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Author Topic: PC146, Giant Episode: The Surgeon's Tale  (Read 7531 times)
Talia
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« on: March 01, 2011, 11:55:01 AM »

PodCastle 146, Giant Episode: The Surgeon’s Tale

by Cat Rambo and Jeff VanderMeer.

Read by Graeme Dunlop.

Originally appeared in Subterranean Press. Read the text here!

Down by the docks, you can smell the tide going out–surging from rotted fish, filth, and the briny sargassum that turns the pilings a mixture of purple and green. I don’t mind the smell; it reminds me of my youth. From the bungalow on the bay’s edge, I emerge most days to go beach-combing in the sands beneath the rotted piers. Soft crab skeletons and ghostly sausage wrappers mostly, but a coin or two as well.

Sometimes I see an old man when I’m hunting, a gangly fellow whose clothes hang loose. As though his limbs were sticks of chalk, wired together with ulnar ligaments of seaweed, pillowing bursae formed from the sacs of decaying anemones that clutter on the underside of the pier’s planking.

I worry that the sticks will snap if he steps too far too fast, and he will become past repair, past preservation, right in front of me. I draw diagrams in the sand flats to show him how he can safeguard himself with casings over his fragile limbs, the glyphs he should draw on his cuffs to strengthen his wrists. A thousand things I’ve learned here and at sea. But I don’t talk to him–he will have to figure it out from my scrawls when he comes upon them. If the sea doesn’t touch them first.

He seems haunted, like a mirror or a window that shows some landscape it’s never known. I’m as old as he is. I wonder if I look like him. If he too has trouble sleeping at night. And why he chose this patch of sand to pace and wander.

I will not talk to him. That would be like talking to myself: the surest path to madness.


Rated R.


ETA: Corrected the original publication and added where you can read while you listen. Huzzah!
« Last Edit: March 22, 2011, 12:11:12 PM by Talia » Logged
Wilson Fowlie
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« Reply #1 on: March 02, 2011, 02:24:39 PM »

Wow.  This one was pretty darned creepy.  If there were a Venn diagram, this one would be in both the Podcastle and Pseudopod circles.

I don't know if I was supposed to, but I never developed any sympathy or empathy for the main character.  I have a feeling I wasn't supposed to, since, as far as I recall, we never learned his name.

He was a creep who never got over the teenager phase of taking his parents for granted, abused - to the point of extortion - the good graces of his only 'friend' (who, granted, was no peach himself) and committed emotional necrophilia.  Personally, I'd rather hang out with Pearl Hart, and that's going some.

I can't say I actively disliked this story, but it wasn't one of my favourites either.

I thought Graeme did a good job with the narration; it can be difficult to differentiate many voices in conversation, especially without "said" tags, and he pulled it off.  He also did a good job at conveying both the main character's and Lucius's emotions.

That said, while maybe it was a purposeful decision to increase the atmosphere, I did find it somewhat slower than I'm comfortable with - I was glad to have a player with a tempo control.
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« Reply #2 on: March 02, 2011, 08:50:59 PM »

That said, while maybe it was a purposeful decision to increase the atmosphere, I did find it somewhat slower than I'm comfortable with - I was glad to have a player with a tempo control.

I definitely err on the side of caution, possibly too much. Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated.
« Last Edit: March 02, 2011, 08:52:57 PM by kibitzer » Logged

LaHaine
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« Reply #3 on: March 03, 2011, 03:13:28 AM »

That was a great story of love and longing. I didn't see it as that creepy, I rather see the arm as a metaphor for a mistake in life that got stuck on the protagonist literally.
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ElectricPaladin
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« Reply #4 on: March 03, 2011, 09:18:27 AM »

That said, while maybe it was a purposeful decision to increase the atmosphere, I did find it somewhat slower than I'm comfortable with - I was glad to have a player with a tempo control.

I agree. I felt that the basic story in there - man arrogantly bites off more than he can chew, deals with the consequences for the rest of his life - could have been dealt with in many fewer words. I'm not sure exactly what a lot of the extra stuff - the years at sea, the theoretical conversation between the two old men in the bungalow - added that was really necessary. Atmospheric, neat, and well written, certainly, but necessary? I'm not sure, but right now I lean towards no.

