The October Country: Oct. 4: “Dial Tone” by Benjamin Percy

In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.

The October Country

that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…

— Ray Bradbury

October 4:

Dial Tone by Benjamin Percy

Found In:

American Fantastic Tales Volume 2 (edited by Peter Straub)

Opening Line:

A jogger spotted the body hanging from the cell tower.”

My first experience with Benjamin Percy’s work was his debut collection Refresh, Refresh. This was shortly after the book was published, and nobody had really heard of him, even though the reviews of his work were phenomenal. And deservedly so. Percy’s got a real knack for the short story, something often overlooked in the wake of his stunning novels The Wilding, Red Moon, and The Dead Lands.

But Percy’s best story (at least in my view) wasn’t in that collection. It’s buried at the end of the Modern Library collection American Fantastic Tales.

And what a story!

Dial Tone is a head trip. In fact, you don’t even realize just how trippy until the very end, when Percy more or less leaps out of the narrative bushes and punches you in the head. Which I like.

Dial Tone utilizes that old saw: the Unreliable Narrator. Lucky for us, Percy makes novel use of this cliched device. It’s clear right up front we can’t entirely trust this guy:

Sometimes I walk into a room or drive to the store and can’t remember why. In this way I am like a ghost: someone who can trvael through walls and find myself someplace else in the middle of a sentence or thought and not know what brought me there. The other night I woke up to discover I was walking down the driveway in my pajamas, my bare feet blue in the moonlight. I was carrying a shovel.”

If that doesn’t say Unreliable, I don’t know what does (and how about that killer final sentence, and the way Percy builds to it with sentences that drift and lull, like a gently rocking boat, before the sudden jarring that tips us into the cold dark water).

But unreliable quickly becomes unsettling, because our narrator isn’t just strolling in his sleep. He’s losing his shit. Fixated on the suicide of a man who hung himself from a cell tower, the narrator is slowly descending into madness. The dislocation the reader feels is similar to reading Poe. Percy’s narrator is never more crazy than when explaining things that seem sane on the surface:

This is why I pick up the phone sometimes and listen. There is something reassuring about a dial tone. The simple sound, a low purr, as constant and predictable as the sun’s path across the sky.”

I’m reminded of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart and the old man’s eye, which is just an eye, but which the narrator keeps telling us, calmly and with assurance, is really the Evil Eye, and by damnit, it’s got to go.

What sets Percy’s story apart, though, is the way he threads two different elements together: the narrator’s madness and the Twilight Zone twist at the end, when the reader discovers the man hanging from the cell tower is the narrator himself. There’s an echo here of the greatest twist ending in American short story history: Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Both endings force the reader to travel back through everything they’ve read, reassessing what they thought they knew.

Percy continues to write utterly brilliant novels, but I for one hope to see a collection of dark tales sometime in the future. Cause man oh man, stories like Dial Tone are the real deal.

More October Stories

For the month of October, you can download

Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door 

FREE.

In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.

Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…

Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.

I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?

Except a little sleep…

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One thought on “The October Country: Oct. 4: “Dial Tone” by Benjamin Percy

  1. I find the dial tone reassuring too, what does that say about me?!? But then all the best people are a little crazy 😉

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