His short stories are not given the attention they deserve, and yet they are often just as memorable and prolific.
The Fiend is a story about murder, vengeance and friendship. It is the tale of man bordering on brink of obsession when it comes to getting any kind of revenge for the murder of his wife and child.
It is also about humanity and our ability to forgive and look beyond the evil in the deepest depths of man. On the other end of the spectrum you have the person guilty of such deeds, and how some of them are also capable of redemption.
Overall it is about the ability of man to create a new kind of relationship, despite the darkest of deeds.
On June 3, 1895, on a country road near Stillwater, Minnesota, Mrs. Crenshaw Engels and her seven year old son, Mark, were waylaid and murdered by a fiend, under circumstances so atrocious that, fortunately, it is not necessary to set them down here.
The husband and father, Crenshaw Engels, was a photographer in Stillwater.
He was a great reader and considered “a little unsafe,” for he had spoken his mind frankly about the railroad-agrarian struggles of the time—but no one denied that he was a devoted family man,
The catastrophe hung over the town and the Engels home for many months following the insidious crime. The townspeople wanted to see the Fiend hung, drawn and quartered for his crime.
There was a move to lynch the perpetrator of the horror, for Minnesota did not permit the capital punishment it deserved, but the instigators were foiled.
Only foiled by the fact the walls of the prison are high, hard and impenetrable. So the towns need to quench their thirst for revenge.
The cloud hung over Engel’s home so that folks went there only in moods of penitence, of fear or guilt, hoping that they would be visited in turn should their lives ever chance to trek under a black sky.
Crenshaw’s photography studio also suffered. The painful and awkward silences were bad enough, but the customers wanting a permanent memory of their happy times, felt uncomfortable at the sight of Crenshaw’s prematurely aged features.
Crenshaw’s business fell off and he went through a time of hardship—finally liquidating the lease, the apparatus and the good will.
He found himself a position as a salesclerk in a department store.
In the sight of his neighbours he had become a man ruined by adversity, a man manqué, a man emptied. But in the last opinion they were wrong—he was empty of all save one thing. His memory was long as a Jew’s, and though his heart was in the grave he was sane as when his wife and son had started on their last walk that summer morning.
Crenshaw was driven by his pain and anguish. He wanted the Fiend dead, and believe you me he tried really hard to kill him.
At the first trial he lost control and got at the Fiend, seizing him by the necktie—and then had been dragged off with the Fiend’s tie in such a knot that the man was nearly garroted.
Not to be deterred, Crenshaw tried again, but this time using the legal options open to a man in his situation. He demanded the death penalty be introduced.
At the second trial Crenshaw cried aloud once. Afterwards he went to all the members of the state legislature in the county and handed them a bill he had written himself for the introduction of capital punishment in the state—the bill to be retroactive on criminals condemned to life imprisonment
When the bill fell through he decided to arm himself and sneak into the penitentiary, he was stopped just before he managed to shoot the Fiend.
Crenshaw was given a suspended sentence and it was generally assumed that he had come to his sense and gotten over his grief.
In fact when he presented himself to the warden in another role a year after the crime, the official was sympathetic to his statement that he had had a change of heart
felt he could only emerge from the valley of shadow by forgiveness, that he wanted to help the Fiend, show him the True Path by means of good books and appeals to his buried better nature.
Crenshaw’s plan was to wreak upon the Fiend a mental revenge to replace the physical one of which he was subducted.
When he faced the Fiend:
“All your life you’ll pace up and down stinking in that little cell, with everything getting blacker and blacker. And after that there’ll be hell waiting for you. For all eternity you’ll be shut in a little space, but in hell it’ll be so small that you can’t stand up or stretch out.” ‘Will it now?’ replied the Fiend
The Fiend doesn’t really seem convinced or frightened by the threats Crenshaw spews forth. He doubts the man can punish him in any way.
“You’ll be alone with your own vile thoughts in that little space, forever and ever and ever. You’ll itch with corruption so that you can never sleep, and you’ll always be thirsty, with water just out of reach.” ‘Will I now?’ replied the Fiend.
Crenshaw is like a dog with a bone. He is convinced he will be able to torture and torment the animal who killed his family.
“You’ll be like a person just about to go crazy but can’t go crazy. All the time you’ll be thinking that it’s forever and ever.”
Crenshaw had brought books with him for the Fiend to read, and had arranged for him to receive nothing but the reading material he brought him.
Crenshaw brought the Fiend books, which contained the most vicious atrocities, the darkest words and every example of man’s depravity. He even brought him four exceptional novels with inspiring titles, which turned out to have nothing but blank pages inside them.
They comprised a German doctor’s thousand case histories of sexual abnormality—cases with no cures, no hopes, no prognoses, cases listed cold; a series of sermons which pictured the tortures of the damned in hell; a collection of horror stories; He also brought with him a collection of erotic and detective stories from which he had ripped the the last two pages of each story, as he had done with all the other stories.
