassing, secret which is shared by both.
In the beginning of Formalyn’s account, the rotund Pyecraft usually annoys him, with his boring stories and particularly about his obesity troubles. Eventually, Formalyn brings an occult weight-loss recipe of his Hindustani great-grandmother, and Pyecraft tries it for some time. Then, Pyecraft telegraphs Formalyn at the club, calling him to Pyecraft’s house in Bloomsbury, where the housekeeper tells him that Pyecraft has been cloistered in his own living room for the last twenty-four hours. There, he is found, as rounded as ever, floating helplessly in the air, against the ceiling. They conclude that the recipe has literally reduced his weight, not his fatness.
Formalyn assists with various ingenious devices and techniques to allow Pyecraft to traverse his room while floating. For example, Pyecraft gets down from the bookcase by taking out a couple of heavy tomes of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Some time later, it occurs to Formalyn that Pyecraft’s garments could be stuffed with heavy lead pieces to keep him on the ground; he even remarks that Pyecraft could sail without fear of a shipwreck, for he could just hover ashore after removing some of the weight.
Pyecraft returns to the club with Formalyn’s assistance, though without change to his porcine habits. Initially, the two of them agree to keep the embarrassing secret of Pyecraft’s weightlessness, but the obsessive Pyecraft soon starts to annoy him too much. 1
Notes & Quotes
- Patrick Brantlinger briefly discusses “The Truth About Pyecraft” in his chapter on imperial gothic in Rule of Darkness. One of the major themes of the imperial gothic which Brantlinger lists include the regression of the (white) British individual as a result of ‘savage’ contamination. Sometimes, these narratives represented this theme on a much larger scale by depicting the invasion of England itself by foreign others and phenomena. “The Truth About Pyecraft” is one such story. The potion which Pyecraft drinks comes originally from India and the story concludes with British rationalism and production very nearly setting everything back to normal. The lead underwear (a British invention) allows Pyecraft to continue his visits to the club, however, I would add that not everything is returned to its safe equilibrium, as is often the case with conservative gothic and horror fiction. The story ends with the narrator unsure of how he will leave the club with his manuscript (the story itself) since Pyecraft has purposefully positioned himself to block the exit. Additionally, Pyecraft remains an unusual body- because of the potion, he weighs nothing and, without the help of the lead underwear, would float. The underwear is a very superficial solution. Plus, this lead underwear has allowed Pyecraft to indulge even further into his favorite vice, gluttony. The Indian influence in England as represented in this story, therefore, causes a negative influence on British society, that England may conceal, but cannot fix.
“The Empire of the Ants” (1905)
“The Empire of the Ants” features a Brazilian captain, Gerilleau, who is ordered to take his gunboat, the Benjamin Constant, to assist the inhabitants of the town of Badama, in the “Upper Amazon,” “against a plague of ants.” A Lancashire engineer named Holroyd, from whose point of view the story is, for the most part, told, accompanies him. They find a species of large black ant that has evolved advanced intelligence and has used it to make tools and organize aggression. Before arriving in Badama, Captain Gerilleau encounters a cuberta which has been taken over by the ants, which have killed and mutilated two sailors. After Capt. Gerilleau sends his second in command, Lieutenant da Cunha, aboard the vessel, the ants attack him and he dies painfully hours later, apparently poisoned. The next day, after burning the cuberta, the Benjamin Constant arrives off Badama. The town is deserted and all its inhabitants dead or dispersed. Fearing the ants and their poison, Capt. Gerilleau contents himself with firing “de big gun” at the town twice, with minimal effect. He then demands “what else was there to do?” (variants of this phrase are used throughout the story when discussing the ants) and returns downstream for orders. A final section reports that Holroyd has returned to England to warn the authorities about the ants “before it is too late.”
Notes & Quotes
- This story takes on a now very common theme of the ecogothic: the revenge of nature. In this type of ecogothic story, the return of the repressed is represented by nature, who, after experiencing repression by human desire to control and maintain nature to fit their own desires and comfort, has revenge on humanity. In “The Empire of the Ants,” nature is represented through the ants, who attack any human who challenges its dominion of the land. Captain Gerilleau and his crew were sent to destroy the ants so that humans can again inhabit the land.
- “The Empire of the Ants” also works on fears of Darwin’s theory of evolution, much like The Island of Dr. Moreau. In this story, another species, the ant, has naturally evolved and now poses a genuine threat to the survival of humanity and human civilization. Similar to the imperial gothic represented in “Pyecraft,” this story also includes a possible invasion of England, but this time, it is by highly-evolved ants from Central America.