“Horned Men” by Karl Taro Greenfeld

“He pulled his eye away from the gap. This wasn’t really spying, he reasoned; he was up here working, trying to solve a problem, lay some cable.” – Karl Taro Greenfeld, Horned Men

A small brown box arrived on my doorstep yesterday. Inside was a single book, The Best American Short Stories 2013, which is my required textbook for an upcoming fiction writing course that I am taking at Oregon State University. How great is that? Not a giant hardcover book that weighs seven pounds, or a tattered used copy that is always sold back to the bookstore because nobody is inspired enough by the words within to actually keep the book, but an actual collection that I might have purchased on my own anyway. Opening the box, and looking at the brand new book, I felt as though I had cheated the system. My required reading was a book that I would normally read for fun.

New books excite me, and with the term still weeks away, I decided to read a story or two from the collection. Who knows, maybe already having read some of the book will give me a head start once the assignments begin rolling in.

I am a simple man, and when I saw the title of Karl Taro Greenfeld’s story, “Horned Men”, I was hooked. It would be the first one I would read from the book. Now that I am finished with the tale, I am hoping that the rest of the stories in the collection are as good as “Horned Men”.

Greenfeld’s story begins with a father who is crawling in the attic of a house that his family has recently moved into. The father, as he explores the attic space for the correct spot to drop his television cable into the wall, makes a discovery that is both intriguing and unsettling. Through a seam in the attic, the father is able to look into his teenage daughter’s bedroom – completely without her knowing that she is being watched.

The circumstances in which the family, who owns the house, has moved in involve kicking out their renters, and so when the father finds a disturbing carving in the attic, accompanied by an ominous “curse”, he doesn’t think much of it.

Yet, as he crawls around in the tight space, misfortune finds him as he suffers a painful wound (I won’t say how, you need to read the story to find that out). He finds items in the attic that don’t belong, and make little sense to be up there. His daughter makes a creepy discovery of her own, and the family is struggling to regain the happiness that they shared prior to the economic crash.

Greenfeld paces this story perfectly, moving the reader along without ever rushing them. As the story wraps up, the ending is just unsettling enough to force the reader to come to their own conclusions about the father before being able to close the book. This is not a tidy ending, where the author tells you what to think. Greenfeld concludes the story in such a way that we are not quite sure how the father acts moving forward, but we can guess that things will never again be as good as they once were.

Was there a curse, or was the family just another set of victims during tough economic times? Has the father changed, as his daughter has grown into something that he is not entirely proud of? When the father goes into the attic for the final time, does he complete what he set out to do?

You tell me.

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“Horned Men” was originally published in ZYZZYVA. I read the story in the pages of The Best American Short Stories 2013, which was edited by Elizabeth Strout.

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