Adam's Reviews > The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories

The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga
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's review
Jul 18, 08

bookshelves: latin-american, weird-tale-basics

It isn't often I discover a collection of horror stories that trills me as much as this ultra-morbid book by Horacio Quiroga. The publisher, the University of Wisconsin Press, appropriately compares Quiroga to Poe, Kipling, and Jack London--though a horror reference even more apt than Poe, I think, would be Ambrose Bierce.

Quiroga (1878-1937) was born in Uruguay but spent much of his adult life in the jungles of Argentina, where many of these stories take place. His stories are all thematically centered around death and man’s struggle against cruel nature. Like Kipling, Quiroga wrote a number of stories featuring talking animals (this collection has 3 such stories), but at the same time he is an utterly unsentimental writer--so these "animal tales" are not quite what one would expect. And Quiroga’s morbid streak is not the suspicious, affected "darkness" of a poseur; the man, in fact, came from a tragic family background that culminated not only with his own suicide while suffering from cancer, but also with the suicides of two of his children.

However, Quiroga’s dark voice never becomes unbearable for the reader, and this is due largely to his Bierce-like narrative craftsmanship and his variety of technique. Even the collection’s title story--perhaps the darkest story here--remains compelling in a Conrad-esque, “Oh the horror!” manner due to the masterful structuring of a simple plot. And “The Feather Pillow” is deliciously chilling, but also a more traditional horror story, wonderfully contrived and much like a Poe tale. “The Pursued” is the most modern story of the collection, with its existential themes of confused identity and psychological disintegration. “The Dead Man” is quintessential Quiroga: A man is crossing a fence and trips, falling on his machete; he then spends several moments going through various stages of denial, believing that he isn’t really about to die. In “Sunstroke”--maybe the best of the animal stories here--a pack of dogs watch as a man, on a particularly hot day, works himself to death in the afternoon heat. The stories which may surprise readers most, though, are Quiroga’s two optimistic tales: “In the Middle of the Night” and “The Incense Tree Roof.” The latter, in particular, is a very fine story, the tale of a civil servant living in a small jungle village who makes a Herculean effort to meet a paperwork deadline imposed by his distant, urban superiors.

Finally, what makes this collection especially precious is that so little of Quiroga’s work is available in English. Though he published two novels and more than two hundred stories, it appears that only The Decapitated Chicken and one other small story collection, The Exiles, are available for English readers.
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