The Sloan Men

The Sloan Men by David Nickle

What is the source of the horror in this text?

In my classes, I often start literature discussions with a bubble-headed ingenuous question just to get the ball rolling. So there. (Stand back! Associate adjunct professor at work.) (<– actually my rank)

17 Responses “The Sloan Men” →
  1. For me, the horror of the text begins with Mrs. Sloan’s nubs. I have a hard time fighting the urge to associate deformity with horror; it seems natural. But, I’m the type of person that loves to be horrified. If something is deformed, peculiar, or down right grotesque I want to be in the front row for it. What is striking about this story is that the horror slowly creeps in and unveils itself, and the characters respond and react to it differently. It begins harmlessly enough with the horror of meeting future in-laws. I like how the author is able to speak to the universal and natural fear of meeting your mother in-law for the first time. I love the bait-and-switch when Judith has the expectation that the photo album is going to be full of Herman’s baby pictures. And, I feel that it’s in that first glance of the first polaroid that illustrates our natural tendency to take a second, deeper look and revisit something horrible:

    “Mrs. Sloan opened the album again, and pointed at the polaroid on the first page. Judith wanted to look away, but found that she couldn’t.”

    The source of the horror of the text, for me, is in the compulsion to stay and continually return to horror. Like, Judith and Mrs. Sloan we are both entranced and entrapped by it. What’s frightening is entrapment without escape, or even, the thought of being so immersed in the horror that it becomes veiled in beauty to the extent that we lose the impulse to turn away.

    Are you guys conflicted by horror in that way?

    • I’m hoping to sit and reread the story today. Everything’s scattered with my schedule.

      But I like what you say about the horror of meeting the in-laws. Although it’s interesting that we get the “stumps” before we know what the situation is. In other words, it’s not a build up from the normal anxiety of meeting in-laws to discovering whatever the Sloan men are.

      Also, your comments reminded me of the “standard” distinctions between terror and horror. That terror is psychological, while horror has to do with the body. If we’re interested in discussing any of that, I’ll try to look back at some sources.

      The comment about deformity and horror reminds me of Cronenberg’s work, especially his earlier work often referred to as “body horror.” He seems to have stepped away from this lately.

      I’ll have to think about the last part a little more.

  2. **** Not for School or Work****

    Found this:

    It’s worth watching just to see some sweet Margot Kidder action.

  3. I have a few questions for Kelly:

    1. Where did you first read this piece? How did you find it?
    2. Why did you suggest it for us to read?

    That said, I enjoyed reading this. It was fun to be in that familiar territory of the genre, but not knowing how the story was going to play out. I used to read a lot of horror literature, but haven’t in quite some time.

    I’ll have some more substantive comments soon.


  4. Kelly Coyle

    May 8, 2013

    1. I believe it showed up on BoingBoing (or something like it). Perhaps another acted version is being made. It was from there to an Internet search which provided the whole text.

    2. No real good reason. I was trying to offer a range of short pieces (fiction/nonfiction/theory/hibrow/lowbrow/old/new) so as to not get “stuck” right off the bat. I think I picked it out of the list precisely *because* it is kind of a low-commitment, easy read.

    Still, I like it too. I think it succeeds for me because the Sloan men aren’t the horror, the sex and the fingers aren’t the horror. The horror is Judith’s decision for me.

    • I’ve taken several pages of notes and when I can, I will add to the reading group here. Hopefully, by taking a little more time, I’ll be able to be clear and concise, even while running down some dead ends.

      Kelly, because I sorta understand some of your interests, I couldn’t help but read the story as a simulacrum story. That Judith and Mrs. Sloan destroy the “root” of the illusion (like destroying the Matrix or the planet Solaris [?]—I may be out of my league here).

      I think the horror of the story is her decision to stay with the monster who had basically controlled and abused her. I get the feeling from the story that she is making the decision herself, which is the disturbing part about it. In the filmed version it’s clear that Herman is still controlling her, which I don’t think is as deeply disturbing.

      So then Judith’s choice is the true “monster” crouched inside the monster story. The surface-level genre elements are the illusion of the monstrous, while her decision-making (existential choice? [too much?]) is the true monster.


  5. Kelly Coyle

    May 9, 2013

    Me too. It is creepy if she is choosing based on her own free will — not that people don’t make these sorts of choices all the time. If he’s still controlling her, then it’s a monster story.

