Stephen Graham Jones submitted “Chicken” to Shenandoah last October after we solicited him. We rejected it—for complicated reasons. Like any horror story should be, it was uncomfortable to read. But did it go too far? Where does fictional uncomfortable become real-world offensive? That dividing line may be hazy, but a literary magazine doesn’t have the luxury of ambiguity: either you publish a story or you don’t. And we decided not to.
Rejections are a necessarily massive, behind-the-scenes part of any magazine, and usually after a nice, thanks-but-no-thanks note to a contributor (an especially difficult proposition after a solicitation), the scene ends. But this time we thought: It’s such a powerful piece, hard to forget. Wouldn’t it be interesting to talk to Stephen about our reasons for saying no to “Chicken” and hear his thoughts about writing it? Though that is pretty much the opposite premise for an author interview, we reached out to Stephen anyway and were delighted when he was game. Afterward we realized for readers to make sense of any of this, they would need to be able to read the story themselves. So we are publishing “Chicken” after all, only now in the context of this broader, why-we-rejected-it-before-we-didn’t conversation.
We think you should read the story first so you can form your own opinion, and then read our conversation with Stephen, which you’ll find at the end.
I became a pedophile in the summer of ’99. It was a Thursday. I was eating my usual chicken-strip-basket-of-the-unemployed, as I called it, out on the picnic bench in the burger place’s grouping of outdoor tables. The tables are clustered between the playground and the burger place, so parents can eat and talk and keep track of their kids.
What happened was a boy of maybe nine came and tugged on my sleeve and told me a girl had her hair caught in the tunnel and was crying. I inserted a french fry into my mouth and tracked from him over to the red plastic slide, and the tube above it, intersecting with the rest of the tubes. It was a hamster’s wet dream—endless directions to scurry and hide. I looked to either side for whose responsibility this really was. Everyone was just eating their burgers, drinking their drinks, talking their parent-talk. Probably because there was a tall wrought iron fence around the playground. What could happen?
I stood into the heat, moving slow so as to allow room for someone else to stand from their lunch, play the hero. No one did. Maybe that was for the best, I told myself. At forty-two I was still thin enough to actually get up there, help this girl. It’s good to feel like you matter.
Being sure to smile at the awkwardness of it all, I balanced up the slide, forced my shoulders into the darkness of the tube, and stepped in on my hands and knees, made the first turn into what I assumed was going to be a wall of child breath and damp socks. What I saw when my eyes adjusted, it wasn’t a girl with her long hair caught in the seam where two sections of the tube joined. What I saw made me realize all at once that the boy had been told to tell me to come up here. Me, not anyone else. As to the why of that—I didn’t have a tie on like the business crowd, but they were a small contingent this far from downtown. And my hair was just hair, not unkempt or falling suspiciously over my eyes. I’d even shaved that morning. No sunglasses, no out-of-place camera around my neck. My chicken basket was the only thing that could have set me apart, as this place is known for its burgers.
Unless it was that I was alone.
Maybe that marked me as wounded, as vulnerable. Easy pickings.
In the tube, staring right into my soul like a spider, was a twelve-year-old sandy-haired girl with her skirt hiked up to her waist. Her friends were all around her in that tight space. They’d been waiting for my face to appear so they could scream. So all the other parents on the playground could look over, see my wrong-sized silhouette in the foggy-scratched bubble window. I jerked back, away from this, and thunked my head hard on a smooth corner. The girls screamed again, with more resolve.
I pushed back farther, tumbled down into the throat of the slide, got digested down and around, spit up onto the rubbery surface of the playground. I stood, unsteady. There was blood sluicing down my face and neck, I guess. Because scalps like to bleed. Because my heart was a pump. Because my insides were on the outside, now. I was still holding a chicken strip I hadn’t really meant to bring with me. The tiny brown birds that have made this burger place their feeding ground were wheeling and massing over all of us. Parents were holding their burgers and trying to make sense of me. Their hushed-in-awe children were considering me in a new way. The girls’ screaming washed out of the tube in louder and more urgent waves. The world had stopped turning just so it could get me in its sights better, snap a mugshot or two.
I would say I ran, but in truth it was a guilty scramble, the fingertips of my right hand to the ground for a few staggering steps, my mouth open to draw air in for this retreat. I clambered over the fence like the most desperate rag doll.
