(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Horacio Quiroga published approximately two hundred short stories, many of which are considered classics within the Spanish American literary canon. Most of the author’s stories, classics or not, fall within one (or more) of the following three general categories: Poesque stories of horror, often punctuated by madness and/or genetic defect; stories of human beings against a savage and thoroughly unromanticized nature; and Kiplingesque animal stories that frequently contain an underlying moral message. The vast majority of Quiroga’s stories are dramatic, intense, even memorable tales that captivate the reader and in general reveal a true master of the genre at work.

Some of Quiroga’s most popular stories come from the first of the three categories listed above, that of Poesque stories of horror, often featuring madness and/or genetic defect. Two widely read and exemplary stories from this category are “El almohadón de plumas” (“The Feather Pillow”), first published in 1907, and “La gallina degollada” (“The Decapitated Chicken”), first published in 1909.

“The Feather Pillow”

“The Feather Pillow” is the more purely Poesque of these two stories. In it, a newlywed woman falls mysteriously ill and quickly progresses toward death. Her husband and doctor are at a complete loss as to what ails her as well as what to do to help her. Finally, she dies. Shortly thereafter, a servant finds what appears to be two small punctures in her feather pillow. Further examination reveals that the pillow is inordinately heavy. The husband cuts the pillow open and in it finds a swollen creature (later identified as a bird parasite), which had been sucking the blood out of its victim for some time, literally draining the life out of her.

This story is both classic Poe and classic Quiroga. It is classic Poe in large part because of the horrific nature of its content. It is classic Quiroga for numerous elements, almost all of which have to do with the manner in which the writer presents the content. The story runs only three to five pages (depending on the print of the edition), yet in this short span the narrator takes the reader from an introduction of the characters to the conflict itself to the horrifying ending. As in most of Quiroga’s stories, not a single word is wasted, as each contributes not only to the tale being told but to the overall effect of the story as well. This story is also a classic Quiroga story because of the inclusion of a seemingly insignificant detail, which, at the time it is mentioned, is almost overlooked by the reader (the narrator mentions rather offhandedly after several paragraphs about the couple’s relationship that the woman had taken ill), the dramatic and surprise ending (featuring the blood-laden anthropoid), and the foreshadowing of said ending (the narrator states that the woman had seen an “anthropoid” staring at her from the carpet, but the reader is told that this is a hallucination), even though the first-time reader is not aware that said foreshadowing is indeed foreshadowing at the time that he or she encounters it. Also typical of Quiroga in this story is the writer’s ability to turn a tale that deals with specific characters and apply its situation to the world of the reader. Quiroga accomplishes this in “The Feather Pillow” by adding a paragraph after the action of the story itself had ended, a paragraph in which the narrator states, matter-of-factly, that such creatures, bird parasites are frequently found in feather pillows. In this way, the narrator makes the previously distanced and protected reader a potential victim of the same fate as the woman in the story. As a result, certainly more than a few readers of “The Feather Pillow” have checked their own pillows before sleeping on the night they read this particular story, an effect on the reader that would please both Quiroga and his chief influence for this story, Poe, to no small degree.

“The Decapitated Chicken”

“The Decapitated Chicken” is less purely Poesque and more in the naturalist tradition, but it is no less horrifying in content. The story opens with a couple’s four “idiot” (the word used by Quiroga) sons seated on a bench on a patio, their tongues sticking out, their eyes staring off into space. The narrator recounts how, with the birth of each son, the couple had hoped for a “normal” child and how each had blamed the other for the defective genes (a naturalist element) that produced the “idiot” sons. Finally, the couple’s fifth child, a daughter, is “normal.” She receives all the couple’s attention, while the sons are relegated to the less than loving care of a servant. One day, the four sons wander into the kitchen as the servant is cutting the head off of a chicken to prepare it for lunch. Later, by accident, both the sons and the daughter are left unattended. The daughter attempts to climb the garden wall on the patio, where her “idiot” brothers sit, her neck resting on the top as she works to pull herself up the wall. Captivated by the sight, the four sons grab the daughter, drag her into the kitchen, and behead her just as the servant had beheaded the chicken.

This story features several classic Quiroga traits that are on display in “The Feather Pillow” as well. Chief among them are the early and rather offhand mention of something that will be of tantamount importance later in the story (the decapitation of the chicken) and the presence of subtle foreshadowing (the narrator mentions that though believed incapable of true learning, the four sons do possess at least a limited ability to imitate things that they see—again the decapitation of the chicken), though once again said foreshadowing is almost certainly missed by the first-time reader. This story also demonstrates...

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