    The emotional response of “creeped out” is the key, right? Different than fantasy, adventure, crime, or other nearby genres.

    A former student asked me (out of the blue) to talk about the relation of horror and detective novels. I think it is pertinent (and I did, indeed, have a number of disclaimers attached: I am not a genre fiction expert!):

    Well (I am making this up), I’d say both horror and detective fiction are descended from the gothic — an innocent encounters potentially self-compromising moral complexity, and has to try to stay true to him- or herself while dealing with whatever monsters are present.

    I think classic DF (I am thinking of Chandler, whose books I just put in a box yesterday) is about an honorable person having to decide how to manage that honor in less than honorable circumstances. Can they stay true to themselves? Can the innocent stay innocent? I’m not sure Lovecraft (e.g.) is really the same thing. I just reread a lot of the short stories last summer. Lovecraft is kind of an inversion of fairy-tales. The stories are about the intrusion, not about the p.o.v. character’s struggle. I might not call Lovecraft horror, although that’s obviously, for historical reasons, wrong.

    So, I might try to distinguish between horror stories and monster stories according to whether the focus is on the moral choice of the p.o.v. character, versus the intrusion of a monster.

    • Isn’t Poe the connective figure here?

      In the past, my students have read Poe short stories during the summer and one of the writing assignments I have them do after we read “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is to think about what makes detective fiction so popular, especially on TV today, given the horror at its core.

      I would think that works like Seven or Silence of the Lambs blur these distinctions.

      I’m not a genre expert either.

    • Interesting article on Lovecraft:

      “Rather than placing Lovecraft in “horror” or “science fiction,” Luckhurst places him in the category of the “Weird.” As Luckhurst describes it, the Weird is that group of “strange or unsettling stories — sometimes supernatural, sometimes not … [T]he weird concerns liminal things, in-between states, transgressions always on the verge of turning into something else,” a set of fiction which became a distinct subgenre beginning in the 1880s and which includes authors ranging from Coleridge to China Miéville.”


      “Lovecraft did not create cosmic horror. He recreated it. Lovecraft desacralized cosmic horror, reinterpreting it through the lens of modern scientific theory and removing its Victorian moral assumptions. What Lovecraft created was a specifically twentieth century idea: the universe as an empty, materialist one, in which there is no spiritual meaning to any actions and in which human existence is not significant in any way. This idea has been enormously influential on creators of fantastic fiction, and is Lovecraft’s lasting legacy.”

  6. Names

    I realize that some of the following isn’t going to work for everybody and that’s fine. This is fun for me. “But, did the author mean that?” (I get asked this all the time in my classes.) My answer is “I don’t know and I don’t particularly care.” Anyway…

    I like how Herman is “Her man.” Also, Herman Munster immediately came to mind. I know that’s kind of silly, but I like these kinds of connections. I hate coming up with titles and names and I probably spend too long thinking about it, but I don’t deny a connection like “Herman Munster.” I named a character after Bertrand Russell and Bert and Ernie. His first and middle names are “Bertrand Ernie.” I don’t think I actually typed the names together like that, so my awful joke wasn’t obvious.

    “Judith” has several definitions: “He will be praised,” “Praise,” and is a feminine version of “Jew.” Obviously, that first one has overtones for the story. In the Book of Judith, Judith ingratiates herself to King Holofernes in order to kill him and save Israel. While the stakes are different, at least at the level of the story, Nickle’s Judith does something like attempt to deceive the king (Herman), but elects to stay with him rather than save herself. Or maybe it’s like she kills him, but elects to stay with the corpse. Either way, it’s similar to the Apocryphal Judith; she just isn’t saved (and doesn’t save others) at the end.

    Some tenuous connections here, but interesting to a certain type of reader. The name “Fenlan” stuck with me for some reason. “Fenland” is a city or district in England and I couldn’t find an actual city named “Fenlan.” The fens or fenlands are marshes, or moors, in England. I guess what’s interesting there to me is that in English literature the moors are the home of Grendel, Heathcliff, the Baskerville “Hound,” etc. The organic, wet qualities of the Sloan root (Brain? Scrotum? Scrot-Brain?) come to mind and that they are found in ruins on seemingly flat farmland.