When I'm sleepy I write with too many - way too many - en dashes.

Anyway, although I felt that the story dragged a bit, I can't say that I disliked it. I definitely enjoyed the mood, the atmosphere, and the characterization. I even found it in me to feel sympathy for the narrator, who really was just an arrogant kid messing around with magic.

If it were me, I'd have kept the arm as a pet Tongue.
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Wilson Fowlie
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« Reply #5 on: March 03, 2011, 01:16:52 PM »

That said, while maybe it was a purposeful decision to increase the atmosphere, I did find it somewhat slower than I'm comfortable with - I was glad to have a player with a tempo control.

I agree. I felt that the basic story in there ... could have been dealt with in many fewer words.

Actually, at that point I was referring to the narration rather than the story itself.

As to a lot of the seemingly extraneous-to-the-story elements you mentioned, I think they were there to establish the main character - have I mentioned that I really dislike not knowing his name? - was not quite right in the head (in case the whole 'having a perfectly good arm cut off to have a dead woman's sewn on in its place' wasn't enough of a tip-off).

Hmm.  Thinking about not knowing the main character's name, this occurred to me:

Is there anything in the story, other than implication, that indicates the main character is definitely a man? I genuinely do not recall. I mean, in our world, at the time this story takes place, only men would hang out and drink together, only men were likely to become doctors and only men could become ship's doctors.  But it wasn't our world, was it?  Hmm...

If it were me, I'd have kept the arm as a pet Tongue.

 Cheesy


ETA a missing quote mark.
« Last Edit: March 03, 2011, 05:57:09 PM by Wilson Fowlie » Logged

"People commonly use the word 'procrastination' to describe what they do on the Internet. It seems to me too mild to describe what's happening as merely not-doing-work. We don't call it procrastination when someone gets drunk instead of working." - Paul Graham
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« Reply #6 on: March 03, 2011, 03:14:59 PM »

Hmm.  Thinking about not knowing the main character's name, this occurred to me:

Is there anything in the story, other than implication, that indicates the main character is definitely a man? I genuinely do not recall. I mean, in our world, at the time this story takes place, only men would hang out and drink together, only men were likely to become doctors and only men could become ship's doctors.  But it wasn't our world, was it?  Hmm...

There's mention at one point of "masculinity". It's in Part 3: "My masculinity had never seemed brutish to me, but laid against her delicate fingers, I could not help but find myself unsubtle."
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #7 on: March 03, 2011, 05:09:42 PM »

I didn't particularly like this story.
It was very long, which is generally a good thing, but it was also very slow (both the story and the narration). So I ended up listening to it in installments, something I usually try to avoid doing, since it ruins the story.
But here... I was able to quickly put it down and pick it up several times. I guess that means that I was never really immersed in the story.
For most of the second half of the story I was kept busy wondering about the mechanics of the severed arm. Where was it severed? At the shoulder? Below? Was it a clean cut or were there ragged edges? Was the bone broken or snapped off at the joint? Was the skin magically healed over the stump end of it?
These questions became even more important when the narrator underwent his surgery.
And that brings me to another question.
Why did the narrator have to cut his own arm off? It's not like he ever gained full use of the necrotic arm afterwards, it had a mind of its own. Why didn't he simply attach the arm to his shoulder, so he'd have three of them?
Also, where and when did he learn about the glyphs that would help the other guy's joints from falling off? Didn't he say that now there is even less magic in the world?
And that segment in the beginning was weird. At first the old man is described as "a gangly fellow... as though his limbs were sticks of chalk." A simile, but he is definitely composed of human flesh and blood. But then it says "I worry that the sticks would snap if he steps too far too fast." Now, this could be the narrator taking the simile a bit too far and worrying the old man may break his legs. But it gets worse, "... and he'll become past repair, past preservation."
Is the old man a person or some kind of automaton? This bothered me for most of the story.
Too many minor inconsistencies, and the story itself wasn't too good either.
Sorry guys, but this was a swing and a miss.
« Last Edit: March 03, 2011, 05:12:24 PM by Max e^{i pi} » Logged

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Wilson Fowlie
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« Reply #8 on: March 03, 2011, 05:34:48 PM »

Hmm.  Thinking about not knowing the main character's name, this occurred to me:

Is there anything in the story, other than implication, that indicates the main character is definitely a man?

