James Hynes delivers tart comedy-inflected horror with a trio of novellas in ‘Publish and Perish’

May 12, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 12, 2016

In the fiction of James Hynes, academic politics is the conduct of warfare by other means. Characters regularly pursue vendettas against rivals by inviting (or not inviting) certain people to meetings or by giving their comments scant consideration. Bureaucracy is used to crush the spirit of those who fail to distinguish themselves or to suck up to the people in power, and few accomplishments are more prized than securing tenure.

I stumbled upon Next, Hynes’s fourth novel, in a secondhand bookstore last year. Ever since, I’ve been working my way through Hynes’s oeuvre: Soon after I encountered Next, which was published in 2010, I read his third novel, The Lecturer’s Tale, published in 1997. Just this week, I read Publish and Perish, a trio of horror novellas involving American academics.

The first entry in Publish and Perish, “Queen of the Jungle,” is the volume’s weakest entry. This is not because of any flaw with the plot or the writing but because the main character, a career-minded English professor named Paul, is such a despicable heel.

Although he may once have genuinely loved his wife, Elizabeth, his ardor seems to have been entirely subsumed by his jealousy over the divergent paths their careers have taken. Paul’s once-promising dissertation, which he had hoped to parlay into a book, lies in tatters after having been shredded by a critic; he’s a departmental nonentity at the Iowa state university where he’s drearily finishing up a postdoctoral fellowship, and he has no clear notion of where he might go next. By contrast, Elizabeth has become a rising star at a prestigious university in Chicago after her own dissertation was published and unexpectedly won a major prize.

Paul has recently begun — really, almost fallen into — an affair with an athletic young master’s degree student. The eponymous queen of the jungle is Charlotte, Paul and Elizabeth’s 10-year-old cat, who makes her displeasure over the affair known by acting out in a variety of ways that Paul finds increasingly annoying. Charlotte can’t tell Elizabeth, or even the pet psychic the couple hires, exactly what’s disturbing her, but her misbehavior becomes an ever-escalating hindrance to Paul, who’s pinning his career hopes on his wife’s winning tenure in Chicago and then getting him a job.

The rivalry between a man and an inarticulate house cat should be one-sided, but Charlotte keeps on finding ways to give Paul his comeuppance. The novella ends with a pair of nasty stings, and while it’s fitting that a person as mean-spirited as Paul would come to the pass that he does, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for him.

The main character of the second story, “99” — which begins on that very page, in a publishing trick that turns out to be too clever by half — is also thoroughly unlikeable: Gregory Eyck, a handsome and accomplished anthropologist at the University of the Midwest in Hamilton Groves, Minn., who has fallen into disgrace after a conference he convened about the killing of Captain Cook in Hawaii in 1779 was derailed by a controversy over the design of the conference poster. To make matters worse, the dispute was deliberately sparked by his lover, a Sri Lankan student, and it costs Eyck his engagement to “Gregory’s presumptive fiancée, a brilliant crusading feminist lawyer — who was, personally and professionally, the most suspicious person Gregory had ever met.”

This is all the setup for “99,” which takes place over the course of a few days after Eyck has largely completed his work in London as host of a British documentary series on “the cultural uses of archaeology.” (Eyck’s fiasco of a conference was attended by Martin Close, a gay BBC producer, who persuaded him to take a sabbatical to work on the project.)

Close — that surname will come to have a number of ominous connotations — urges Eyck to take a sabbatical from his sabbatical in Salisbury, which is near Stonehenge. But the proprietor of the bed-and-breakfast where Eyck is staying suggests that the American instead go visit Silbury, an obscure town with a similar but much less-well-known and more mysterious set of ruins. There, Eyck observes the local rituals with a wry detachment that continues up to and beyond the point where he realizes that he’s going to get an extremely inside view of the village’s annual festival.

The novella works better than “Queen of the Jungle” because Hynes excels at establishing an air of foreboding and because this tale’s career-minded academic seems more evenly matched with a collection of outwardly bland, mildly sinister villagers than the earlier story’s domestic cat. However, the plot is eminently predictable — almost nothing in it surprised me — and the effort to conclude the narrative on an ironic note fell flat in my eyes.

The strongest of the three novellas is the final one, “Casting the Runes,” a pastiche of a 1911 story of the same name by Victorian author M.R. James. The protagonist this time around is Virginia Dunning, who befriended Paul and Elizabeth (well — much more Elizabeth) when she was earning her doctoral degree in history at the University of the Midwest and who now teaches at Longhorn State University in Lamar, Texas. (I took Longhorn State to be a stand-in for the University of Texas, and Lamar to be a thinly disguised Austin.)

The tale begins when a stuffy older professor, Victor Karswell, demands that he be listed as lead author on a paper that was entirely conceived and written by Dunning. When she refuses, he scrawls what may be a runic death curse on her manuscript and hands it to her. After a number of peculiar events follow the contentious meeting, Dunning seeks help and ends up connecting with a woman who claims that her late husband, a former graduate student of Karswell’s, died after being targeted by one of the professor’s earlier jinxes.

No sooner has this woman, Beverly Harrington, started to tell Dunning that she can only undo the curse by returning the paper to Karswell than a small tornado suddenly appears in the young scholar’s living room:

A freezing gust blew up from the floor between them, and the manuscript shot up into the air.

Suddenly the room was full of wind and paper, a whirling vortex of gray newsprint and white manuscript pages. Before she lost it, Virginia saw her festschrift paper spinning in the air, its pages fluttering like wings from the single hinge of its staple. She yelped and leaped for it and missed, and the manuscript disappeared in the blizzard of pages flying about the room. She shouted wordlessly, spinning with the wind, scarcely able to see to the walls of the room. She batted at the papers in the air with her hands, trying to claw her way through them to the pages that mattered. The edges of sheets scraped along her arms, their corners stung her face around her eyes. She couldn’t see Beverly, but she could hear her roaring. The air beat with the flutter of paper, like a flock of birds. A sheet of newsprint plastered itself around her waist, and another one wrapped around her leg. Sam [the cat] hunkered into the cushions of the couch and hissed.

“Where is it?” she cried. “I can’t see it!”

“Don’t let it leave the room!” cried Beverly, baby doll no more, her voice booming like a Valkyrie’s.

Once Dunning accepts Harrington’s contention that she truly is the object of a curse, the two women attempt to hunt down the suddenly absent Karswell in order to reverse the sorcery. This requires an excursion to the University of the Midwest — in fact, to the very conference organized by “99’s” Gregory Eyck and foiled by his lover. The quest culminates in a fairly amusing caper that involves some gender-bending and a few encounters with some of the oddballs who populated the University of the Midwest in Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale (notably the quirky gender theorist Vita Deonne).

To my mind, “Casting the Runes” works better than its two companion novellas, at least in part because Dunning is far more sympathetic than the male academics featured in the other tales. The story is enjoyably punctuated by a pair of codas, one of which I found to be rather disquieting.

As a whole, unfortunately, Publish and Perish is not as substantial or enjoyable as either The Lecturer’s Tale or Next. I also think that the stories might have worked better had they been ordered differently: Some of the sting of “99” is blunted by Eyck’s being presented as a rather comical secondary character in the subsequent “Casting the Runes.” But unfortunately, the only way to have “99” begin on page 99 was to make it the second of the novellas; this little in-joke ultimately undercuts the book’s horror.

In the end, Publish and Perish is best enjoyed by high-brow horror fans or academics with a yen for tartly comic horror.

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