Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Casual Shorts: Stephen King, Here There Be Tygers

King, Stephen. "Here There Be Tygers." Ubris, Spring 1968.
______. Skeleton Crew. NY: Putnam's, June 1985.

For a concise bibliography, please visit the ISFdb.

Be There any Tigers, in "Here There Be Tygers"?

(In which I argue that there is no actual tiger in the story.)

In Stephen King's early short story, "Here There Be Tygers," third-grader Charles must brave a trip to the school's basement washroom. There he encounters a large, hungry-looking tiger, and is forced to decide between risking his life in order to urinate, or face social stigma through any other option, such as wetting himself or using the girls' washroom. Sprinkled with light humour and soft suspense, the story is a reflection of pre-teen angst, and the titular feline is a hallucinatory manifestation of those complex emotions.

King provides the reader with many clues as to the nature of this beast. He employs a hyper-realist narrative to contrast with Charles's hallucination, as Charles's powerful emotions, his fear of humiliation and public shame, heighten the details of this brief encounter. The logo of the hand dryer stands out, the sensation of the empty tacks on the bulletin board, the details of the school notices, etc. This heightened detail informs us that Charles is not in a dream, that his experience is not surreal or internal, but that these events are taking place in the concrete world. It is important also to note that these experiences, and Charles's casual observations, are very much those of a third grader. Important because the angst too is that of a pre-teen.

The realism is heightened by Charles's perceptions, and his experiences are elevated by his anxiety. What he sees and what he experiences externally are consistently interspersed with what he is experiencing internally. King even slips in a number of parenthetical comments and italics to allow the outside world to intermingle with Charles's internal one ("(urinate she'll say urinate she always does)"). The walk from his desk to the classroom door is lengthened to a football field as his anxiety increases, with all eyes on him, amid snickering and the embarrassment of his teacher, Mrs. Bird, using the word "urinate."

The most obvious clue to the fact that the tiger lives only in Charles's imagination, is found in the story's title. The title may be an allusion to William Blake's "The Tyger," (1794) borrowing its original spelling. This too would be appropriate as Blake's poem focuses on loss of innocence and influence of a corrupt society (though in a religious context). Blake's earlier, innocent lamb is threatened by the awakening of the ambiguous tyger, a beautiful yet threatening beast, just as Charles's own innocence is being replaced by a more self-aware tiger, a self dangerously aware of the social world in which he lives.

In addition, there is a level of irony in the title. The statement with its awkward wording claims there are tigers (plural) in this story, and yet there aren't any, or at least no "tigers" in its appropriate spelling. The "tygers" are instead the metaphors for Charles's angst. The awkward wording is an allusion to the signs of old, used to warn travellers of dangers ahead. And any third-grader will have many dangers ahead, as he or she navigates their social environment.

Yet what of the tiger's two victims, classmate Kenny Griffen and teacher Mrs. Bird? Though they appear to encounter the tiger, there is no evidence of their demise, nor even of an encounter. When Kenny enters the washroom and heads around the corner to where the lion should be, Charles waits for the scream, and yet "[t]here was no scream." And while she is aptly named for a victim of a feline, Mrs. Bird also does not scream. The only apparent evidence is something blue which Charles spots in the tigers claw, after Kenny has entered the washroom, but we are never even told of the colour of the classmates clothing. Furthermore, there are no sounds whatsoever, no growls or leaps or tearing of clothes and fresh. Though Charles anticipates vocal drama, he is instead met with silence. For a story, and a protagonist, so steeped in minutiae, in the details of waking realism, the major detail of the story, the titular tiger's attack, is entirely mute.

Finally, to address the most obvious question: How did the tiger get into the washroom? Very simply,  as mentioned the tiger is a manifestation, or perhaps even a physical materialization, of third grade anxieties, and appears as a result of the emphasis the children place on the washroom ("the basement!"). It is as though the children, and not just Charles, make up a pre-pubescent cabal that summons the tyger to this dreadful space, made sacred and terrible at once. Just as in Blake's poem, the purpose of the tiger lies in its fearful symmetry, in its terrifyingly powerful presence.

For more Wednesday short stories, please visit Patti Abbot's blog.

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