There's mention at one point of "masculinity". It's in Part 3: "My masculinity had never seemed brutish to me, but laid against her delicate fingers, I could not help but find myself unsubtle."

That would be enough, I'd say.  Thanks!
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« Reply #9 on: March 03, 2011, 09:18:19 PM »

It is uncommon to fire all six shots of a revolver with great suddenness when one would probably be sufficient, but many things in the life of Herbert West were uncommon...
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« Reply #10 on: March 03, 2011, 11:39:40 PM »

Excellent reading.

...and that's really the only good thing I have to say about this one. It started off marginally interesting and then wandered into the Land of Fail.
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« Reply #11 on: March 04, 2011, 12:49:05 AM »

I enjoyed this one.  I like contemplative stories, and I don't mind a nice slow boil.  It really was like "Herbert West: Reanimator" except from the POV of Herbert and if Herbert was more neurotic and less crazy.
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« Reply #12 on: March 04, 2011, 10:00:12 AM »

I liked this one.  Sure, it was slow-paced, but during that pacing I felt that I had plenty to chew on and I had time for contemplation during the progression, which I don't mind when there is something to contemplate.

I thought that Lucius was rather unfair to him, considering that Lucius himself was egging him on during the original procedure, and the arm would come back to him no matter what he did.  He didn't really wrong Lucius until he blackmailed him into performing the surgery and that was long after Lucius had disowned him as a friend.  I suspect that Lucius was aware of his own guilt in the situation and his friend's presence was a constant and unwelcome reminder that he would rather do without.

My favorite part of the story was where I realized that the hand was aware and able to act, and even SEE despite the inactivity of the rest of the body--where it sought out the narrator while the rest of the body floated limply, like a hatchling looking for food from its mother when she returns to the nest.  What a neat image!

The thought of having a limb that is completely out of control is an interesting concept.  Not the first time I've seen it (the movie Idle Hands being a prime example, as well as the comedy of Josh Blue) but used well here.

I did find it a little strange that no one seemed to notice the oddity in his arms.  Wouldn't it be a different length?  Wouldn't the fingers look different than the other hand?  I thought it very interesting how his corpse-hand was more adept at stitches than he was--despite that it has no eyes with which to see. 

Good story!
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Devoted135
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« Reply #13 on: March 04, 2011, 10:18:20 AM »

I liked this one as much as I am able to like such a creepy story (I'm easily creeped out/scared), and the reading really brought it alive. While on the slow side, the pacing really served to enhance the atmosphere and I was definitely on the edge of my seat toward the end when the MC was predicting how his audience would grudgingly ask follow-up questions.

I had a similar reaction to what Unblinking said with regard to Lucius. It seemed like Lucius had regarded the original experiment as a lark, a sort of frat brother-ish prank that would last one night and then be over; when the consequences of their actions seemed like to stick around and become simultaneously more real and more fantastical, he just wanted out right now. I felt sorry for Lucius because he really had no idea what he was getting into, and I felt sorry for the MC because he probably didn't know how to make and keep friends so Lucius' betrayal hit him very hard.
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« Reply #14 on: March 04, 2011, 02:57:56 PM »

Given the length of this story, the slow pace and philosophical elements worked well for me – it was a great backdrop to shelving books at the library, a task incompatible with fast-paced stories that require more apt attention.

This story really made me think and left me wondering how it might have gone if the main character had been articulate, well-adjusted, and socially inclined, rather than shy and awkward. We know from the successfully reanimated hand that the narrator was on to something extraordinary here; if he had been stalwart enough to overcome and learn from his initial failure, he may well have eventually created the golem he imagined. I think it’s the narrator’s knowledge of this personal failure that gives the piece its regretful tone.

I haven’t done everything brilliantly myself over the years and I often wonder what my life would be like now if I had made this or that decision differently. This story was like that, only with creepy disembodied arms.
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« Reply #15 on: March 04, 2011, 07:12:12 PM »

While the narration was good, I agree that it went TOO slow. It made a story that I didn't really love harder to get through.

