Here’s an intriguing stylistic trick: never naming something in a story, while making it perfectly clear what the something is supposed to be. Chuck Palahniuk has a memorable example of this in Romance (which I don’t have a copy to hand, so I’ll paraphrase), where a woman on a bus is being mocked by some youths. In response, she reaches into her underwear, pulls out a bloody tampon and begins swinging it at them until they run away. But the story never uses the word ‘tampon’ – the protagonist, who thinks a lot in food imagery, likens it to a teabag covered in ketchup – and Palahniuk has said that the result is more shocking by the word only appearing in the reader’s mind. The reader is required to make the intuitive leap, rendering them almost complicit with the situation. It reminds me of one of those black-squares-divided-by-white-lines optical illusions where the brain perpetually tries to fill in the intersections with grey.
Richerson uses this trick with a different intent. The story’s premise, if stated boldly, would sound like a one-line joke. But by keeping the context vague at the beginning, and referring to Roy’s employer only as The Big Man, a sense of reality is established. Roy runs a construction company, and the opening features him being hired to build and pave a road in seven days. It certainly sounds ordinary and reasonable, even if The Big Man hints at dire penalties for failing to complete the road in time.
The story that follows is one of professionals doing their job, the biggest job of their lives, in increasingly difficult circumstances. Things go wrong. Wild animals and even the weather turn hostile, but thanks to Roy’s contingencies and his team of experts, they continue working. Wolves attack at night; guards with guns are posted. A swarm of huge snakes appear, but the medics are armed with Holy Water as well as antivenom. The air reaches unbelievable temperatures during the day, but the crew just make jokes of how much worse it is in El Paso.
The rain of blood begins midmorning and continues all day. Under the canopies they have fashioned from the Hellsnake skins, the concrete crews begin pouring. Roy and the sleeping workers are lulled by the patter and hiss of smoking drops on the impervious hides.
By early afternoon Roy wakes. He dons a chemical protection suit to go out into the bloody downpour to check the progress of the pour. They are using a quick-setting formulation of Portland cement and crushed brimstone that would harden even under water; the rain of blood has no effect on it except to tint the topmost layer a bright pink. Roy chats with the workers for a time as they swing the concrete chutes about and level and smooth the slabs. They swap stories of rains of blood past. “I was in a hurricane of blood once in Veracruz…”
“That’s nothing! I was in a blood tornado!”
I’ve heard this type of story referred to as ‘competence porn’: it’s satisfying to read about people who are competent doing their jobs, as a nice change to the dysfunctional and the dramatic figures that most fiction thrives on. Whether that’s the reason for the story’s appeal, I couldn’t say, though it could easily be compared to mythic and folkloric challenges (the unnamed Giant and Sleipnir rebuilding Asgard’s wall springs to mind). And, of course, the rule of rising tension ensures that as the seventh day is coming to an end, Roy discovers he still has one last seemingly impossible challenge to overcome.
(It’s hard for me to tell exactly when the average reader would realize what’s going on in this story. You might guess from the title’s half-quotation alone. Or the road being built on brimstone ash. Or, in my case, you’re reading the story in an anthology devoted to stories about the Devil. That is a bit of a giveaway.)
…With By Good Intentions by Carrie Richerson
Availability: print, e-book
Word count: 3,000
First published: F&SF Magazine, Oct-Nov 2006
Where to find it: Sympathy for the Devil, edited by Tim Pratt, 2010, Night Shade Books