It’s time to look at yet another short from that tattered 1969 Belmont edition paperback copy of The Best of Amazing. The second story selected by Joseph Ross is The Worm by David H. Keller, M.D. Originally published in the March 1929, Vol. 3, No 12 issue of Amazing Stories.
The setting is a stone gristmill hidden deep in a Vermont valley. John Staples is the last in a long line of Staples, whose family built and operated the mill for over two hundred years. With no more grist available for the mill and the valley long abandoned, John becomes a loner who grows to appreciate the isolation of living alone with his dog. So when strange noises begin reverberating from under the mill, he uses his sharpened reasoning experience from years of solitary living to try solving the mystery.
Character development in this story is rather focused when you consider there are only three; the miller Staples, his dog, and of course the worm. A name is never provided for the dog. Yet, he is the only character the reader might be able to relate with because of his mixture of loyalty and timidity during the more tense moments. Though more obvious to the reader, it’s as if the dog is the only character that senses imminent danger.
The miller does see that the monster is extremely destructive, but he still displays an odd sense of composure for someone whose home is being slowly consumed by a giant worm. He leaves the house a couple times to examine the surroundings, but he always returns with the same determined resolve. What makes his actions so queer is his ability to calm himself. It’s little distracting, the way he makes himself food and coffee and even sleeps while the worm crunches upward.
Besides the dog, Staples does not mention a wife or friend. But after watching the final destruction of his basement floor he jumps up and shrieks, “Not today, Elenora! Some other day, but not today!” This is an odd comment coming from someone who otherwise displays such coolness under pressure. So odd, the action disserved a closer examination. After a lengthy (and somewhat tedious) interweb search, the name of Italian actress Eleonora Duse finally came up. Duse had passed away only a few years prior to the publication of The Worm. In a discussion about the state of theater during her time, she was quoted as saying, “To save the theatre, the theatre must be destroyed; the actors and actresses must all die of the plague. They poison the air, they make art impossible. It is not drama that they play, but pieces for the theatre. We should return to the Greeks, play in the open air; the drama dies of stalls and boxes and evening dress, and people who come to digest their dinner.” It would be interesting if we can confirm Keller was comparing the outdated mill with Duse’s opinion of theatre in the day.
Upon closer look, The Worm is more than just a fantastic story. Worms are often referenced in playing a key role in decomposition. It is as if the worm is participating in the natural infinite process of recycling matter. Maybe the miller’s resolve to save the outdated mill was Keller’s way of defending or preserving the art of theater – or the art of literature.
We have yet another gem preserved from The Best of Amazing. The Worm by David H. Keller, M.D. is a testament to the depth of genre fiction and the timelessness these creative authors have provided us over the years. Sure it’s just a worm, but it’s also an amazing story we can still talk about.