I've read exactly one Cat Rambo story I liked, and even that one I found somewhat flawed. I was hoping that the addition of Jeff VanderMeer might help... but I haven't really enjoyed Ambergris, either -- despite its glowing praise from China Mieville, one of my favorites. I will say that I liked the world that was built, and I spent some time trying to figure out if it was Earth or somewhere else (the "the world ended two times before" or somesuch throwaway line I caught on the way to work this morning was tantalizing). The transition from magic to science, the Olde Time-y setting, the details... all these things were good.

But on the other hand I felt that a huge world was constrained by the fact that this is a tale told by one man, and therefore that tale is limited to his experiences. Which apparently included platonic necrophilia.

Also, the main climax of the story -- when he had the arm attached to his shoulder -- happened in the middle. The rest of the story suffered from a lack of anything happening. The MC dropped out, became a ship's doctor, spent 30 years out there, lost his parents, came home, so yeah, things did happen, but not anything of note. Plus, I felt cheated by not finding out who the old man really is -- was he the MC, who never really got back his bungalow like he said in his tale? Was he really just an old beachcomber? Was there something more to him? Had the MC preserved him, or maybe brought his father back to life?

So, for a 97-minute story... well, I made it through. But I also made it through Geology class in college, and I didn't really enjoy that either.

Maybe next time.
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« Reply #16 on: March 07, 2011, 07:01:11 AM »

I don't have much time to expand on this right now, but I really liked this one!  It had me engrossed from start to finish, with breaks of my own reality poking in to interrupt.

Thanks again PodCastle!
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birdless
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« Reply #17 on: March 07, 2011, 06:20:51 PM »

I thought this one had a very Lovecraftian flavor to it (i should probably qualify that statement by saying i'm completely unqualified to judge something "Lovecraftian" as—other than the few Lovecraft stories i've heard here—i've only read At the Mountains of Madness). I almost quit listening in the first several minutes, because the beginning just didn't hold my attention. It was too much like i started watching a really complicated-plot-movie in the middle, and a slow movie at that. I'm glad i stuck with it, though, because, overall, i did enjoy it, and i found it very creepy. It could have been as equally at home in the Psuedopod cave. As others have said, i felt that the "marooned protagonist" parts of the story were unnecessary and they interrupted the flow for me. My biggest props go to the narrator. Man, that was just masterfully read. I wasn't put off by any slowness on his part. I felt he captured the feel of the story perfectly, even the parts i didn't like!
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Loz
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« Reply #18 on: March 09, 2011, 10:31:06 AM »

So, Dead Ringers meets Frankenstein in the indistinct never-past of a Fighting Fantasy gamebook. Oh dear...

The great reading of this was about the only thing that I enjoyed. The story was way too long for the ideas contained within, which was, after all, the standard 'man attempts to take the power of the Gods unto himself and reaps the consequences', except that, although he was drunk at the time it's hardly a monster crashing through the window and killing his family but just one arm, passive and meek. The padding of the tale is most blatant in the second part of the story and, by the time we get to the point that the narrator is having his own arm sawn off to be replaced I'd lost interest.

I'm not concerned about this being a horror story (due to the fact that bad shit happens to undeserving folk and it isn't explained) but that it didn't really bring anything new to the party. Now, the parents on the other hand, from the few glimpses of them it sounds like they were the interesting ones.
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jjtraw
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« Reply #19 on: March 09, 2011, 07:48:39 PM »

Creepy, creepy. The story wasn't slow, it was just well preserved!

I had to pause this story in several places, as it got too overwhelming in parts. So sad. The relationship with Lucius was well described, and the way the friendship ended hurt.

I was also fascinated by the parents, and would have liked to have heard more of their story.

My favorite character was the arm. She really did have a distinct personality, and I was fascinated by the way she expressed herself. I wondered how much of that personality came from the woman, and how much from the surgeon or his weird ritual, or his nightly nurturing of the corpse. I like to think it was the woman. But I also like that the story does not make it clear.

The main character was not likeable at all. But I don't think he was supposed to be.

Also, I enjoyed my college geology class. Geologists are crazy romantics.
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