There is something distantly primal and tribal about summer, when sunny days and sultry nights seem to unconsciously conjure up the sense, or scent, of a wilder side of humanity. Something naked and free. Something delightful yet dangerous. These are, after all, the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. Whether it is the warm pulse of life, the humid breath of earth, or the sweltering oppression of sky, there is a quality in heat that enlivens and slackens—and unhinges. Everyone has heard of midsummer madness, but what of dog-day derangement? There is a fever that can set in as the season’s flush dries and cracks. High temperature can scorch the mind with sweating intimacies, fiery instincts, and tropical insanities that would never be dreamt of in the sober chill of colder climes. Such brain-bakings are best experienced as vicarious thrills and psychological safaris in summertime stories that delve through the hot and heavy.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
One of the most fearful of feelings is that the boundary between the civilized and the savage is not a boundary at all, but a mere state of mind. The veneer of society is thin, and it is a mask hiding something that can be vicious. There is a darkness deep in the heart of man that the Promethean flame of Progress can never illuminate—the inhumanity of humanity. From this steaming primordial depth comes the fog that blurs together reason and madness, reality and reverie, even hope and horror. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness snakes down the Congo to discover the burning truth of this fear and how it can be a nightmare of choice.
The story is told by Charles Marlow, a philosophic steamboat captain to rival Ishmael who took a position with the British ivory trade company in Africa. Rocking on the black banks of the Thames, he tells his listeners how he was horrorstruck over the Imperial cruelty and infernal despair trampling over the native people as they slaved and suffered under a faceless master and feckless motive. At the same time, he was awestruck to learn about a legendary trader who manned a station far up-river—Mr. Kurtz. Though the man had not been seen for some time, the success, intelligence, and influence of Mr. Kurtz was everywhere. Marlow’s existential interests were piqued over this intense mystery of a man as he overheard and was trusted with reports of respect, jealousy, and fear. He longed to meet and converse with him. When he finally was given the task to sail into the interior to relieve the fascinating Mr. Kurtz, Marlow did not find the colossus he was expecting and hoping to find. When at last he pushed through the burning rumors and up the torrid river where Mr. Kurtz was amassing ivory and infamy, Marlow did not find a genius who towered over the heads of men. He did, however, find men’s heads towering on pikes around the river station. He did not find a man worshipped as a god of commerce. He did, however, find a man worshipped as a god of cannibals. He found Kurtz. He found madness, death, and horror.
Entrancingly written and hypnotic in tone, Heart of Darkness wavers with a heat that splits the world into a dual mirage of madness. And it is difficult to ascertain which half is madder. Is it the Empire of the Imperialists or the Empire of Kurtz? Though the autocratic jungle lord and his savage subjects make more sense than the aristocratic jungle accountant making calculations by the Congo, these powers, terrible as they are, do not seem to arise from inherently powerful sources. There is an overwhelming obscurity and hypocrisy that reigns over Conrad’s odyssey of vague foreboding, floating uneasiness, and shadowy moodiness. There is something either base, broken, or beautiful about the human beings who shimmer and shake through the darkness at the heart of this book, a darkness that is either sacred or satanic. There are no answers. That much is clear. Only an incomprehensible furnace of darkness. To those brave or fool enough to plunge into it, life’s judgment risks being summed up in the words, “The horror! The horror!” Proceed with caution.
“The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell (1924)
There are few stories that sustain a perfect pitch of entertainment, intrigue, and interest, and there is one that manages it with particularly wondrous aplomb. It famously incorporates scintillating elements that readers look for and love. A mysterious Caribbean island. An intrepid American hero. A civilized, psychotic villain. A jungle duel of wits, wisdom, and weaponry. High stakes. High action. High adventure. And throughout its thick tropical atmosphere runs a plot as strangling and smooth as “moist black velvet.” There is a heat in this story that presses, but never oppresses. It throbs like a drum, like a pulse. It is the heat of the hunt, the thrill of the chase. For any languid summer night alive with insect noise and flickering energies, “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell provides the perfect page-turner.
