The Skin Thing

by Adrian Van Young, recommended by Gigantic Books

EDITOR’S NOTE by Lincoln Michel

As someone who has always loved both science fiction and literary fiction — and who believes the barrier between the two is about as solid as a hologram — Adrian Van Young’s tale of famished space colonists in their ruined utopia is the ideal type of story. Here is the southern gothic prose of early Cormac McCarthy mapped onto a dystopian Dune. Here is the compactness of Jorge Luis Borges summoning a world worthy of Ursula K. Le Guin. Here the haunting atmosphere of Shirley Jackson’s stories complete with a horrifying Lovecraftian creature. In other words, it’s a gorgeous story about people terrorized by a giant, pink skin-monster. What more could you want?

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It’s a special privilege of mine to recommend Adrian Van Young’s “The Skin Thing,” because I have followed and admired his writing for years. We met in 2006 in Columbia University’s MFA program and each quickly recognized in the other a kindred writing spirit. Part of what I identified with was his love of great genre traditions — southern gothic, science fiction, horror — and a desire to combine, invert, and explode those traditions into new shapes.

Van Young does not do this flippantly or without care — as some authors in our modern, genre-omnivorous culture do — but shows a clear love and deep knowledge of the genre traditions he works in. Van Young takes familiar elements and combines them through the chemistry that is great writing into something vital and new. (If you need further evidence, check out his fantastic genre-infused collection The Man Who Noticed Everything.) Short stories are often praised for containing mini-novels, but “The Skin Thing” contains enough heroes, betrayals, mysteries, and monsters for an entire series — despite clocking in at a little over 1,600 words.

All of the above makes “The Skin Thing” a perfect fit for Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction featuring Ted Chiang, Lynne Tillman, J. Robert Lennon, Meghan McCarron, Charles Yu, Jonathan Lethem, and many more. Gigantic Worlds is a book for readers who, like Adrian Van Young, love Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin as much as Angela Carter and Franz Kafka, and who care as much about world building as they do sentence craft.

Lincoln Michel
Co-editor and Publisher, Gigantic Worlds

The Skin Thing

When the Skin Thing, we called it, first came to our doorstep, the growing season was upon us. The only thing we grew were onions. We had come to Oblivia hoping for better, but onions were all that would take in the soil. The colony soured with expired-milk complexions. The allotments we tended were sallow and scuffed.

The Skin Thing dragged itself along on two great stalks that looked like elbows. Imagine a person, out prone on the ground, that drags himself by fits and starts. The elbows strove to gouge the earth, as sharp and tall as circus poles, and they levered the body along by great drags. Its head stuck out eyeless, oblong as a horse’s. Behind the elbow-things it used to drag itself across the ground there stretched, like a laundry sheet strung out for drying, a tensile wall of thick pink skin.

It was the height of foursome men, and its body behind was a languishing tube, and its head, although eyeless, was snouted, with nostrils that sucked and blew as it grew near.

Just one of us, McSorls, held ground. He was seeking, we think, to protect his allotments. It plucked him up inside its mouth, like the mouth of a puppet, and gobbled him down. Or gummed him down. It had no teeth. The leg of his pants dangled out, disappearing.

The Skin Thing ate his onions, too.

And every several months or so, when the onions turned over their blooms into bushels, the Skin Thing would come on its elbows, with huffs, to take a couple more of us.

It was, to us, a kind of God.

Especially now, with a famine upon us, where every onion was a feast and every extra mouth to feed another Skin Thing come to bleed us.

We grew what we could and we ate it. Committees. We groaned ourselves to sleep at night. For scenery we left the camp and walked among the lukewarm sands.

How we colony members would placate the Skin Thing, so early on, was clear to us. It was not done by lottery. It was not done by penal system. It was done by the most sober practice to hand: which colonists produced the least.

We didn’t restrain them, these Under-Producers, but commanded them, rather, to stand in one spot with the tacit restraint of our eyes centered on them; and then as the sun that was not quite our sun began to go down in a sky that wasn’t either, the Skin Thing would lurch from the regions beyond and would stop, taking scent, at the furthest allotment.

It ate a couple nearby onions. Or maybe it took up no onions at all. Just as sometimes it ate the appointed right there or would save him, for after it left, as a snack. And then, mournfully, it would rotate around with a vast and unknowable sadness upon it, and would lumber away through the barren white sands by what trackless instruction we little but knew.

The Under-Producers it didn’t eat there had a habit of looking behind them, unsure, as though to ask us: must we still? But we, too, had a habit, which was to hold hands, and to all close our eyes, and to sway, humming faintly. And when this person saw, at last, he was no longer welcome among his own kind, he would follow the Skin Thing and we would just watch them — the Skin Thing ahead and the doomed one behind until they had crested the planet’s horizon.

Until they were no longer ours.

McSorls came first. McGaff. McShea. McVanderslice. McGuin. McGreaves…

Colonists total: two-hundred and forty.

Colonists fed to the thing: thirty-six.