Always he brought with him something somber and menacing to say, something dark and terrible to read. Indeed not a ray of sunshine in sight, but then that is entirely the intention.
I have to say this would be pretty much extreme bookworm torture for me. Ripping the last few pages out of each story. Arrgh!
Another time, pretending to concede a point, he promised to bring newspapers—he brought ten copies of the yellowed journal that had reported the crime and the arrest. there was no sewer of the publishing world from which he did not obtain records of all that was gross and vile in man.
After five years of this type of torture Crenshaw decided to try a different tact.
He built up false hopes in the Fiend with protests of his own change of heart and manoeuvres for a pardon, and then dashed the hopes to pieces.
Crenshaw would pretend to have the ends to a means to him, in the form of some kind of life-ending device. A gun, a knife or some poison.
Once he threw a dummy bottle into the cell and listened in delight to the screams as the Fiend ran back and forth waiting for the explosion.
Other times Crenshaw would pretend that a new legislature had been passed that allowed for the execution of the Fiend within the next few hours. And so the days, months, years and decades passed. With Crenshaw spending all his energy on breaking the Fiend, and the Fiend resisting his efforts.
he was white at fifty when the alternating routine of his fortnightly visits to the graves of his loved ones and to the penitentiary had become the only part of his life
The Fiend had gotten to the point where he wished Crenshaw would make good on his promises. He was weary of the torment and eager for a release of some kind. At the same time Crenshaw was also ready to end the very strange relationship, and a relationship it certainly is.
it became more and more plain to him that the time had come to put an end to the Fiend; to avoid any mischance by which the other would survive him.
Thirty years had come and gone by this time. Crenshaw knew it was time to kill the Fiend before he himself died, so one day he made good on his many promises and smuggled a weapon into the prison.
He found the Fiend scrunched up on his cot, bowed over in pain. He refused to stand up and take the punishment Crenshaw had decided to impose upon him.
“I’m sick,” the Fiend said. “My stomach’s been burning me up all morning. the Fiend moved himself, only to fall on his side on the cement floor. He groaned and then lay quiet for a minute, after which, still bent in two, he began to drag himself a foot at a time toward the bars.
Crenshaw set off at a run down the corridor to fetch help for the Fiend. He demanded the prisoner be seen by the prison doctor at once. All that afternoon Crenshaw waited in the bare area inside the gates, walking up and down with his hands behind his back.
“He’s dead,” the Warden said. “His appendix burst. They did everything they could.”
“Dead,” Crenshaw repeated. “So he’s dead.”
The Warden apologised to Crenshaw, indeed everyone at the prison had nothing but admiration for the man and his perseverance. He asked Crenshaw to give him back the pass with which he entered the prison daily.
“One thing more,” Crenshaw demanded as the Warden turned away. “Which is the—the window of the infirmary?”
He wished to look upon the face of The Fiend once more. The face that had haunted his sleep every night since the murders. The same face he had seen every day for the last thirty years, the person who had become a companion to him without Crenshaw even being aware of it.
Crenshaw still stood there a long time, the tears running out down his face. He could not collect his thoughts and he began by trying to remember what day it was; Saturday, the day, every other week, on which he came to see the Fiend.
During the long days, months and years, the two men had developed an unusual type of relationship. With one using the other to be able to act out his vengeance and wallow in his self-pity, and the other who started to embrace the thought of being punished and thereby redeemed for his murderous deeds.
In a misery of solitude and despair he muttered aloud: “So he is dead. He has left me.” And then with a long sigh of mingled grief and fear, “So I have lost him—my only friend—now I am alone. I’m alone. At last—at last I am alone.”
Once more he called upon the Fiend after a few weeks. It’s difficult to give up the habit of almost an entire lifetime.
“But he’s dead,” the Warden told him kindly.
“Oh, yes,” Crenshaw said. “I guess I must have forgotten.”
And he set off back home, his boots sinking deep into the white diamond surface of the flats.
Alone with no purpose left in life. His family long dead and the realisation that the man he thought he hated had instead become a friend to him. In the end Crenshaw needed the Fiend just as much as the Fiend needed him
Interesting, eh? Dark, oppressive and and yet there is a spark of something one would wager to call humanity. The thought of redemption. The conviction that we can grow to forgive, love and befriend those, who have done the most damage to our psyche, soul and body.
Would you forgive? Could you befriend? Do you think such an intense need for vengeance can slowly morph into a friendship, albeit a very unusual one?
Download and read The Fiend, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Great Gatsby or Jacob’s Ladder at Feedbooks. Or The Beautiful and the Damned, Flappers and Philosophers, Tales of the Jazz Age, or This Side of Paradise at the Internet Archive.
Alternatively you can listen to Bernice Bobs her Hair, Winter Dreams or Dalyrimple goes Wrong at Librivox. Read and download The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Jelly-Bean, The Age of Reason, The Camel’s Back, Nosferatu, In the Dark, A Bucket of Corman, An Aging Vampire or House of Mystery free right here on the blog.