The October Country: Oct. 22nd: “The Book of Irrational Numbers” by Michael Marshall Smith

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 21:

The Book of Irrational Numbers by Michael Marshall Smith

Found In:

999 (edited by Al Sarrantonio)

Opening Line:

“A nice clean page.”

There are plenty of stories out there about psychotic killers. Many of them told from the point of view of the murderer. Poe penned his share, and it’s been a pretty solid standard since Robert Bloch explored a whole host of twisted psychologies (giving us, among other masterpieces, Psycho, and A Home Away From Home, reviewed earlier this month).

But few tales are as effective as Smith’s Book of Irrational Numbers. Perhaps because the narrator appears so, well, rational. Or perhaps because the deeper he delves into his own dark psyche, the more we start to wonder at the underpinnings of our own little world.

Our narrator begins with a pretty straightforward anal retentive opening:

“When I start a new notebook I never use the first piece of paper, because you know it’s going to get scuffed up. I always leave both sides of that one blank, and start writing on the second piece of paper, where it will be protected from dirt.”

Ok. So our narrator is that guy. Little OCD, but otherwise a winner. He does construction, painting. Sees his friends here and there. Lives alone, but is interested in the girl who works at the local bookstore. They’re friendly. They wave to each other on the street.

Except our new friend really has a thing for numbers.

“To find the digital root of a number, the aim is to reduce it to a single digit. You achieve this by adding up all it’s existing digits. 943521, for example, adds up to 9+4+3+5+2+1 = 24. This, of course, still has two digits, so you add them together 2 + 4 + 6. The digital root of 943521, therefore, is 6.”

Well, nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s got their thing, am I right? That little something that makes them just a little bit kooky.

But it’s not just the numbers. Our narrator also seems to have a thing for seventeen-year-old girls. Like Susan, the girl at the book store. Not precisely because she’s a teenager, though. Oh no. That wouldn’t be enough.

“17 is prime. If you think about it, if someone’s seventeen they’re not yet an adult but they’re no longer a child. Not least because it has no factors. 16 is two 8s or four 4s, come to that. I’m not getting involved with multiples of children. The prime numbers between 10 and 20 are 13, 17, and 19. 19 is too old. 13 is a child. 17 is indivisible by anything except 1 and 17, which is right, because there’s one seventeen-year-old-there. One real person.”

I’m glad that makes sense.

What is truly stunning about this story is the way Smith weaves such a broken psychology throughout the narrative. There is plenty of these kind of wacko number games, but instead of throwing the reader off the trail of the story, they draw you further in. What ought to be off-putting becomes more and more alluring.

Another thing Smith does well is hit you with out-of-left-field zingers:

“There’s one under the kitchen floor. It’s not even a very big kitchen. But there’s one under there, about a foot under, lying face up. It’s covered in concrete, and there’s good quality slate laid on top. But sometimes when I see one of my friends standing in there, I think, Jesus, that’s really bad.”

This in the middle of an otherwise normal (albeit OCD number freak) narrative.

What becomes clear is that our narrator is entirely unhinged. He’s been killing young girls for some time now, and he clearly intends to continue doing so. Poor Susan isn’t likely to live much longer. Even though our narrator hems and haws about how he feels guilty, wishes he could be a better person, and really would like to stop killing, there is no doubt that this is little more than rationalizing.

“It’s such a simple thing, squaring something. Such an easy step. You take a number and multiply it by itself. Anyone can work that out. but finding the square root, reversing the process? There must be a way back, I thought. Once you’ve walked down a road, there must be some way home…

“You feed a number into the equation, then feed the result back in, and feed that result back in–and keep working it, and keep working it. Until you stop. Except that with many numbers, even a simple number like 2, you never do. You never stop. The result is irrational, and goes on forever.”

The true brilliance of the story is the way Smith blends the psychosis and the narrator’s killing, how the two become one. Few tales are as expertly crafted as this one.

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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