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Favorites from John Biguenet's "The Torturer's Apprentice"

Updated on July 23, 2014

For those who are interested in smaller doses of literature or who have a taste for stories with a splash of the supernatural, an altered concept of reality, and themes such as obsession, desire, madness, and longing, John Biguenet’s collection of short stories entitled The Torturer’s Apprentice is an ideal candidate for that next read. His imaginative pieces make for a highly enjoyable experience, while his heavy thematic content leaves the story swirling in one’s mind for days to come. Biguenet likes to mix in the abnormal with the ordinary, for many of his stories involve the average, middle aged person who finds himself in a nearly unbelievable situation. Thus, the characters are remarkably relatable, allowing readers to experience the strange world of Biguenet’s making just as fast as they can turn the pages..

Here are some of my favorites from The Torturer’s Apprentice. They are in no particular order as I found it nearly impossible to limit my number of picks, much less rank them.

1. “The Vulgar Soul”

The collection opens with a stunning piece centered on the conflict between science and faith. In this tale, Tom, the rather average seeming main character, mysteriously acquires the wounds of a stigmatic, or a person who has injuries akin to those inflicted upon Jesus during his crucifixion. No medical reason can be found for why they are present on his body, yet, being an atheist, he does not believe that they were placed upon him by the divine. Regardless, many members of the religious community flock to witness the miracle of his wounds, crying out to him with their woes in hopes that his mystic injuries will help mend their blemished souls. At first, Tom is abashed by this and avoids contact with his new fans. However, once the wounds finally heal and he bears witness to the soothing power of faith, he is tempted to recreate the marks upon his body.

This acknowledgment of the positive effects of belief is what makes the story so moving, yet it is simultaneously a prescient commentary on the evolving condition of contemporary society. With the advancement of science and the shrinking room and regard for the unexplainable, the maintenance of human spirituality is consistently neglected. While religion is far from being antiquated, the secularization of the vast majority of life does limit the reach of spirituality. Yet the author does not portray this as inherently negative; it is more so just a fact of life. However, whether the miraculous is prompted by a deity or chemistry is not what is important. It is how one chooses to respond to it, to accept it, to incorporate it into his/her life that makes the difference. At first, Tom is resistant to his marks, disliking their unaccountable nature and the attention they garner. Once he bears witness to the profound influence they make on others, he softens, understanding the impact of faith more clearly. Perhaps this is all Biguenet hopes for his reader: that he/she may soften to the spiritual needs of others, even if they are not shared.

On the other hand, the origin of the wounds is never revealed, and possible causes such as self-mutilation or a psychosomatic disorder are never truly ruled out. If the wounds are present merely because of an underlying mental illness, the religious zeal that others displayed in response to the injuries looks much more delusional and pathetic. That one can interpret the story either way is the reason it is amongst my favorites.

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2. "A Plague of Toads"

This remarkable story delves into the world of obsession, offering a wholly captivating tale of a man consumed by finding the truth, or at least some version of it. Slimy toads have overwhelmed the city in which the narrator lives, however, as he comes to find out, it is not the first time such an event has taken place in this town. He follows his curiosity into the bowels of City Hall, and what he finds in the yearly records is enough to make one question the real from the fictional.

If I had to pick a favorite, this piece would be my selection for no other reason than how completely it sucks its reader into the world of the narrator. Biguenet does an excellent job of delving into the story in such a way that it becomes impossible to put it down. It feels as if the narrator’s experiences are one’s own, making the reading “A Plague of Toads” enthralling. I would say more, but to tell too much is to ruin the thrill of reading it for oneself.

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3. "The Open Curtain"

This piece is one of the more subtle works of the collection. While it does contain many of the themes found frequently within The Torturer’s Apprentice, such as a sense of supernatural forces at work and a confusion of reality, it does so on a more minute scale.

Upon arriving at home from a business trip, Pierce, a family man and a sales representative, lingers in his car to watch his family from the dining room window. He quickly realizes that he can barely recognize anything; it is as if he is watching strangers instead of his own wife and children. This sense of unfamiliarity follows him, so he goes about his days rediscovering the life he lives.

