The Specialty of the HouseYou might have noticed things have been sporadic here for a while. The truth is, this website is an outlet for my enthusiasm for short fiction, and I haven’t been all that enthusiastic recently. I’ve still been finding great stories every so often, but they’re drowned in oceans of mediocrity. It seems like story after story offers tantalizing glimmers of excellence that never coalesce into a single superb work.

Hopefully this is just a phase, a bad batch of anthologies I’ve been working through (I tend to have a dozen on the go at any one time). To test this, I jumped my to-read queue with an anthology I picked up lately, edited by the reliably excellent Peter Haining. And the first story in it reminded me why this website is useful: without it, I would never have recognized the name of Stanley Ellin.

Ellin was the author of one of the earliest stories I recommended, Fool’s Mate. At the time I knew nothing about him; I just liked the story, and had a vague idea of a series of chess-related works (including George R.R. Martin’s Unsound Variations, which I must get around to at some point). He could have published only that one story, for all I knew.

But now I’ve come across another story of his. And it’s good, a really well-engineered piece of suspense. It makes me want to find more of Ellin’s canon, adding him to my list of names I look out for in bookshops and anthology contents pages. In the meantime, let’s see if there’s any clear reason why his stories take my fancy.

Sbirro’s is one of those little restaurants, unassuming from the outside, whose reputation for culinary brilliance is spread only by word-of-mouth. When Laffler invites his colleague Costain along, it is with the air of a man imparting a closely held secret:

“If you wish,” [Costain] said, “I can make other plans for my evening with no trouble.”

With his large, cowlike eyes turned up to Costain, the mist drifting into the ruddy, full moon of his face, Laffler seemed strangely ill at ease. “No, no,” he said at last, “absolutely not. It’s important that you dine at Sbirro’s with me.” He grasped Costain’s arm firmly and led the way to the wrought-iron gate of the basement. “You see, you’re the sole person in my office who seems to know anything at all about good food. And on my part, knowing about Sbirro’s but not having some appreciative friend to share it, is like having a unique piece of art locked in a room where no one else can enjoy it.”

There are works like Nero Wolfe and the TV show Hannibal that feature what is often described as ‘food porn’: descriptions of dishes so elaborate that it makes you salivate at the thought of biting into them. This story achieves a similar effect by focusing on the environment instead. There is only one dish on the menu, different each night. There is no salt or pepper on the table, for the dish is already perfect. There is nothing to drink but cold plain water to ensure nothing interferes with your palate. The restaurant is dimly lit and conversations are few. There are no distractions from the immaculate flavors in front of you.

With all this buildup, you don’t need loving descriptions of the food itself. The characters eat it and proclaim it exquisite, and such is the atmosphere that you believe them.

And then there is the undercurrent of suspense. As soon you hear Laffler ask if the special is on the menu this evening, you begin to suspect what the special is. You know it as soon as Laffler describes the special as an obscure species of lamb, one you can find in no other restaurant. Now, perhaps this is just the sorts of things I read, but has there ever been an exclusive little restaurant where the special hasn’t turned out to be human flesh? (The film eXistenZ, I suppose.)

Costain has no idea about this. The tension mounts as he goes back to Sbirro’s again and again, always asking questions of Laffler and Sbirro himself. You’re waiting for that shocking reveal of what he’s been eating, even though that moment will come tinged in disappointment, because you already know it’s going to happen.

But it doesn’t. There’s no reveal. The tension builds and builds to a peak. I get the impression that Ellin knows full well that his readers have already guessed, so why tell them? It’s an interesting narrative trick that really works well, because instead of the story building up to the twist reveal, it’s focused solely on perpetuating this uncomfortable atmosphere, an unease that lingers on after the ending.

And with that, Ten to Infinity is restarting. I can’t say that regular service has been resumed, because I don’t think I’ll ever maintain a regular schedule all year round. But perhaps I might be able to manage a sort of sporadic regularity.

The Speciality of the House by Stanley Ellin

Availability: print, TV, radio

Word count: 5,700

First published: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 1948

Where to find it: Murder on the Menu, edited by Peter Haining, 1991, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.

The Specialty of the House and Other Stories: The Complete Mystery Tales, 1948-1978, collection, 1979, Mysterious Press

It was adapted to TV in the original Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 12 (1959), as well as the 1980s Alfred Hitchcock Presents as season 2, episode 9 (1987)

It was adapted to radio in Fear on Four series 1, episode 12 (1988) and in The Price of Fear, episode 2 (1974), the latter featuring Vincent Price.

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