George Williams’ Gardens of Earthly Delight: Hieronymus Bosch vs. American Dream

Gardens of Earthly Delight

George Williams’ short story “Miss September,” in his collection titled Gardens of Earthly Delight, is the story of a Big Con. A rich eccentric, Kip, heir to a family fortune derived from patents for smelting and manufacturing alloys, becomes the prisoner of a neighborhood “witch” (Esther) and her “coven,” who proceed to drive him crazy with the kinds of psy ops used by the ATF against David Koresh in Waco, or against Noriega at the Holy See’s embassy in Panama, or against prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. (Most of the horror in these stories is inflicted with weapons and methods we now routinely have our governments use on other people.)

One of the primary forms of torture Kip must endure is daytime television, played loudly, on a set that he is unable to unplug, protected by a bulletproof case. Here’s his description:

At seven o’clock a television of whose presence I had been completely unaware clicked on a national morning talk show hosted by a fawning lapdog and a woman whose smeared lipstick made her look like a retarded prostitute…

The stupendous banality of the carryings on, between the grotesqueries that passed for conversation, and the dimwitted amiability between the weather and news announcers, induced in me a continual state of nausea and anxiety… At eleven the soap operas began, driving me into the depth of a despair unmatched since my wife had taken an overdose of valium and washed it down with a bottle of Campari twenty years before…

[T]hen the most diabolical of all torments commenced, two hours of afternoon talk shows—first a big fat dictatorial and treacly black woman, then a big fat sentimental white dope with a mustache like grinder wire and whose name was a blood relation to the enemies of Israel Samson slew hip and thigh with the jawbone of an ass—like cartoon Solomons offering the gravest advice regarding soul- and mind-numbing trifles—going on and on and on about their feelings and how they and the audience felt them…

And so it goes for three months—endless television during the daytime, sadistic sex in the evening, then a tortured sleep in which our prisoner Kip dreams of suicide.

Esther finally releases Kip from captivity, but not until she’s managed to steal all of his money, leaving him homeless and destitute. “A con for the record books,” the police detective tells him.

Kip’s life begins to turn around when he starts robbing banks, moving from hotel to hotel under the guise of a retired businessman with a hereditary title. He then finds an accomplice, Joni, who helps him get his money back from Esther, whom they punish with the modern-day equivalent of a witch burning.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is the modern title bestowed on a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, an artist who lived in the Netherlands and painted this work around 1500. The work is a triptych that depicts the biblical creation story when the wings are closed. When the wings are opened, the panels, read left to right, show God presenting Eve to Adam, a central panel depicting an orgy in paradise, and a right-hand panel depicting hell.

George Williams’ book, like much of bizarro fiction, marks the point of humankind’s transition to the third panel.  Set in an overcrowded, impolite world of petty torments, where the only escape is death or the con, and no escape but death can be anything but temporary, the characters are at each other’s throats out of sheer annoyance.

  • A suicide case blows up a Hooters and the waitress he spares becomes a talk show celebrity.
  • An American couple runs a reality web site monitoring the woman’s attempt to get pregnant with what followers believe will be the Antichrist. Their web site gets 786 million hits (5% paying!) before a mob recognizes them and beats them to death.
  • A couple discovers a system for beating craps, and is beset by casino thugs.
  • People are dismembered by a shooter with a giant gun.
  • Yokels who can’t wait for the apocalypse find a lightweight thermonuclear device and haul it around a rural county, poisoning everyone in sight.
  • A husband whose wife is losing her mind to boom boxes and the clakityclak of keyboards at work and the calls to prayer broadcast by a mosque in the neighborhood develops a sonic pulse gun that kills any people who annoy him and leaves them with their ears bleeding.

And look at Williams’ take on the land in which his characters dwell:

You will love your native America. It is not a rabid behemoth of greed idiotized by advertising and stupefied by cathode rays and narcotized by Twinkies. America is not a land-fill. The interstates are not strip-mines. The federal government is not run by technocratic zombies and National Security Councillors on mood elevators. Hidden in the amber waves of grain are not gargantuan warheads poised for global annihilation. You are not responsible for a hole in the ozone because for 24 years you have sprayed Right Guard on your nervous underarms, nor has your car farted hydrocarbons into the atmosphere that rain down acid on the earth like whirlwinds of ammonia in the atmosphere of Jupiter.

Williams’ short stories are truly funny en route to the horror, as there’s no one better at pointing out the grotesqueries (as Williams puts it) that surround us. And he sets up the horror brilliantly—there’s a minimum of Hollywood gore, and a maximum of dread of impending doom. He uses a minimalist style that depersonalizes his characters (demoting their speech to the rank of descriptions of scenery and driving routes). And he sets off the horror in his stories with his elegant prose. Writers will want to raid this book for a lot of terrific ways of getting things done.

I have a friend who reads this blog who tells me she’s waiting for me to post a novel with an uplifting story. If she hasn’t considered any of the novels I’ve reviewed so far uplifting, Gardens of Earthly Delight is probably not the place for her to start. The first story frightened my wife so badly that she couldn’t sleep for two nights after reading it.  She said the fear that overcame her was a general terror—a feeling that the world had suddenly gone unsafe, or that it had become unsafe at some point and she had just woken up to it.

Of course, my wife had just finished William Catton’s Overshoot when Gardens of Earthly Delight arrived in the mail. Overshoot is essentially a sociological work detailing what happens to populations that overcrowd their environment and start to run low on resources. My wife tells me that the symptoms Catton describes as marking the beginning of the end (the feeling that one’s fellow humans are beginning to get unbearable) are all there in Gardens, as if it were a case study for Catton’s work.

Now might be a good time to treat yourself to two good scares for Halloween.

Gardens of Earthly Delights by George Williams

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