Many of the stories in Various Antidotes are reminiscent of English poet Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, of which the most often anthologized are “My Last Duchess,” “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Andrea Del Sarto,” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.” Joanna Scott’s stories, like Browning’s poems, seem intended not so much to make a particular point as to re-create the atmosphere and psychology of a particular time and place. She uses her remarkable imagination to transport the reader into strange settings peopled by men and women who are oddly sympathetic precisely because they are psychologically abnormal.
Scott is an unusual writer with a highly individual style and point of view. She has the ability “to narrow the reader’s horizon” and “to hold the reader incommunicado,” to borrow the expressions of the Spanish philosopher-critic José Ortega y Gasset. While immersed in Scott’s best stories, the reader feels trapped in a different time and place because of the emotional intensity and the fine details the author discovers in her imaginary settings. She is able to describe the single detail that makes the whole illusion seem real. Here is a striking example from “X Number of Possibilities”: “But there is something about the way the boy looks up from the scab on his knee and stares: a wise, unnerving stare, as though he can see beneath Theodore’s clothes.” Here Scott describes the macabre electrocution of a rogue elephant at Coney Island long before the author was born:
What happened to Topsy that day when they pulled the switch and sent twenty-five thousand volts through her was smoke poured out of her ears and mouth, out of her joints, through the hide, her eyes melted like candy into syrup, and she stood as still as the Elephant Hotel itself for five, maybe ten seconds and then collapsed forward and flipped onto her side.
As well as Browning, who escaped into the imaginary past, and Edgar Allan Poe, who escaped into “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,” Scott will remind readers of Nathaniel Hawthorne. She has often been compared to the reclusive New England genius who used his vivid imagination to re-create in both his stories and novels the essence of the past—the sunlight creating weird, shifting trapezoidal shadows of the imaginary furniture on the imaginary walls and the imaginary candles being unhurriedly consumed by their imaginary flames. The reader cannot help but be impressed by the scope of Scott’s interests and the depth of her studies.
Only one of the stories in Various Antidotes is set in the present day, and it seems out of place in this collection. Scott’s best stories are those that deal with real people in past times and foreign settings. The reason may be that the reader has no way of checking the illusion against the reality and must accept Scott’s word for how things looked and felt and how the people thought and acted. It is not hard to take her word for such matters, because she seems to know her subjects in such depth.
“Concerning Mold Upon the Skin, Etc.” takes the reader into the mind of Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who revolutionized human knowledge and helped to undermine traditional religious authority by inventing the modern microscope. His invention cost Leeuwenhoek dearly, for he neglected his wife, his family, and his business in his obsession with examining the wonders of the microscopic world.
“Bees Bees Bees” tells of a blind man who compensated for his handicap by losing himself entirely in the study of bees. Like Leeuwenhoek, Francis Huber is so obsessed with his pursuit that he neglects everything else, including his wife, who finds con- solation by taking a lover. Huber is satisfied with the love of his fifty thousand bees until inexplicably they turn against him and try to sting him to death.
“Nowhere” takes up the story of William Burke, whose connection with science was in providing cadavers for anatomists at a time when dissection of human bodies was severely restricted under law. Burke’s clients did not know that he was saving himself the trouble of robbing graves by murdering people with a method of suffocation called “Burking”: covering the victim’s mouth and clamping off the nostrils with the thumb and forefinger of the same powerful hand. The story is artistically narrated from the contrasting...
(The entire section is 1803 words.)