    The term “Fenian” has a long tradition of standing for Irish warrior sects or revolutionaries. David Nickle is Canadian and an interesting historical item is that the American branch of the Fenian Brotherhood attempted an invasion of Canada. Evidently they wanted to hold Canada hostage, much of which was still under British rule, in order to free Ireland from English rule.
    At some point I do want to talk about what the Sloans seem to be accomplishing. If it is a revolt, it’s a slow–I want use the word “vegetable” and its older meanings and connotations here, revolution. If it is even that.

    I do think that it’s interesting that there are issues of revolt and freedom in the histories of these names and that those ideas are present in the story. Mrs. Sloan’s true freedom never comes true. It’s also interesting that she, if I remember correctly, is the only one who really thinks about freedom [When Judith envisions it she immediately thinks of Herman (her man) and then thinks of her father calling her “a little whore”] and she envisions that as moving and looking for a job. Point blank when Judith is asked what she will do with her freedom she says, “I don’t know.”

    Honestly, I couldn’t find much with this one. I like that. Maybe it’s a portmanteau of “slither” and “stone.” I don’t know. I found “Sloane” in the urban dictionary and it seemed to most often mean something like an equivalent to the American “Valley Girl,” but it also was said to mean “an amazing lady” or “pimp,” and so instead of facing down something like Freud’s “canny/uncanny” paradox I just let it go.


  7. Kelly Coyle

    May 9, 2013

    My most recent poetry teacher, a fellow by the name of Thomas Smith, has a pretty elaborate theory of vowel sounds in poems which, I suspect, is just what he hears. It’s a great theory, though, in the sense that he teaches you to pay attention to the constellation of vowels in a piece. Anyway, like Thomas, what I’m claiming probably only applies to me:

    “Sloan” strikes me as an “underneath” word, low, underground. Mud, mushrooms, clumps of sticky grass.

    I did the same research as Clurg — well, much more limited. Amongst all the Sloan business schools (Sloans seem to be attracted to finance), and the occasional Internet babe named Sloan (Shellie!), is my favorite Sloan, Sloan, IN, extinct city.


  8. Kelly Coyle

    May 9, 2013

    Slow, slither, slide, slip, slurp, slay, slaad, slurry, slink.

    Low, gloaming, gloom, mow, slow, toe.

    Bone, done, moan, stone.

    • One of the most difficult aspects of poetry to teach students is how sound relates to sense. Some students tell me that words do not have stresses. It’s easy to hear they do, simply reverse the stresses in your name; it changes how we hear the word. (I also expose them to Anglo-Saxon and Middle English so they can hear the differences in those languages and how we react to them.)

      My students haven’t had much background in thinking about language in this way. We’re an eye culture more than an ear culture, so I never really get into what your teacher was talking about. While I’ve never had a system for sounds, I’ve met folks that do and I like those ideas.
      Kelly, your associations with the sound of “Sloan” go right with the “fen” or “moor” idea in “Fenlan” being the home of the Sloans. Nickle made a perfect choice with the name, I think.

      The extinct town is too good to be true! I tried to find a town named “Sloan” and couldn’t find any.

      Totally off topic: I just heard Randy Jackson on Sesame Street say, “That’s some hot glockenspiel playing right there!”

  9. Since there hasn’t been much action here in a few days, I’ll offer a few thoughts—not as in depth as I had originally intended, but I don’t think we’ll need all that any way. I think Eric has a suggestion for the next read. It’s a Neil Gaiman story and I’m good with that, especially since I almost hate to admit, I’ve never read his work. I have read his blog, though, which just seems weird and wrong. (Not his blog, but the idea that I’ve read his blog and not his work.) What do you think, Kelly (and anyone else who wishes to join us here)?


    “If Judith hadn’t been looking, she wouldn’t have noticed anything strange about Mrs. Sloan’s hand.”

    “Try as she might, Judith couldn’t read the woman, and she had always prided herself on being able to see through most people at least half way.”

    “Judith wanted to look away, but found she couldn’t.”

    “open the album again—That’s the only way I can tell it.”

