The following post is an unusual one, for at least three reasons. The first and most obvious one is that it is a review, which readers of this blog know I don’t do very often. Then there is the object of said review, which is a short story – only the second one thus honoured in my fifteen years of blogging and despite my long and vocal advocacy of the form. Finally there is the story itself which is quite unusual in its own way – but more on that later.
Henry Slesar was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite writers – or, more accurately, one of those he most often turned to for ideas. Slesar’s brand of sardonic, twist-in-the-tail short stories made him a natural for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which made frequent use of his talents, first by adapting his stories then by hiring him as a screenwriter. So enthusiastic and grateful was Hitch that he penned a foreword for one of Slesar’s regretably few collections, Clean Crimes and Neat Murders. That connection is probably one of the reasons why Eleanor Sullivan picked The Slave for her AH anthology Tales to Make Your Teeth Chatter despite the story being neither mysterious or criminal in subject or outlook. Whatever the reason it was a stroke of genius as the story would probably have gone unnoticed otherwise – from me at least.
I have been a huge Slesar fan for more than twenty-five years, thanks in no small parts to his recurring presence in the Alfred Hitchcock anthologies that were a substantial part of my reading diet as a teenager then young adult. Slesar I think is one of the Big Four (or Five, or Six – the numbers and the names change constantly) of the mystery short story. At his frequent best he managed to be both clever and profound, weaving moral issues and wry social comment into his plots.
The Slave has only three characters – one woman and two mean but it is not a love triangle. There is a play-like feel to the story that makes it not a surprise that it was later made into a radio drama. The postulate is on its surface not a very original one: Inger and Corey are in love with each other and about to marry when an old friend of Corey’s, Ray, enters the stage and proceeds to ruin their lives. What makes the story different is the How and the Why. Ray never does anything frightening or physically violent; he never waves a gun or a knife, he just orders – and Corey obeys. Ray begins by poisoning Inger and Corey’s relationship by making it impossible for the two to meet but he becomes increasingly exacting, and some might say deranged, over the course of the story – and yet Corey always, unfailingly, abjectly obeys. A distraught Inger soon discovers the astonishing truth behind Ray’s power over her fiance. Following a pseudo-philosophical discussion on the evils and « benefits » of slavery, the two « friends » made a bet ten months before that Corey wouldn’t stand being Ray’s slave for a year. What started as a joke quickly soured as Ray came to enjoy the feeling and began to treat his slave like dirt, giving him increasingly difficult and humiliating, though never illegal or dangerous, chores whose exact nature are left to the reader’s imagination. As only ten weeks are left before the bet expires Corey is determined not to give his former friend the satisfaction of giving up so close to the end, and Inger more or less agrees to them « taking their distances » until everything is safe again – but Ray doesn’t intend it that way.
As I said before, The Slave is not a crime story, there’s nobody killing anyone in the end, but it is empathetically not a cosy tale. Another writer might have tried to turn the argument into something funny, witty, harmless – but Slesar is dead serious. Corey and Ray’s sadomasochistic « relationship » – something you didn’t see that often in Alfred Hitchcock anthologies – is rooted in one of mankind’s deepest, most ancient and noxious cravings: Power. The Slave is a study in how it corrupts not only the people holding it but also in the end the people that are subjected to it, as poor Inger ultimately discovers. An idiotic French reviewer once dismissed the kind of stories Slesar wrote as « pulp fiction » but I wish more non-pulp, « literary » writers were able to make a point as strongly and concisely as Slesar does in his finale, which is not only a brilliant finishing stroke but the dark, morally and psychologically logical, outcome of what preceded. The mark of a writer at the height of his powers – that word again.
It’s puzzling, though not entirely surprising given the subject matter, that this story is not more famous; as far as I know it has never been anthologized outside its appearance in Tales to Make Your Teeth Chatter and none of the very few biographical/critical studies of Slesar’s work mentions it. That is a pity and an injustice, as The Slave deserves a place in the pantheon of dark humour short stories right up there with the likes of Saki, Roald Dahl and Stanley Ellin. It’s time for it to finally get its due – and for its writer too, of course.