Never fear. The story is far too good to give away. The premise, however, is far too good not to give away. Sanger Rainsford, a celebrated big-game hunter, was on a yacht to Rio de Janeiro for a jaguar hunt. Passing a strange island of superstitious lore called Ship-Trap Island, Rainsford has an accident that casts him overboard in “blood-warm waters.” Swimming to the jungle-choked shore, Rainsford is soon shocked to discover a spired chateau jutting above the rainforest. There he is welcomed as the guest of the sinister General Zaroff, who is also a master hunter. The Russian confides in Rainsford how he has wearied of hunting brutes who wield only instinct to save themselves from pursuit—and that he has found a solution. On his desolate island, the general now hunts the only animal that can pose some danger to him by using reason in flight: human beings. Hence Zaroff’s dangerous game renders hunting a dangerous game indeed. The sadistic hunter trains captives. When judged ready, he supplies them with a haversack of rations, a hunting knife, and a three-hour head start. Then he tracks them with a twenty-two pistol. If the quarry eludes the hunter for three days, they win the game and earn their freedom. If they lose, General Zaroff adds another head to his collection. Even so, the murderous general is growing dull with human victims. The appearance of Rainsford the hunter, however, offers him a new challenge—an adversary worthy of his steel. Over a bottle of Chablis and aromatic cigarettes, the cultured maniac makes his proposal. Rainsford tightens his teeth and accepts. The game is on—and it proves a dangerous one.
“The Most Dangerous Game” is a classic and compelling short story, and one not to be missed by readers under the heavy spell of summer. Its action is wonderfully wild, its environment bracingly claustrophobic, its terror relentless, and its ending—well, its ending surprises the reader as a hunter springs upon his prey.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
Perhaps not one of the thousand good books, but William Golding’s acclaimed Lord of the Flies is certainly a thumping good read. In the anatomy of the sultry story canon, Lord of the Flies is arguably the backbone. Though it is a dystopian, demented horror of modern sensibility intended to parody paradisiac survivalist classics such as Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, and most particularly Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, its palpable cynicism and pessimism is strangely palatable. And when it comes to a summer study on the sway and seduction of the jungle law of tooth and claw, Lord of the Flies is a vade mecum, raging with a fever and a bloodlust that few works can match—or would even care to.
When a plane fleeing from war crashes on a secluded Pacific island, a group of British boys find themselves the sole survivors. As their desperate plight dawns on them, the boys begin to lay down rules for survival, society, and salvation. They appoint a chief. They establish a system of assembly with a conch shell. They learn to hunt and kill and cook wild pigs. They build makeshift shelters. They ignite a great fire on a mountain to signal ships. But their efforts unravel under the insurmountable pressures of entropy, insurgency, and devilry. Boyish laziness undermines discipline. Boyish distraction repulses rules. Boyish fears promote paralysis and prostration. Boyish jealousy gives rise to rebellion. Boyish cruelty leads to bloodshed. The struggle to survive civilly decomposes in the blistering heat to a struggle to survive simply, as the boys descend into a madness of primeval savagery. The jungle sweats with groaning palm trees and dangling creepers. The parachuted corpse of a pilot sits snagged with ruined face bowing up and down, up and down, in the hot wind atop the mountain. A pig’s head swarming with flies and smeared with slaughter smirks on a stake, speaking words of unspeakable damnation. And the chant echoes from the rocks, Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!
Lord of the Flies is a terrifying and tragic work, but it flies with the speed of summer lightning. It is a book of fury and fascination, of beauty and brutality, with characters at once dangerously visceral and devastatingly vulnerable. The raw impulses of Nature hardly seem natural in this tale of disintegration, leaving a lingering question on the consequences of the baptismal rejection of the works and empty promises of Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies, and of the searing madness that fires and enflames the will to power.
Editor’s note: The image above was painted by Charles Edward Perugini (1839-1918).This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.