    “we can’t even see them for what they are”

    And the “roped-off scriptorium” that is also “deserted”

    Of course, anything that is read and has overtones of reading and/or looking gets meta pretty fast. You could say Judith can’t “read” Herman the way she prides herself on reading others. I guess Mrs. Sloan’s horror can be seen by looking—the replaced fingers. Herman’s monstrousness can’t be detected by looking and reading—by Judith. It does seem that her parents detect something wrong with him as soon as they meet him, but we’re not given the details on what they actually see. I think the “deserted” and “roped-off” scriptorium are symbolic of Judith being unable to read Herman (or write his story?).

    The only way that Mrs. Sloan can tell the story and allow Judith to see the Sloan men for what they are is through the photographs. For Plato, we would be removed once again from reality into a deeper fiction or falsehood. Recently though, I read someone say something like, “Nonfiction is about being true, but fiction is about truth.” So, in a way, the photographs (arranged chronologically, no less, like a story [“the only way I can tell it”]) allow the Sloan women to get to the truth of the Sloan men.

    Another aspect of the photo album that’s interesting to me is that it then forms a handbook of how to get rid of the Sloan men. (Maybe the scriptorium unveiled—Judith can gain access to write the story.) And if we think of Joseph Campbell’s notions of the use of myths in our lives, we could see that they read the myth and then act it out in their own lives, i.e. become the heroes. Now they are acting out the fiction.

    Maybe it’s because I recently reread it, but this sequence also reminds me of the Cedar Forest episode in Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh and Enkidu go to the forest to kill Humbaba. As they approach Humbaba they both have to continually psych each other up because of how frightened they get. With a little help from the gods, they slay Humbaba. Later, they are cursed for their actions and Enkidu must die.

    It’s interesting that the women need each other in order to enter the Sloan ruins like Gilgamesh and Enkidu need the encouragement of each other’s presence. Mrs. Sloan is the one who leads the attack on the Sloan root and strikes first. In the epic, Gilgamesh almost leaves Humbaba, but Enkidu encourages his destruction. Mrs. Sloan and Enkidu both die. I assume Mrs. Sloan dies anyway.

    Gilgamesh lives but is haunted by Enkidu’s death and by mortality itself. Judith lives, and seems happy to live, with the monstrosity. In an odd way, Judith lives with the truth (Herman’s monstrosity) in a way that Gilgamesh can’t. He can’t live with or be given the answers to the monster of mortality.

    Judith could be seen as one who finds and accepts truth or reality after the appearances and disguises have been torn away. The negative reading is that she is an abused woman who acknowledges her abuser is a monster, but still will not leave the monster. In fact, she insists she loves him.

    A few kernels of ideas:
    There’s something with milk/bone/cutlery imagery there.

    Doppelgangers. Herman and his father are like “images in a mirror.” Yet they aren’t scary in the way that doppelgangers are. Whatever they are (there are mentions of some ancient culture so they could be Old Ones or aliens, not sure it matters), if they are going to take over the world, they are doing it incredibly slowly. Vegetable growth. A couch potato form of alien invasion (that’s a bad joke, sorry). They are described as being “not human,” as having the “development of a child,” and are “weak and amoral.” Again, all those connotations of “sloan” apply.

    I’ve mentioned before the notions of freedom and “feeling free” that the story brings up. I could probably do more work there, but I’ll let it go unless someone wants to add anything to this.

  10. I just got a chance to read this story, and for me it does what all good horror fiction does: holds up a mirror to our silliest human behavior and shows us an exaggerated version of ourselves. I felt like I recognized both Judith and Mrs. Sloan in friends who have lost themselves in significant others (and it always seems to be the least interesting, intelligent, funny, or attractive dudes who inspire this level of devotion.)

    I think that the story hinges on Judith’s whispered “I am not a whore.” Is her later betrayal of Mrs. Sloan in favor of Herman a way to prove that she isn’t a whore through devotion to “her man,” or is she really taking control of herself and her body, as she tells her parents’ answering machine? She did show Herman that she was strong enough to take away his power, and then chose not to fully destroy him.


    • Kelly Coyle

      May 16, 2013

      You know, sometimes in these sorts of discussions, someone says something that completely “gets” a piece in a way that seems so definitive that, once you hear it, you can’t really see any other way to understand it. And, Amethyst, that was it for this one. I can’t imagine how else you could see the story now!

  11. Thank you, Kelly. Feminine perspective, I suppose.


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