31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 13: “Firebugs” by Craig Davidson

From Cascade

Cascade by Craig Davidson

The first three paragraphs in Craig Davidson’s story “Firebugs” contain some of the best writing in any short story published in the last several years. It is worth looking at these paragraphs in their entirety to get a sense of their formal mastery.

There are shapes that only live in fire.

Hunger. That is fire’s basic drive. It is the purest, most incarnate hunger you can imagine. I’ve seen fire chew through lead girders: they soften and bend over backward like contortionists. I once saw a column of flame ripple up a sheet of aluminum siding so that it crinkled and contracted – the sound of ice cubes fracturing in a glass – and curled right up as if rolled by huge, invisible hands.

Fire will grunt and growl and come at you with the soft slithering of a snake. It’ll howl around blind corners like a pack of wolves, and gibber up from flame-eaten floorboards and reverberate in a million other strange ways besides. Sometimes it sounds like buzzard talons clawing across pebbled glass. Other times, it‘ll come for you silent as a ghost: a soft whisper of smoke curling back under a doorway, beckoning you to open it. That’s when it’s most dangerous – when it’s hiding its true face.

The opening declarative sentence sets the tone for what is to follow, as well as introducing the story’s central concern: fire and its peculiar properties. (This has, of course, already been indicated by the title, but Davidson wastes no time getting down to business in the story proper.)

The second paragraph opens by attributing to fire a condition – hunger – felt by humans and other living creatures. Fire, we are told, will “chew” through metal, it will “grunt and growl,” it will “howl” and “gibber,” it will roll up aluminum siding with its “huge, invisible hands” and make a sound like “buzzard talons.” All of this is in the service of characterizing the story’s principal antagonist – one of the most primal elements around – as a living entity, like a pack of wolves – something sentient and predatory. It is ravenous and deceptive enough to lie in wait for an unsuspecting person to release its pent-up energy; the point at which it hides its catastrophic potential is the point at which the danger is at its highest.

This line of argument will be picked up toward the story’s end, when the first-person narrator, an arson investigator named Blake Kennedy, explains the nature of a backdraft:

A strange thing will happen: the flames will drop, like a gas range turned down low. All you’ll see is the barest ripple, incandescent blue waves flickering over the floor. The fire has used up the oxygen, you see. It’s starving. But at the same time, it’s intensifying, each molecule tightening. It‘s finding just enough air to survive; and it’ll pull in that breath from under the doorway and around the windowsill. The fire’s a cockroach, doing anything it can to survive. … A backdraft is what happens when a sleeping fire awakens.

Here again we are presented with fire as a living thing, capable of starving and sleeping and waking. It is likened to a cockroach, one of the most resilient creatures on Earth, a master of survival and perseverance.

The detail in these passages is astonishing and typical of Davidson, who infuses his stories with dollops of information about whatever his subject might be. (The opening paragraph in his earlier story “Rust and Bone,” about a bare-knuckle boxer, is a precise meditation on the twenty-eight bones that make up the human hand.) Nothing about this is extraneous, and the author is too skilled for it to read as a mere information dump. In “Firebugs,” the material about fire’s specific properties and behaviour is woven inextricably into the narrative with a care and control that is remarkable.

In his new volume of nonfiction, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders posits that everything in a short story should serve a purpose. “Our working assumption,” Saunders writes, “is that nothing exists in a story by chance or merely to serve some documentary function.” As if to demonstrate what Saunders means, Davidson uses his granular observations about fire as markers for Blake – himself a former firebug and fire fighter who was forced out of the job after injuring his ankle. Blake’s knowledge of, not to say his affinity for, fire and all its habits individualizes him and draws him in clearer, crisper strokes that would otherwise be the case.

Like the other stories in Cascade, “Firebugs” is set in Cataract City, Davidson’s mythical version of Niagara Falls. In the story, Blake is investigating a new series of fires that appear to have been deliberately set. He is simultaneously concerned with and for his sister, who has been confined to a psychiatric facility, in part because of her own history with arson. The story’s structure follows a pattern of escalation, as the devastating fires consume more and more of the city, until the final pages begin to take on an almost apocalyptic mien.

But it is Blake’s obsession with fire that forms the backbone of the narrative and helps elevate it from a simple procedural mystery into something much more lively and intriguing. The description of what fire does to the bare feet of a woman running down a flight of stairs – fusing the skin of her feet to each step, removing successive layers as she proceeds, such that her feet physically shrink with every movement – is appalling and fascinating at once. As are the patently lyrical passages in the story, which advance toward poetry while always retaining a gritty realism:

Investigate enough arson cases, and you’ll understand just how reductive fire can be. It robs all things, be they natural or forged by human hand, of colour and texture. Objects either become light as ash or attain a shocking heaviness. Once, after a restaurant blaze, I‘d found a stack of skillets smelted into a solid mass, so heavy I couldn’t lift it. A vulcanized sheen drapes everything, as if it has been dipped in a pool of rubber at a tire factory. That breed of blackness hurts your eyes.

Davidson, who has written horror novels under the pseudonym Nick Cutter, is no stranger to violence in his fiction; in “Firebugs,” the violence is imbued in the language itself. The story’s syntax mirrors the behaviour of fire, simmering at the level of the floorboards before the author throws open a door and allows the words to blaze into life with a resounding WHOOMP!

The plot of “Firebugs,” while tightly constructed and viscerally exciting, is almost incidental. The pleasure in reading the story comes from an immersion in the language, and in witnessing a powerful storyteller in absolute control, and writing with the kind of abandon that only a real master can ever achieve.

31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 13: “Firebugs” by Craig Davidson