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The law of unintended consequences: “The Fly” by George Langelaan

Dark Voices: The Best from the Pan Book of Horror Stories
George Langelaan’s story is a cautionary tale about scientific overreach and unintended consequences

First published in Playboy in 1957, George Langelaan’s short story, “The Fly,” exists at the nexus of horror and science fiction. Though it may seem strange to call it science fiction in 2020, since so much of the technology in the story is so obviously dated. The story focuses on a scientist who has discovered a way to disintegrate matter and reintegrate it in another place, potentially signalling “the end of all means of transport, not only of goods including food, but also of human beings.”

In David Cronenberg’s celebrated 1986 film adaptation of Langelaan’s story, protagonist Seth Brundle has developed pods that look like a cross between Medieval torture chambers and intergalactic spaceships. “Designer phone booths,” says skeptical journalist Ronnie derisively. There is nothing “designer” about the devices in Langelaan’s story, which are actual 1950s’ era phone booths. This situates the story firmly in its postwar moment, as does the opening paragraph, which can’t help but come across as somewhat quaint from the perspective of our smartphone-besotted 21st century:

Telephones and telephone bells have always made me uneasy. Years ago, when they were mostly wall fixtures, I disliked them, but nowadays, when they are planted in every nook and corner, they are a downright intrusion. We have a saying in France that a coalman is master in his own house; with the telephone that is no longer true, and I suspect that even the Englishman is no longer king in his own castle.

The speaker here is François, the first-person narrator, who is being roused in the middle of the night by his sister-in-law to inform him that she has just killed her husband, François’s brother. Langelaan uses a framing structure in his story, with François’s first-person sections bookending an extended middle section that comprises a manuscript written by Hélène, the sister-in-law, purporting to explain what drove her to kill her husband, André.

David Cronenberg’s film adaptation was a baroque metaphor for hubris and bodily decay

The effect of the framing structure is to distance the reader and create a self-consciously literary experience. Introducing the story for the 1990 anthology Dark Voices: The Best from the Pan Book of Horror Stories, Cronenberg remarks on the staid nature of Langelaan’s narrative, so different in tone from his own intense interpretation:

I was immediately struck by how polite and Victorian – and yes, stodgy – in tone the writing was. Though dealing with madness, murder, suicide, and mutilation, Langelaan is never out of control, and neither are his characters; logic is the ruling principle – a strange approach to what is truly a very grotesque and provocative premise.

Cronenberg would of course mine the premise for all its grotesqueness and provocation, turning the story of the scientist who accidentally swaps his head and right arm with the head and limb of a common housefly into a baroque metaphor for hubris and bodily decay. “To me the film is a metaphor for aging, a compression of any love affair that goes to the end of one of the lover’s lives,” Cronenberg has said. “Every love story must end tragically.”

Not that these themes are not present in Langelaan’s story – which is ultimately about the lengths a wife will go to because she loves her husband – but they are much closer to the surface. Much more faithful to Langelaan’s source material was the 1958 film version, directed by Kurt Neumann and with a screenplay by James Clavell. Neumann’s film contains precise details from the story, including the physical presentation of the doctor following his accident and the shot of the fly trapped in the spider’s web (though, as Cronenberg points out, the classic line “Help me, please help me” is not in the story).

Kurt Neumann’s 1958 adaptation was more faithful to Langelaan’s story

“The Fly” is an example of horror that arises out of a distrust of science and a suspicion of the unintended consequences unbridled scientific inquiry might result in. This is true right from that opening paragraph, explicating François’s animus toward the telephone, by then a ubiquitous technological implement, as well as Hélène’s method of killing her ailing husband (she crushes his head and arm beneath an industrial steam hammer). André’s obsession with perfecting his teleportation technology is what leads to his downfall – it literally turns him into a monster. Hélène, by contrast, is a religious woman who accedes to her husband’s wishes out of love for him but then prays that her belief in an afterlife is incorrect, for to live with the knowledge of what her husband had become would be too agonizing:

I who had ever been a true Catholic, who believed in God and another, better life hereafter, have today but one hope: that when I die, I really die, and that there may be no afterlife of any sort because, if there is, then I shall never forget! Day and night, awake or asleep, I see it, and I know that I am condemned to see it forever, even perhaps unto oblivion!

Langelaan’s story is less effective than Kafka’s The Metamorphosis because he exteriorizes the experience. Whereas Kafka plunges his readers into Gregor Samsa’s existential terror with no means of escape, Langelaan allows his reader to absorb the story at two removes: that of François, the first-person narrator, reading Hélène’s manuscript in retrospect, after the events she relates have transpired and André is already dead. Hélène has been committed to an insane asylum by the authorities, who assume that she was out of her mind when she murdered her husband. Whether or not he truly believes she is mad, the police commissioner who reads the account chooses to believe that it supports a diagnosis of insanity rather than countenance idea that the outlandish story she unfolds might in fact be true.

The style of Langelaan’s story prevents it from being truly terrifying, though its concerns with the horrific consequences of scientific overreach and the fine line between love and madness elevate it above a mere trifle. As Cronenberg suggests, “the story hums along like a perfectly functioning, inexorable little machine whose most telling moments come later, in the middle of the night, when it buzzes around your ears, wakes you up, and refuses to be swatted so that you can go back to sleep.“

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