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Portrait of a Monstrous Human: “Bright Segment” by Theodore Sturgeon

Welcome back to Dissecting The Dark Descent, where we lovingly delve into the guts of David Hartwell’s seminal 1987 anthology story by story, and in the process, explore the underpinnings of a genre we all love. For an in-depth introduction, here’s the intro post.

Theodore Sturgeon is probably best known for his science fiction work. Over his prolific career, he wrote countless novels and stories (some which dealt with homosexuality and queer themes, a rarity for the 1950s) touching on humanity, relationships, psychology, and gender politics. His motto was always “Ask the next question,” a phrase meant to encourage people to keep thinking past established knowledge and tradition. His horror and crime work were similarly groundbreaking, taking his gift for psychologically complex situations and explorations of humanity and applying it to terrifying effect. All of this is on display in “Bright Segment.” While the premise of a grotesque introvert nursing a young ingenue back to health is one that’s been played for tragedy, horror, and (perversely enough) romantic comedy, Sturgeon’s gift for the psychological allows him to twist that simplistic premise into a tragic and horrifying noir. By setting the human and monstrous sides of his troubled protagonist into conflict, Sturgeon offers a more complex and tragic take on a familiar narrative.

A fifty-six-year-old department store janitor finds a young woman with razorblade wounds bleeding out near his apartment. Suddenly gripped by a strange impulse, he scoops her up and brings her into his home, knowing nothing about her. As she bleeds out on his floor, he desperately begins the long and gruesome process of treating her wounds, hoping to “fix it right” and save her before he has a dead body on his hands and the police start asking questions. As she recuperates, unconscious, he finds himself becoming more and more fond of her presence. While he spends his time “fixing” his new guest and tending to her wounds and infections, an uncomfortable question arises between them: What happens when she’s healed, and their time inevitably comes to an end?

What makes “Bright Segment” a tragedy is something right there in the title. The protagonist, a man with the appearance and social graces of a fairytale ogre, finds the only bright moments in his life when he tends to the wounded young woman. He’s resourceful and intelligent, figuring out how to treat slashes from razor blades (he fixes a femoral artery wound, something that usually means death from blood loss in a matter of minutes) and perform major surgery with a sewing kit and some silversmithing tools. Despite being in a high-stress situation, he’s able to think through his actions clearly and run through a list of possible options while under pressure. Within the confines of his apartment, in his interior landscape, he’s capable of functioning at a high level, even better than most people.

When other people enter the equation, though, things get more complicated. The protagonist speaks in broken sentence fragments and with a limited vocabulary, possibly due to some verbal or psychological handicap. His social interactions are stunted—he mentions early on that in fifty-six years he’s barely talked to anyone apart from when shopping or going to work, and it’s painfully awkward to watch him call in sick. He’s even aware of how he’s seen by others, with his internal monologue hinting at trauma and harassment that forced him into his current grotesque and socially stunted state. It’s become cliché to say, “he’s not evil, just misunderstood,” but that’s what makes the main character a tragic monster: He’s incapable of being understood by anyone, and incapable of understanding anyone else. Whether through his own actions or the psychological battery of the world around him, he’s completely incapable of functioning in society. This is even seen when he takes care of the young woman, whom he treats more like a treasured pet than a human being, buying her nice things and keeping her cooped up inside. When she tries to do something for him—going outside his understanding of their relationship by taking initiative and making him a full breakfast—he reacts violently, screaming “You don’t fix! I fix everything!”

That violence is where the tragedy and horror fully come into play. “Bright Segment” is an apt title—the time between the ogre and the young woman in his home is a finite moment, a segment in time that must end. As much as he wants to believe otherwise, she’s a real, human person with her own wants, desires, and agency. When she finally reveals she can talk and lays out exactly how she came to be bleeding out on the street, the moment ends. It must. She can’t live in the protagonist’s apartment forever. Meanwhile, he can’t see beyond the moment, reacting with shock, horror, and sadness when he realizes that he’ll go back to being trapped in his head alone. It’s not a betrayal and the readers know treating a human woman like a pet isn’t sustainable without something bad happening, but to him, the only person capable of understanding him, the only other person in his whole world, suddenly wants to leave. In that moment of despair, he (maybe accidentally) hits her in the back of the head with an iron and gets back to work “fixing” her so he can start the process all over again, keeping her imprisoned in his room.

With that transformative act (one telegraphed by the impulse to pick up the young woman in the first place), the main character becomes the monstrous figure his outward appearance suggests, and the tragedy coalesces. When faced with losing his toxic, one-sided relationship, he acts out of desperation and does the only thing he can think of to sustain it. The illusion is immediately shattered. That he lashes out and forces the cycle to continue in a moment of subconscious violence is the horror. Understanding that he committed an act of violence (and possibly killed someone, it’s left ambiguous at the end of the story) to maintain an illusion of social acceptability—one that even he has started to realize was unsustainable—is the tragedy. His attempts to “fix it right” again and keeping the woman as a pet are monstrous, but the disconnect from any kind of normal socialization, pain, trauma, and our glimpse at an interior world add pathos and make him more than a simple monster. He’s still a monster, but a more complex and tragic monster for his downward spiral.

The synthesis of the tragic and monstrous is important in how “Bright Segment” elevates its central character. He might be a misunderstood societal outcast, but he still acts in villainous, impulsive, childish, and damaging ways. He might be a monster, but his internal monologue, rich interior life, and desperate need to be understood by someone else add a definitive note of tragedy. For all “human monsters” are easy to characterize as base grotesques driven by irrational impulse, actually watching the janitor struggle with his humanity and nature only for his more monstrous side to violently reassert itself has more of a ring of truth. He’s a tragic figure driven by impulse and emotion who desperately scrabbles for humanity only to lose everything (ironically enough) when, in a moment of crisis, he decides to hold on to that humanity (and his now unwilling captive) too tightly. “Bright Segment” might be about a human monster, but it understands the complexity of both “human” and “monster,” and that both are important.

And now to turn it over to you. Was the janitor in “Bright Segment” a monster, a tragic figure, or both? Have you read much of Sturgeon’s horror and crime work? Does the ambiguity at the end of “Bright Segment” add to the complexity, or take it away by possibly making it possible to interpret the main character’s final act an accident?

Please join us in two weeks as we watch a mad doctor destroy minds piece-by-piece in master of horror-fantasy Clive Barker’s extreme horror story, “Dread.” icon-paragraph-end

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