My tan hatchback was just across the parking lot. My identification was burning a hole in my pocket, wanting to announce me, wanting to staple my face onto utility poles. My eyes were watering from what I’d seen, what I wouldn’t be able to deny I’d seen. I wouldn’t make it to my car, of course, would be tackled long before that, my face ground into the tacky rough asphalt by employees and parents, my excuses coughing into apologies, into a mewling plea that they had this all wrong, that it wasn’t me. That it was me, but that wasn’t me. It was the summer of ’99. My head was sideways against the parking lot, my eyes directed through the fence, back to my favorite lunch place, like they all wanted me to see this.
The girl from the tube was at one of the outside tables now, and had her skirt back on right, knees tight, a blanket or a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Her eyes were swollen from crying, her friends all around her, glaring at me. The girl’s legs were bare. Of course they were bare. School had just started. It was still warm. I didn’t want to be looking at them either, her bare legs, but now—now I was what I was, wasn’t I? I was what I was, and no explanation was going to change that. So I looked, and I drank her in, this girl who was about to change my life, and the birds were massing over my french fries, and by the time the authorities arrived, my basket would be empty. But it wasn’t even my basket anymore, really.
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Chris: Like two other members of the Washington and Lee English department, I’ve taught your novel Mongrels. It was in my contemporary fiction course, which focuses on literary genre fiction, works that break the traditional but false divide between what’s considered “good” writing and writing that falls into categories. For Mongrels, that’s horror, specifically werewolves.
Stephen: Thanks. Honored to get included in a course like that. Glad the—not sure what to call it…the stuffiness of academics, maybe?—glad that, kind of en masse, we’re all pushing it to the side of the road, and just continuing on down that road. I mean, sure, there’s always a push and pull between commercial and literary work—one gets the checks, the other gets the respect—but, it’s too bad that something amazing like Lem’s Solaris, say, might get prejudiced against just because it traffics on the wrong side of that divide. Hopefully that divide’s getting filled in. And hopefully it’s getting filled in with the bodies of all the people who helped dig it in the first place.
Chris: When Beth Staples arrived at Shenandoah and asked who I’d like to solicit fiction from, you were my top choice. She gave an enthusiastic thumbs up, and I wrote to you. Most solicitations don’t result in much, so I was pleasantly surprised when you said you wanted to send us something.
Stephen: I don’t get asked to do much literary stuff anymore, but I still like playing in those fields, of course. When I go through my own stories and try to identify which ones I think worked the best at one time, man, a lot of those are stories that are what we call literary. So, was glad to get the invite. Luckily I already had a piece sitting around. Had no idea what to do with it, since most of my contacts these days are horror or science fiction or fantasy, and this was definitely none of those, and would have got a fast reject there, just due to content.
Chris: When “Chicken” arrived in my inbox, I was horrified. From the opening phrase, “I became a pedophile…,” I was tilted at my laptop, eyes wide, heart spiked. It was a different kind of horror than I was expecting—but isn’t that the point? If it’s predictable, if it settles you into comfortable tropes, it’s just formula—which is the opposite of literary fiction, including literary horror fiction.
Stephen: Yeah, I wanted to write an uncomfortable piece, one that would make me feel uncomfortable while writing it. That’s probably why it’s so short, really.
Chris: Reading “Chicken” was a physical experience. And as my body cringed, anticipating the apparently monstrous narrator’s confession, the story upturned me again, reversing that first horror with the realization that the narrator is actually the victim of a pack of monstrous children.
Stephen: When my kids were playground-young, it seemed there was always one of us parents on the sideline who’d have to, at some point, wriggle up into those tubes to attend to some crisis or another. And you don’t hesitate when the crying kid might be your own, of course. But, too, when you’re the dark-skinned, longhaired guy with a chain on his wallet and DEF LEPPARD on his shirt and a horror book in his hand, the parents are already looking kind of askance at you. Or, they’re watching you very close when and if you step out onto that springy gravel. Their eyelids are shutters, and they’re documenting your every step.
