I’ll fully admit to being fairly self-absorbed, but fiction with a writer as its protagonist generally doesn’t interest me. The Lady With the Light by Mel Kassel was a pleasant and disturbing surprise.
Warning: I’m going to be thoroughly spoiling this excellent and unsettling short story.
Derek, the story’s protagonist is a writer, and the story itself is about narratives — specifically, how much we want to see ourselves as the hero rather than the victim.
I cottoned on to what the story’s titular Lady With the Light was before the protagonist. This made it all the more difficult to watch as he was drawn inexorably to not quite death, but certainly the end of his life as he knew it.
From the very beginning of the story, it’s clear that Derek is lost. He’s staying in a town where he feels out of place, writing a book he hates about a man he wants to be but doesn’t understand. He moves easily enough among the people he has come to know since moving to Hawaii, but only because he uses self-deprecating jokes and other people’s assumptions to crawl into the skin of a likeable but entirely fictitious person.
It’s only when the Lady With the Light appears that he gains a sense of purpose.
She drifts into his life with a “clotted” voice (excellent description, and entirely in line with the excellent narration provided by Jon Padgett), a lantern, and a skin-tight black dress. It took her second appearance for me to figure out that she was an angler fish.
Derek isn’t just intrigued — he’s energised. He writes ten pages in one sitting. His self-effacement is forgotten.
But this isn’t the only way that the Lady consumes him. After all, what is it angler fish do?
Even as she begins to physically absorb him, Derek loses himself in a different way. He imagines himself as Reggie Barnes, the detective protagonist in the novel he’s working on. The story he tells himself is that he’s the one with the upper hand. In his mind, he’s physically comforting a woman destroyed by her man abandoning her.
He holds her, marvelling at her size and how she envelops him. When she leaves, she takes part of him with her: his arms are wasted away where he touched her skin. For his part, Derek is surprisingly blasé about it. The description he gives us is horrific — more than enough to make me feel physically uncomfortable as I listened to the podcast.
But what was worse still was that he wasn’t aware of the extent of his body’s decay.
Even when the staff and other diners at his local hangout react in horror to the state of his arms, Derek’s reaction isn’t shock, or even denial (although denial is certainly part of that). It’s anger. He tries to shame the people who tell him he needs help, even as they try to reach out to him. Walking home, he notices people staring at him — and realises that they must have been staring before. He hadn’t noticed.
In the end, it turns out that the damsel in distress did indeed need help after her last husband left her. He sees the former husband’s mangled corpse, but it’s too late for him to look away from the light. As he recognises the Lady for what she is she absorbs him in what has to be the most fleshily claustrophobic scene I’ve ever encountered.
Derek is close to her heart. Literally so. Her need for him overwhelms him, destroys him, and causes him to disappear. He knows he’s still there — but he’s the only one.
Repulsive as it is, it isn’t the body horror in The Lady With the Light that was most disquieting for me. It was having to watch Derek, a man who didn’t seem extraordinarily troubled, head straight into the arms of someone (or something, rather) that was out to destroy him. It might not have been out of malice, but the ultimate results are the same.
But as obvious as the danger seems to those around him, it’s invisible to Derek. He not only doesn’t realise the risk, he actually experiences the connection as something empowering. He feels connected to the persona that he professed he didn’t understand at the beginning of the narrative. The thing that erases him feels to him like his salvation. Derek wears the skin of his hero even as his antagonist consumes his flesh. By the time he realises just how toxic the entanglement is, it’s too late to extricate himself.
It’s chilling to see, and suffocating to think about.