What makes this story so intriguing is its relatability. Most people fall into a daily pattern, but occasionally something happens to radically change one’s perspective, be it the death of a loved one or the start of a new relationship. Once this occurs, everything is seen from a different light, almost as if it is being experienced for the first time. Interestingly, there is no revolutionary outside force that causes Pierce to look at everything anew. He only watches his own family interact with each other through the window, and his sense of recognition dissipates. It is as if a stranger inhabited Pierce’s body and now must attempt to act normal so as not to be discovered.

Yet maybe this happens more often than one would think. It is not unusual to feel as though a sense of self is absent or unknown, if only for a moment. Perhaps it would be beneficial if such a feeling came more often than occasionally; it would potentially give rise to introspection and a thoughtful questioning of one’s life. If people were able to step outside themselves and view their lives through the eyes of a stranger, it is possible that there would be less complacency and more striving towards a better existence. Toxic relationships would be severed while those taken for granted would be recognized for their worth. Maybe people would be more kind and loving, as Pierce came to be during his experience.

Even if this was possible, it would only be temporary. The foreign becomes the familiar quickly, just as Pierce slips back into the fog of complacency and boredom from which he had risen. The same can be said of the impact made by reading such excellent pieces of literature. Their insight opens eyes for a while, yet as time passes, the brilliance fades from memory, and life resumes its normal pace.

However, I would like to think otherwise, Mr. Biguenet.

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4. "The Torturer's Apprentice"

Naturally, the namesake of the collection is one of the best pieces it contains. "The Torturer’s Apprentice" is the tale of a medieval torturer who becomes required by law to use his talents on his beloved apprentice. Accused of a crime he did not commit, the assistant must withstand the practice of pain, suffering rather ironically at the hand of his own master and trade. The apprentice is a young and beautiful man, but the techniques used mar his physique forever. Thus, every time the torturer looks upon his loyal assistant, he is reminded of the cruel nature of his profession and the irrevocable damage it inflicts.

Both the torturer and apprentice are written in such a way that the reader is inclined to sympathize with them. Despite the fact that their work is horrific, ugly, and beyond inhumane, they are both likable characters who just seem to be trooping through the work day like anyone else. This feeling holds true throughout the story, for when the apprentice is undergoing his trial, sadness is felt on behalf of both the torturer and the tortured. The chance to understand both sides of victimization does not come along often, as so often it is encouraged to choose a side. This alone is one of the more brilliant aspects of the short piece as well as a poignant demonstration of Biguenet’s skill.

On top of this, the story offers a unique look at desensitization at its most extreme. The torturer rarely felt the overwhelming amount of guilt and anguish which overtakes him while mutilating his apprentice. While he is occasionally bothered by the screams of his victims, he always manages to write his actions off as a requirement of his profession and a necessity for society. This proves to be impossible when it is a loved one who emits the bellows, but as time passes, the torturer’s guilt also is pushed away.

Thus, a swarm of questions arises when these sorts of ethical dilemmas are brought to the table. Why does it take so much to humanize victims? Must the ramifications of one’s actions be personally experienced before it is realized that all people suffer, not just the ones held dearest? Why is it so easy to become numb to cruelty and wrongdoing? How is it possible that people can turn their backs on their own kind? Regardless of the fact that torture is now widely looked down upon, how is it that it was a perfectly acceptable practice at any point in human history? Why does it still occur today? Are those who mutilate others inherently evil, or are they just completing a task that is required of them? Who are today’s torturer’s?

Such questions are pressing no matter what point in time one asks them. As such, "The Torturer’s Apprentice" will continue to be insightful and a bit worrisome throughout the years to come.

Conclusion

Perhaps the best thing that The Torturer's Apprentice has to offer is its ability to find the abnormal in the normal, the magic within the drudgery of daily life, a splendor that is both fearsome and awe-inspiring. It creates worlds that still have a bit of the supernatural within them without going over the top. Additionally, the questions it raises plague the mind, making it a thoughtful, imaginative, and highly interesting collection that is well suited for all.

Works Cited

Biguenet, John. The Torturer's Apprentice: Stories. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001. Print.

© 2014 Megan Faust

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