Chris: That’s a hell of a twist, though: that little blond girl and her accomplices, they’re the lying predators, not their falsely accused prey. That’s twisted under any circumstances. But this was October 2018. “Chicken” arrived literally the day after the Senate voted on Brett Kavanaugh and the day before President Trump ceremoniously swore him in. We’d all been transfixed by yet another kind of horror, the confirmation hearings. During the preceding days and weeks, many Republicans had declared Kavanaugh a victim of his accusers. We were told not to believe Christine Blasey Ford because her sworn account of his attempted rape was either lies or delusions or both. Now look at the last paragraph of “Chicken”: “Her eyes were swollen from crying, her friends all around her, glaring at me….this girl who was about to change my life…”
Stephen: Wow, didn’t even realize that timing on that, on this. I’ve had this story, this fear, in my head for a long time. Comes from this one guy always lurking around when I was in elementary. He might have been all right, maybe he was just lonely or something, a little confused, but the kids would always pick on him in weird, pack-mentality ways, like their kidness and his adultness cleared them of any actual wrongdoing, and then they’d set their big brothers and uncles and the like on him. Always confused me, watching that guy. I remember one night a bunch of people trashed his car. He hadn’t done anything to deserve that, I didn’t think, but…I don’t know. I remember standing in the parking lot and looking at his car, and just not being able to figure the world out.
Chris: We couldn’t shake that image of the girl with the blanket on her shoulders, the story asking us to consider her a manipulator, a liar, as the parents rushed to her. In the context of that very specific political moment, Beth had a visceral reaction to that image. We say “that moment” as if it’s passed, though of course it hasn’t. There were so many people questioning women’s stories, calling them liars. Ford is one such woman who we might picture with a blanket around her shoulders, but there were so many others. When did you write “Chicken”? When you sent it, were you thinking about the national conversation about Kavanaugh?
Stephen: Just looked it up. Wrote “Chicken” September 2, 2016. Though I’d written a chunk of it either on my phone or on a napkin, so September 2016 is just when I finally put into Pages, I’d guess. And, man, Kavanaugh wasn’t even partway in my thinking then, or when I shot it across to y’all. I used to live on a street named that, in Little Rock, but that’s this story’s only connection to that name, I think. Except, as you said, for the day y’all read it first.
Chris: Setting aside Kavanaugh and #MeToo, why did you choose a little blond girl for your predator? Unexpected reversals, especially ones involving power dynamics, are an effective literary technique—but were you also thinking about the potential political meaning? To what degree, if any, do you think an author should be concerned with politics?
Stephen: You can’t not be concerned with politics, I don’t guess. In the sense that we’re each political entities, and every utterance or move we make is in some way informed by our take on the world. As for ripping stuff from the headlines Law & Order style, or waging war against this party or that act or some specific person—having an agenda, I guess I’m saying—I’m not so good at that. Other writers? Sure. They got it down. Me, I just try to be mad about what I’m mad about, and then sit down and try to write a story about something completely unrelated, with a premise so comical and otherworldly that it can’t possibly engage what I’m currently fuming about. Invariably, though, the stuff I’m mad about bleeds across, informs the work, maybe even kind of undergirds it. But in ways I don’t think it’s productive for me to know about, or have in the front of my mind. So, with this story—why I wrote it? It’s a scene from Mongrels, actually. That September I was just coming off tour and promotion for it, and I’d found that one scene that worked okay out loud, as it ends on a kind of uncomfortable crunch, was the pet store scene. Which, to me, or, why I wrote that scene, it’s because I’ve forever been getting eyeballed by clerks in convenience stores. They’re so sure I’m going to steal something that, used to, I’d become what they were already sure I was, and just take something, run. When I’d talk about that piece after reading it, I’d say how, coming up Indian, you get used to this kind of attention-in-the-mirror. And everybody would kind of nod. But I got increasingly uncomfortable with their nodding. Like, they weren’t uncomfortable enough with this dynamic. I was paranoid they were just doing that thing America does to Indians, where they work a tragic gaze up and direct some pity our way. And I seriously resist that kind of action, that kind of reduction. It’s the exact opposite of helpful. So I wrote this story. Just, instead of a not-thief becoming a thief due to the expectations of someone else, this time I staged up a non-pedophile, and, due to everyone’s expectations, turned him into one.
Chris: We would love to hear more about that ending: “I was what I was, wasn’t I?” Does this narrator believe himself to be a victim, or does he believe himself to be a pedophile, revealed to himself and to the reader through this trickery? It seems you could read it either way. Who is the victim at the end? Him? Or the girl he “drinks in”? Did you have an answer, or is this ambiguity part of what the story is exploring? It seems, in real-life issues of pedophilia, there is no room for this kind of ambiguity, and I think that’s partly what made us so uncomfortable with the story.
Stephen: I think for a lot of the story he was a victim, yeah. But then, seeing the way the wind was blowing, he stood up into it. He doesn’t look at that girl at the end with innocent eyes, right? He’s no longer a victim. He’s been transformed. I don’t mean to validate the dynamic that does that to him, but I do hope there’s not any easy pity involved.
