The Swine of Aeaea by Clifford Ball was the featured cover story of the March 1939 issue of Weird Tales. A scanned pdf of this issue can be found here at Luminist.org.
The Swine of Aeaea was probably the best story I’ve read for Short Reviews since Leigh Brackett’s the Moon that Vanished. Like Brackett’s story, The Swine of Aeaea is one of those into-the-heart-of-darkness type stories recalling the doom that befell a vessel that sought and found the legendary isle of the legendary enchantress Circe. I’ll actually recommend that instead of reading this post, just go and read the story.
In the past, I’ve dogged on authors who use the first person, or first person within first person, because it is often used as an excuse for a lot of ‘gee boy shucks howdy lemme tell ya’ experiments in writing vernacular, but not only does Ball do the first person within first person well, he makes the nuances of speech actually matter to the story. The first layer of narration succeeds in establishing tone and context in a meaningful way, rather than simply serving to provide a ‘lemme tell ya about the time I met and talked to this guy’ filler intro.
The principal narrator is a writer who is slumming it in a skeevy sailors’ dive; he slowly nurses his drinks and eavesdrops on the adventures and big fish stories told by the men in port and the old sea dogs who’ll share their tales for a drink, looking for inspiration for his next piece.
A drunken old sailor pesters him for a drink; deadbeats are unwelcome, and one of the waiters tries to shoo away the bum, calling him a pig. At this, the old sailor flips out and in the blink of an eye has a knife at the waiter’s throat. The narrator steps in and talks the sailor down before a bloodbath ensues:
“Buddy,” I said, “climb down and forget it. We’ll have a drink-a couple of ‘em. And don’t hack up this garcon. Francois is my friend, and a most efficient server of the wine” (the last in stumbling French).
Francois beamed above the glittering blade. His “face” was preserved. I think his life was saved also.
“Certainement!” he cried. “I am desolated, monsieur! To mistake a friend of yours for one of the-the other sort! A thousand pardons! I bow my head; it is most-most-ten thousand-“
“A thousand will do, frog,” said the little man. He slid nimbly back to the floor and his knife magically disappeared into some recess in the rent garments. But I noticed he kept a vigilant eye on Francois, doubtlessly alert for the possible appearance of a dirk or bungstarter.
“A bottle of the red at a table,” I ordered hastily. I had no wish to become involved in a physical dispute in Joey’s, not only because of the dangerous aftermath but also because a fight might close to me forever this source of material which I so greatly relished.
The old bum explains that his name is Sam Mercer, and promises him a hell of a story – “If you’ve the sense to keep your trap shut while I’m gassing and the pocket provisions to keep the wine flowing, I’ll tell you a story that will raise your hair.” Sam begins to recount the time he spent on smuggling ship under the orders of a Captain Lewell and how a stowaway, a man of letters with heterochromia, bewitched the captain as a fellow intellectual, telling of his personal quest to find the legendary isle of Circe. The stowaway managed to not only impress the captain but the crew, as well, who, with the exception of one old dog who maintained the man to be a Jonah, took a shine to him.
Long story short, the ship ends up finding an isle that exists on no charts, and crewmen sent to find water do not return. A second expedition, including Sam, the captain, and the stowaway fails to find the missing crewmen, but encounter a devastatingly beautiful woman living alone in a ruined palace surrounded by forests.
She was wearing a long blue gown that in some countries might have been mistaken for a nightdress. It was fastened about her slender waist with some kind of twisted cord, and tasseled loops hung on her left side down to her knee. The cloth descended to her ankles, which were invisible unless she walked. One could see her tiny toes protruding from beneath the immaculate gown, for they were encased in open-work sandals such as I have seen in Biblical pictures. To say her figure was perfect would be an imperfect description. It was superb. The smooth outlines of her slim thighs and the mounting curvatures of her full breasts beneath the clinging cloth were almost as plainly visible as if she had been nude. Not that I mean to emphasize her voluptuousness. I have seen many women, belonging to all races, colors and creeds, who could exhibit the same physical charms. But never in all my wandering over the surface of this globe, not even in the Latin countries, have I discovered a woman with such inner, smoldering fire as this one possessed.
Today I know why. It was her eyes. They burned with a submerged fire that might have been stolen from Vulcan after he pilfered it from Olympus. I can’t tell you what color they were; they must have taken on all the tints of the rainbow, for one minute I thought them to be blue and the next I decided they were either grey or green. Another look, and I was prepared to swear her eyes were as yellow as a panther’s. You can’t describe the color of flame-tips; they keep changing too rapidly. The next best thing is to discover the source and look at the fuel. It was her eyes, not her features, that registered the “here-I-am” invitation, yet the woman, or girl, owned an aura of virginal sweetness, and an observer would have decided she was a maiden who had never known a lover. To sum up my impression of her eyes I will say they suggested slumbering fires and cool, running waters. And that is a paradox, is it not?
Her only companions are her “pet” pigs.
Okay, aside time – remember how I said that Ball managed to make the nuances of speech matter to the story? Sometimes Sam, while he’s telling the tale and gets progressively more drunk, slips out of his rough sailor jargon or stops using some odd pronunciation or colloquialism he’d previously been using. This strikes the narrator as odd, and on a few occasions, he calls Sam out on it, or for using big words, obscure mythical names or literary references after having professed to just be an ignorant sailor. Sam tries to play this off a couple times, saying that he’s picked up a few things here and there since, but when he slips up and gets caught referring to himself in the third person, he admits that he is actually Captain Lewell and taken on the name of the loyal man he doomed by taking him onto the island.
The woman invites them to drink from her spring to refresh themselves, but the Captain only pretends to drink. Though he is overcome with magic and illusions, Captain Lewell awakens to find himself still human but without companions. The woman explains that he has passed out from heat, and wouldn’t it be nice to have some water? His men have gone back to the ship for a stretcher, she tells him. At her feet, nuzzling her legs, are a pair of pigs. The captain ran back to his ship, raving to his crew about sorcery, ghosts and illusions. As the captain wraps up his story, the primary narrator asks “You know you left four men marooned on that isolated isle, don’t you?”
“No! I left no men, I tell you!” swore the now thoroughly drunken man. His fist swept the wine-bottle to the floor as his shoulders sank to the smeared table-top. He relaxed into what was the beginning of a stupor. “I left no men!” he mumbled, less fiercely. “There were no men to leave. No men! I left only the swine!”
“What do you mean?” I insisted.
“Swine…all swine!” His eyes closed; he had almost forgotten my presence. “The pigs…at her skirts. Remember? Fawning like dogs. And one…looked at me and grunted. A gentleman pig, my friend! Its right eye was blue and its left was brown!”
Like many horror/into-the-heart-of-darkness stories, this one telegraphs its ending very early on. You know exactly what’s going to happen and how. The trick is in the telling – can you make the ride to the expected conclusion worth the readers while? Ball absolutely does, making this one of the best examples of the genre I’ve read. It may not have flipped the script in the way that Thomas Burnett Swann’s The Dolphin and the Deep did (a retelling of the Little Mermaid set in mythic antiquity from the perspective of the Prince who is seeking out Circe while the dolphin following his boat has fallen in love with him), but storytelling here is just fantastic.