Mute

Earlier in the year, I had noticed a pile of books building up on the shelf and have made a concerted effort to get through them. This has gone smoothly at times, and at other times it's ground to a halt. Then there's the fact that I can't seem to stop buying new books to read. Case in point, during the Six Weeks of Halloween, I thought it might be nice to read some horror, and realized that most of what I had on my shelf was science fiction, fantasy, detective fiction, or non-fiction (history, technology, biography, etc...) So I went out and picked up a collection of Richard Matheson short stories called Button, Button (the title story was the source material for a very loose film adaptation, The Box).

It was a very interesting collection of stories, many of which play on variations of the moral dilemma most famous in the title story, Button, Button:
"If you push the button," Mr Steward told him, "somewhere in the world, someone you don't know will die. In return for which you will receive fifty thousand dollars."
In the film adaptation, the "reward" was raised to a million dollars, but then, they also added a ton of other stuff to what really amounts for a tight, 12 page story. Anyway, there are lots of other stories, most containing some sort of moral dilemma along those lines (or someone exploiting such a dilemma). In particular, I enjoyed A Flourish of Strumpets and No Such Thing as a Vampire, but I found myself most intrigued by one of the longer stories, titled Mute. I suppose mild spoilers ahead, if this is something you think you might want to read.

The story concerns a child named Paal. His parents were recent immigrants and he was homeschooled, but his parents died in a fire, leaving Paal to the care of the local Sheriff and his wife. Paal is a mute, and the community is quite upset by this. Paal ends up being sent to school, but his seeming lack of communication skills cause issues, and the adults continually attempt to get Paal to talk.

I will leave it at that for now, but if you're at all familiar with Matheson, you can kinda see where this was going. What struck me most was how much a sign of the times this story was. Of course, all art is a product of its cultural and historical context, but for horror stories, that must be doubly so. Most of the stories in this collection were written and published in the 1950s and early 1960s, which I find interesting. With respect to this story, it's primarily about the crushing pressure of conformity, something that was surely on Matheson's mind after having just finished of the uniformity of the 1950s. The cultural norms of the 50s were perhaps overly traditional, but after having witnessed the deadliest conflict in human history in the 1940s, you can hardly blame people for wanting some semblance of tradition and stability in their lives. Of course, that sort of uniformity isn't really natural evil, and like a pendulum, things swing from one extreme to the other, until eventually things settle down. Or not.

Anyway, writing in the early 60s (or maybe even the late 50s), Matheson was clearly disturbed by the impulse to force conformity, and Mute is a clear expression of this anxiety. Interestingly, the story is almost as horrific in today's context, but for different reasons. Matheson was writing in response to a society that had been emphasizing conformity and had no doubt witness such abuses himself. Interestingly, the end of the story is somewhat bittersweet. It's not entirely tragic, and it's almost an acknowledgement that conformity isn't necessarily evil.
It was not something easily judged, he was thinking. There was no right or wrong of it. Definitely, it was not a case of evil versus good. Mrs. Wheeler, the sheriff, the boy's teacher, the people of German Corners - they had, probably, all meant well. Understandably, they had been outraged at the idea of a seven-year-old boy not having been taught to speak by his parents. Their actions were, in light of that, justifiable and good.

It was simply that, so often, evil could come of misguided good.
In today's world, we see the opposite of the 1950s in many ways. Emphasis is no longer placed on conformity (well, perhaps it still is in some places), but rather a rugged individuality. There are no one-size fits all pieces of culture anymore. We've got hundreds of varieties of spaghetti sauce, thousands of music choices that can fit on a device the size of a business card, movies that are designed to appeal to small demographics, and so on. We deal with problems like the paradox of choice, and the internet has given rise to the niche and concepts like the Long Tail. Of course, rigid non-conformity is, in itself, a form of conformity, but I can't imagine a story like Mute being written in this day and age. A comparable story would be about how lost someone becomes when they don't conform to societal norms...