Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson
It's a short one, so if you haven't read it yet, you could read it right now and be back in no time.
Like a lot of works, this one primarily speaks though a subtext within it's fantastical circumstances. We have a subtext going on here that talks about abuse and neglect. Is it effective in conjuring up relatability to the real world?
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The reason schoolkids read Born of Man and Woman even now, 70 years after it was published in a pulp sci fi magazine, is its masterful use of point-of-view. The actual content of the piece is very spare - there's something that lives in the basement, its parents are terrified of it, it has a little sister that's normal, the situation is untenable. With lesser presentation it would be unremarkable. As it is, the rigid commitment to the viewpoint of the "thing under the stairs" requires the reader to puzzle out a mystery and a mood through sparse and pointed first-person narrative.
The core issue of Born of Man and Woman is "how human is this thing?" We know a few things:
- It can read ("It says on it SCREENSTARS").
- It cannot cry, but it can drip.
- It knows only humans, and it knows them only in terms of its father and mother.
- It does not appreciate life vs. death.
- It is growing progressively stronger.
- It is eight years old.
- It knows - it is constantly reminded - it is ugly.
- It grows impatient with its fate.
- Shit's about to get real ("I will screech and laugh loud. I will run on the walls. Last I will hang head down by all my legs and laugh and drip green all over until they are sorry they didn’t be nice to me").
The story needs no context, but context emphasizes how remarkable it is: Russia had just dropped an atomic bomb. The idea of horrible mutations were front and center because suddenly America didn't have a nuclear monopoly. Fuchs, Greenglass and the Rosenbergs were arrested and McCarthy was talking about "enemies within." Meanwhile, mental health was at an absolute nadir. Insulin comas, electroconvulsive therapy and involuntary hydrotherapy were just coming into public knowledge, as was our nasty tendencies of locking people up and never talking about them again. Transorbital lobotomies didn't exist in the United States in 1946; by 1951 the number was near 19,000.
Born of Man and Woman is a cry from the heart of alienation shouted by a 22-year-old kid who had never sold anything before. He then proceeded to write everything. The subtext is "what is human" from an era when everyone was demanding answers to that question from everyone else. Stanley Kramer asked that question by posing it about an upright lawman abandoned by his town. Matheson asked it by posing it about a creature with an unknown number of legs.