For all writers feeling bound by genre, here’s something hopefully liberating: Snopes has brought it to our attention that John Steinbeck, known for his portrayals of injustice in central California, wrote and published a horror story about a boy who begins to chew gum . . . only to discover that the gum is chewing him.
“The Affair at 7 Rue de M-,” originally published in 1955 in Harper’s Bazaar, and then reprinted ten years later in the pulpy Magazine of Horror, begins when an old family friend gifts the son of the Poe-like narrator some bubble gum. But—horror of horrors—the gum is animate, it’s living in some sub-communicative and evil way, and it chews the kid’s mouth against his will, so the narrator is forced to pin it to boards with ice picks and place it in bell jars, and, ultimately, bury it in the garden and plant geraniums atop it. Here’s the moment where the gum is revealed to be more-than:
I heard the unmistakable soft p l o p p i n g sound of a bursting balloon of bubble gum. I looked sternly at my offspring and saw him chewing away. His cheeks were colored with embarrassment and the muscles of his jaws stood rigidly out.
“You know the rule,” I said coldly.
To my amazement tears came into his eyes and while his jaws continued to masticate hugely, his blubbery voice forced its way past the huge lump of bubble gum in his mouth. “I didn’t do it!”
“What do you mean, you didn’t do it?” I demanded in a rage. “I distinctly heard and now I distinctly see.”
“Oh sir!” he moaned, “I really didn’t. I’m not chewing it, sir. It’s chewing me.”
I’m not chewing it, sir. It’s chewing me! This is the classic Russian Reversal format: “In Soviet Russia, television watches you.” It’s everywhere: What if a HORSE rode a GUY? What if PIGS, usually EATEN by PEOPLE, DID the EATING? What if you were KISSING a PHONE and TEXTING ON your WIFE? These reversals are shocking, but can feel annoyingly attention-grabby: of course it would be strange if a normal feature of our world was suddenly formed into the opposite.
Yet, as Magazine of Horror’s introduction to Steinbeck’s story pointed out, “Even while we laughed, we felt a sort of twinge—it could be rather ghastly, if it actually happened.” It’s frightening to have your positionality ripped out from under you, to discover the world you thought you knew and your place in it is actually something with unknown rules and limits. Aristotle knew this. And so did Steinbeck: What if your attempts to get close to other creatures was exactly what prevented you from ever getting close to anyone? In Soviet Russia, the men are like mice.