The October Country: Oct. 26th: “The River Styx Runs Upstream” by Dan Simmons

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 26:

The River Styx Runs Upstream by Dan Simmons

Found In:

Prayers to Broken Stones

Opening Line:

“I loved my mother very much.”

This story has the distinction of being the piece of writing that made Dan Simmons’ career. In his early thirties, Simmons had had no success as a writer, and he wrote one last story and submitted it in a contest at a writing conference. He told his wife: either it wins or I give up on writing. Lucky for the world, it won.

The River Styx is set in a future where resurrection has become a reality (albeit a shaky one, kind of like the new release of Windows…it works, but clearly there are bugs in this new technology). Our narrator is a man looking back on the death of his mother, when he was eight-years-old.

Simmons gives us one of the hands-down best opening paragraphs:

“I loved my mother very much. After her funeral, after the coffin was lowered, the family went home and waited for her return.”

Personally, I think it’s that second clause (after the coffin was lowered) that makes this a home run. It gives an extra moment between the setup and the payoff, a little shudder-step, while at the same time giving us a concrete image that juxtaposes the beginning and ending of the sentence. That clause is the stroke of a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

And Mother returns. Though not exactly like she was before. And at great expense. Resurrection isn’t cheap. Our narrator’s father must fork over a quarter of his income for years in order to afford bringing his wife back from the dead.

Not everyone is pleased. Our narrator’s aunts and uncles are either wholly against or silently dubious. Our narrator’s older brother, Simon, is uncertain, reserved and, ultimately, unconvinced.

“Then it was our turn to hug Mother. Aunt Helen moved Simon forward, and I was still hanging onto Simon’s hand. He kissed her on the cheek and quickly moved back to Father’s side. I threw my arms around her neck and kissed her on the lips. I had missed her.

“Her skin wasn’t cold. It was just different.”

The Resurrectionists tell them to think of it as a stroke. Mother won’t be Mother, not exactly, but she’s alive. Sort of.

“For the first week, Father slept with Mother in the same room where they had always slept. In the morning his face would sag and he would snap at us while we ate our cereal. Then he moved into his study and slept on the old divan in there.”

Nooky with the living dead is likely a real bummer. Father, clearly, isn’t going there. In addition to sleeping on the couch, he takes up drinking heavily, which leads to a lot of shouting and hair-trigger explosions.

It’s not that Mother necessarily does anything wrong. She’s not even particularly scary, not in an overt way. Certainly not intentionally. She’s just…off.

“Mother never blinked. At first I didn’t notice; but then I began to feel uncomfortable when I saw that she never blinked. But it didn’t make me love her any less.”

Simmons weaves two strands through this story that are critical. First, that resurrection more or less sucks. There’s no real upside here. The dead are just husks. They don’t do anything. Second, that our narrator still very much loves Mother.

Both of these will be important.

Eventually, Simon convinces our narrator to run away. He’s had enough. But the boys do not get very far from home. They bring a tent, and they camp out, but in the morning our narrator tells Simon he’s returning home. Simon, reluctantly, agrees.

It’s not just Mother, see. It’s the fights at school, the dirty looks from neighbors, the rumors and the gossip. Resurrection is still pretty new, and while there are more and more of the Resurrected walking the streets every day, the Living have yet to accept them fully.

And one day, Simon can take it no longer. On a family trip to the coast, Simon hangs himself under the boardwalk.

“I don’t know what made me look up. Footsteps from above. A slight turning, turning; something turning in the shadows. I could see where he had climbed the crossbraces, wedged a sneaker here, lifted himself there to the wide timber. It would not have been hard. We’d climbed like that a thousand times. I stared right into his face, but it was the clothesline I recognized first.”

Father, naturally, doesn’t take this well. And though he lives with it for a time, he too eventually commits suicide.

Our narrator, his family devastated, moves on with his life. Takes a decent job. And tries to make a life. But it’s hard.

“I used to have shares in a condominium in one of the last lighted sections of the city, but when our old house came up for sale I jumped at the chance to buy it. I’ve kept many of the old furnishings and replaced others so that it’s almost the way it used to be. Keeping up an old house like that is expensive, but I don’t spend my money foolishly. After work a lot of guys from the Institute go out to bars, but I don’t. After I’ve put away my equipment and scrubbed down the steel tables, I go straight home. My family is there. They’re waiting for me.”

Few tales end with such soul-shuddering final lines.

More October Stories

For the month of October, you can download

Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door 


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…

One response to “The October Country: Oct. 26th: “The River Styx Runs Upstream” by Dan Simmons”

  1. The Ending Is Unnerving. And Clearly If Both Brother And Father Committed Suicide They Didn’t Want To Be Bought Back To The Land Of The Living. The Narrator Is Selfish

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