Chris: As we debated your story, I thought of an Oscar Wilde aphorism: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Do you agree, or can a story be both well written and immoral?
Stephen: Hmm. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door would be a good test case, here. Intense, transgressive, disturbing novel, very well told, but a lot of people push back against it, call it immoral, in poor taste, all that. Which, sure, it’s not an easy novel to have banging around inside your head. I’ve read it thirteen times now, and I think I’m maybe finally done with it. But still, that novel has a moral center. It’s not sensationalizing what’s going on, it’s indicting it. Just, never directly, always with the setup. Such a clever, effective build. But, can a book be moral or immoral? I don’t think so, no. Morality is lodged in people who can make decisions, not in stories on a page. Our responses can be moral or immoral…I guess? Maybe? But, I mean, Twisted Sister’s music never corrupted anyone, I don’t think. Still, I am always saying that fiction, the right story, can save your life. I feel like it’s saved mine over and over. So, if I’m going to say a story or a novel can have that kind of impact, then it’s kind of necessary that it also be able to throw weight the other direction, yes? To the not-saving-a-life side of things, which could possibly register, finally, as immoral, I suppose. So, while I guess, with what I believe, I may be kind of logically required to accept that, still, I’d prefer to flip the terms, if possible. Moral and immoral, to me, are people attributes. I agree with Wilde, that books are either well written or badly written.
Chris: One of the pleasures of reading and teaching Mongrels is grappling with the overlapping complexities of ethnicity and socioeconomics and gender. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a political book, but it certainly throws open a range of political issues. “Chicken” isn’t a novel though—it clocks in around a thousand words. How does brevity influence the writing?
Stephen: Flash fiction is far and away my favorite mode to write. Brevity is a big controlling factor. I think all fiction should be aiming to be shorter, to be quicker, to always be ending, from line one. I mean, I love novels too, both reading them and writing them, but with flash fiction you can take more chances, finally. Meaning: the market won’t select against you for taking those chances, as it will with the novel. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of my novels take way too many chances, and I’m lucky to have found publishers willing to play along. But, finally, there’s more freedom in the thousand-word range, I think. If you can tell a whole story, that is. A lot of flash fiction I read, I leave it suspecting that this writer understands flash as a size, not a wholeness, as a compression, not a peephole. At the end of a story, however long or short, I want to have been taken somewhere, I want to have gone on a journey, not just had a scene rendered realistically or whimsically or glancingly or whatever.
Chris: When editors reject a submission, it’s usually by form letter, sometimes with a personalized sentence or two, especially if the submission was solicited like yours. I don’t think any journal has revealed their decision process in the detail we are here—or asked an author to retort. But now we’re not rejecting “Chicken.” We’re publishing it—in order to have this conversation. After hearing our thoughts on “Chicken,” what are yours?
Stephen: Man, I just think I got halfway lucky with the title. I’m thinking I must have written this while I was hungry, and chicken strips are my go-to food, wherever I am. Used to be it was club sandwiches, but, as many times as not, when I’m on the road and order a club sandwich at a restaurant or from room service or wherever, there’ll be a pickle nestled alongside the sandwich, its evil slime actually touching bread I’m supposed to, I assume, consider putting in my mouth in a non-panicky way. So I’ve wisely dialed back to just chicken strips, please. First draft, this story was “Pedophile,” I think. And that’s still the file name. But then I saw the guy was munching on chicken strips, and it all lucked together. Hardest part of this story, to me? That line about hamsters. I still go back and forth over that one in my head. I can’t figure out if those tunnels are a hamster’s nightmare or a hamster’s wet dream. I mean, to us it’s a tangle of smelly tubes, of course, so nightmare clocks in. But hamsters have different senses, have rodent radar, so I have to suspect these cavernous tunnels, to them, would be…just boring, maybe? Just nothing? Another place to become prey? Or, if hamsters are somehow people-sized in this figurative build, are these tubes then too short, too go-nowhere? But I want some extreme there, either the worst of the bad, a nightmare, or some extreme escape, a wet dream. Finally I just had to slightly rephrase that line such that it says more about the narrator than it does actual hamsters. Which—do hamsters even have wet dreams? All that fur…I don’t know. I’m no rodentologist, though I’ve caught and played with a lot of mice and varmints, just to see what’s what. Still, that line is the part of this story that haunts me. I feel like I’m either laying something on hamsters that they’d push back against, or I’m revealing my own ignorance of hamsters. Neither of those are ideal. I need to be a better writer, I suspect. Or at least a better friend to the hamsters.