Colonists saved on account of this practice (not to mention the onions): one hundred, at least.

Life was, for an instant, as right as it could be.

Until the matter of McGrondic.

He being, McGondric, just one of our number, just any of us in the years since McSorls — but a father he was, in the full flush of life, which was curious to us, so leached of our own.

There was:

McGondric in the mess, picking over his onions in no special hurry, a relaxed, dewy look to his under-eye skin.

McGondric going through the camp with his harvest of onions arrayed under cheesecloth, and heavens, his basket, the way that he bore it: offertory, slimly poised.

McGondric alongside his daughter, McGale, as they raked up the sands that comprised their allotment, the pink and the clean-muscled arms of them pushing, and pulling back toward them, and pushing once more.

Pursuant these sightings, we studied McGondric — his comings and goings, the hours that he kept. Not only in public, as on past occasions, but when McGondric didn’t know — when McGale and McGondric, the daughter, the father, were all alone inside their home. This house, in the way of Oblivia’s houses, was up upon stilts for the copious storms — shrieking behemoths of wind and white sand that tore across the fallow steppe — and McGale and McGondric would putter about it, there against the backlit pane.

But time after time, they were not in the house. We could not see them through the window. They were not lying down; we accounted for that.

And we wondered: McGondric, McGondric. Where is he?

Where is McGondric, when we are just here?

When at last on a day when McGale and McGondric were weighing their yield in the Harvesting House, we curious few of Oblivia crept to the edge of the house where the two of them lived. One person among us — Mc-something-or-other — began to claw amid the sands. We uncovered a window to somewhere illegal — a cellar in McGondric’s plot.

And there, behind the sandy glass, we saw a crown of human head.

And under it: a hand. A knee.

We rubbed away more to reveal the whole person — McShea, we recall, was the first one we saw — and next to McShea there were fifteen odd others in an underground room fifty feet or so square. There were struts at the corners to bear up the ceiling, and the floor was made out to the foot with grouped palettes. Across these palettes, in the dim, an encampment of people reclined at their ease.

We figured: they are eating them. And that is why they look so well. McGale and McGondric are hale and well kept, like the Skin Thing is kept, on the roughage of lives.

But when we broke into McGale and McGondric’s, going down a trap door that led into the cellar whose insides the buried glass pane now revealed, we came up with McGaff, McShea, McVanderslice, McGuin, McGreaves.

All but a few of the Under-Producers we had banished to die were still here, still alive.

And these Under-Producers, our captives, we held. And a great many of them, we threw in the sand. And a good portion, too, of these many, we kicked, and punched about the head and neck.

McGondric, the fairest among us, the freshest. McGondric of nights spent at home, mending drapes. McGondric himself, who had lately returned to the house upon stilts where he lived with his daughter to find us waiting for him there, prostrating the people McGondric had saved. McGondric, the softest among us, the kindest, where all of us had grown so hard — who had gone one by one to the Under-Producers that the Skin Thing had not gobbled down on the spot, and had sheltered, and fed them, and kept them, from us. McGrondric, whose gorgeous complexion came not from the rabid consumption of colonist flesh, but from the milk of love and grace, so long expired in all of us.

All this we knew, but did not say. All this we glimpsed, but did not see. No more than we asked why the Skin Thing, unsated — or sated far less than we’d come to believe — had never returned to lay waste to us fully, but had seemed to respect our dominion as ours.

And so McGondric, too, we held. McGondric, too, we kicked and punched.

What had made him commit such untenable treason?

What had made him not do what had always been done?

McGondric didn’t say: please don’t. McGondric didn’t say: you fools.

He only said: because I must. And turned to look upon McGale.

Yet that didn’t stop us, some days after that, when the Skin Thing arrived at our doorstep again, from marshaling hence all these Under-Producers and leading them out, once again, to their fates.

And that didn’t stop us from seizing McGondric, and seizing his daughter, McGale, in due course, and having them follow the Under-Producers like fisher-folk crossing a river of ice.

And that didn’t stop us from closing our eyes to the way that the daughter walked clutching her doll, and with her other hand McGondric’s, and how the doll itself hung there, a derelict and listless thing.

Though really, we told ourselves, grouped in a phalanx along the far edge of the furthest allotment awaiting the God at whose altar we worshipped in raptures of boredom and dissatisfaction, we had closed our eyes not on the daughter McGale, but the Skin Thing, at large, as it dragged itself toward us.

It writhed its head that did not see. It gaped its mouth that had no teeth. And it shuddered the skin-wall connecting its hackles that was, in truth, not skin at all, but a cell density that was alien to us.

Yet we couldn’t see any of this, as we said.

Our eyes were closed. Our hands were linked.

And that was what stopped us from knowing at last that the thing we so dreaded was moving away, that the Skin Thing, abhorrent, was too far to reach us — just a man and his daughter and many beside who had known themselves lost and too long to our mercy, and who knew before even we knew, and we did, that life as we lived it could only get worse.

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