Thursday, September 24, 2009

World Fantasy Award Nominee: "Our Man in the Sudan"

"Our Man in the Sudan"
Sarah Pinborough
The Second Humdrumming Book of Horror Stories
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Best Short Story

Editor Stephen Jones described “Our Man in the Sudan” as “basically a zombie story in which the zombie NEVER appears. The whole horror unravels offstage through dialogue, hearsay and the reader filling in the gaps for themselves.” I kept that in mind when I read the story and it makes a difference. Maybe that’s a spoiler, but given the World Fantasy Award nomination and that Jones reprinted the story in his anthology The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20, there’s something happening below the surface of Sarah Pinborough’s story.

“Our Man in the Sudan” is part investigation, part look at the city of Khartoum*. The story opens with the line “I’d like to see the body”. Fanshawe is sent from London to Khartoum to investigate the death of MI6 agent Cartwright. In most cases we are only given last names as identifiers. It provides a bit of distance from the characters. Through Fanshawe the reader is initiated into the brutal heat of Sudan, the different level of formality, and some of the local mythology which informs the background of the story. That mythology also informs the core of the story because the background and setting is vital to “Our Man in the Sudan”. It’s the sense of place that Pinborough creates so vividly. The reader may not be able to picture each street or room, but the reader can feel the blistering and pervasive heat of Sudan, can taste the sand in her mouth, and can know exactly where they are. That’s one of Sarah Pinborough’s greatest successes with “Our Man in the Sudan.”

The deeper level of spookiness that pervades the story, beyond what Stephen Jones said about it, is that for so much of the story the reader never knows what happened to Cartwright. The death is written off as just a death, but Fanshawe has very strange messages from Cartwright prior to his death. It’s that feeling of knowing something is around the corner, but you don’t know exactly what.

At the very least “Our Man in the Sudan” is a fascinating look at the environs of Khartoum, but there is more than that. There is atmosphere and there is *something* going on. There are hints of what it is, but Pinborough never comes right out and tells the reader. That’s okay, because the story works.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Sarah Pinborough and Stephen Jones

A note on the availability of this story: If you want to read it, you’ll probably have to track down a copy of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20. “Our Man in the Sudan” was originally published in the The Second Book of Humdrumming Horror Stories in the UK, but Humdrumming has since gone out of business and the Humdrumming book may be a little difficult to track down. The Stephen Jones anthology should be quite a bit more available on both sides of the pond.

*This really has no place in any conversation or review of Sarah Pinborough’s excellent story, but I am absolutely unable to see the name Khartoum in print and not think of that scene from The Godfather with the horse’s head in the movie producer’s bed. Also, there is something about the spelling and pronunciation of Khartoum that makes the city sound ominous. It’s the capital of Sudan and is likely not at all ominous (beyond any civil unrest or political troubles the nation already has), but I cannot escape the bias that there is something spooky about Khartoum. It’s something built-in that I bring to any story set in the city and while Pinborough wrote in the introduction to the story that she wanted to “create a photograph of a city that [she] loved very much as a child”, my reading and viewing experiences brought an inherent spookiness to “Our Man in the Sudan” that enhanced the story.

This is completely besides the point of the story and the conversation, but it influenced my reading of the story.

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