Spencer Holst Stories

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

The notion of the artist as a sacred figure has made a fair amount of Western literature since the nineteenth century seem forced, hysterical, and self-centered. Spencer Holst’s stories belong in the tradition of this notion, but they regard the artist and the creative process without the psychological overstatement one might expect. The writer to Holst is indeed a magician, and ordinary creatures, things, and events are magical. The writer accepts this phenomenon, as a child might agree that a mountain can cast a shadow on the moon, or as an adult might concede that the history of baseball is holy. Parable, satire, and parody are possible in Holst’s work because the delight in the unpredictable and wondrous which the writer shares with the child is enriched by the moral sense which defines maturity. In a style free of self-congratulation, Holst’s stories oppose the tyranny and paranoia in our view of nature, man, and art, and reveal that being is random and that this quality is the source of those transformations which we call magic and ought to revere. Transformation, in fact, is the essential point and procedure of Holst’s book, and it shows up in his use of animals, in his belief in the unpredictable, and in his presentation of the “magician” and his audience.

Animals often arrive in Holst’s stories as magic events. Among “64 Beginnings,” we find the first ostrich which ever flew, plants transforming themselves into birds, and a gang of “baby Galapagos tortoises” approaching the narrator in the livingroom of a New England mansion with the word “memento” engraved on their shells. Animal transformations also occur in literary parodies. In The Case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are presented as Conan Doyle’s cats and fiction as a way of transforming the unstated into the stated. The story The Frog changes the frog into a drug addict, the prince into an Italian opportunist, and the princess into a teen-ager who abhors “junkies.” Besides turning animals into humans and back again, Holst invests animals with human, and human with animal, properties. The parrot in The Lovers acquires a human fidelity and trust, and the youth in the story the bearing and skill of an animal.

The unpredictable or random complements the transformations in Holst’s stories. Finders Keepers suggests that moral occasions depend on the unforeseen. By chance the narrator in this story finds a large sum of money belonging to the family whose garbage he collects. During a bestial search through the city dump, the father, corrupted by disappointment, forgets and attacks the narrator when the latter tries to return the money, and later the whole family dies of diseases contracted from the garbage. Coincidence has turned industry into greed, a good deed into a mistake, and a garbage collector into a rich man.

Such is the transformation of ordinary details into an extraordinary sequence in The Prime Minister’s Grandfather (where the Canadian Prime Minister, looking through the periscope of a submarine, mistakes a playful walrus for his own grandfather) and in The Blazing Blue Footprint (where several Dutch youths paint an enlargement of Winston Churchill’s baby-footprint on the Cliffs of Dover), that it is clear Holst delights in the unpredictable. His “64 Beginnings” relies on it. After a flood a ring appears on the outside of a bathtub; the fat puppeteer washes dishes in the...

(The entire section is 1430 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Booklist. LXXII, June 15, 1976, p. 1451.

Christian Science Monitor. LXVI, August 2, 1976, p. 30.

New York Times Book Review. April 4, 1976, p. 8.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCIX, February 9, 1976, p. 92.