A Most Enduring Plot–Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” and some variants

I love Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.”  Mostly the characters are wooden, the dialogue creaky, the set up (falling off a ship!) absurd–but the plot is glorious–elegant in its simplicity and economy (and the title carries a nice double meaning).  The examination of the hunter and the hunted manages to make this adventure story something greater than it seems to be at first.  It allows us to think about the notions of predator and prey, about the value of life, and about where we draw lines ourselves.  I say that the story “allows” us to think about these things rather than “encourages” us because most of the work of reading this story comes from the reader.

For those unfamiliar with the story (and, actually, EVERYONE will recognize this even if they have never read it); a great hunter by the name of Rainsford falls off a boat passing a mysterious island where he meets the owner of the island–Zaroff (and his assistant Ivan–a former ‘knouter’ for the czar–what a great, peculiar word, ‘knouter,’ that I have never, to my recollection, run across in any other text–it is a particular kind of torturer) who tells him that he hunts “the most dangerous game” on his island.  Rainsford dutifully guesses Cape Buffalo, bengal tigers and other creatures but we soon come to understand that most dangerous game is humans–Zaroff arranges for shipwrecks by changing channel lights and then rescues near-drowned sailors, fattens them up, and sends them into the woods where he hunts them with dogs, Ivan, and a rifle.  Why this seems dangerous to him is a bit of a mystery but there you have it.

Zaroff recognizes Rainsford as a great hunter (apparently the universe of top-flight hunters is pretty small–like any people at the top of their profession they know or know of each other)–they share a mutual admiration of skill and Zaroff proposes that they hunt together.  Here is where our doppelgänger splits–Rainsford will not consent to hunt humans, Zaroff, the Übermensch, has gone “beyond good and evil” and seems to regard Rainsford as something of a hypocrite.  So the admiration turns to competition (it always does with boys, doesn’t it?) and Zaroff hunts Rainsford.

Rainsford is forced to use every trick he can assemble from his arsenal and he succeeds in killing Ivan and forcing a brief retreat from Zaroff.  He eventually tricks Zaroff by faking his own death, returns to Zaroff’s bedroom, throws him out the window to his ravenous dogs during hand-to-hand combat and sleeps in Zaroff’s bed that night. Good has triumphed over evil and both hunters have been taught a lesson.

Who doesn’t recognize this plot–it shows up in movies, television, novels, comic books, Westerns and elsewhere.  Connell, like many an able craftsperson, has struck on something primal, archetypal I’d say. (I think of Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery” in the same way.  That story, incidentally, is monumentally misunderstood and usually badly taught so that students [and some teachers] stand around and “tsk, tsk’ “poor Tessie Hutchinson’s fate” and lament the stupidity and cruelty of the townspeople and then either thank God we’re not like that or, gasp! have a glimmer of recognition that it could be us–both extremely wrong-headed readings but more on that in a different blog post.)  

Algis Budrys was a wonderful writer of SF (and a particularly gifted reviewer of novels).  His novel Who? is a really interesting investigation of how you would PROVE your identity in the face of people constantly doubting you.  Let that idea sit with you for a minute–it is really cool (and explored in texts as different as “Total Recall” and the recent Liam Neeson vehicle Unknown and the Bourne trilogy and for that matter numerous “amnesiac texts”).  In this novel a scientist working near the border of an enemy’s land (think West Berlin and East Berlin) is involved in an horrific accident and the first people to reach him are the “bad guys.”  His face and hands have been destroyed, his voice altered, etc. and so when he is returned to the “good guys” they suspect a plant.  Our scientist tries to “prove” who he is by citing memories (they coud have been learned) and gradually comes to question his own identity–pretty good for a pulp novel but not what’s under consideration here. 

Budrys wrote a short story called “The Master of the Hounds” where an immature artist, Malcolm, smarting from the loss of a hoped-for prize, takes his wife, Virginia, to a place at the “end of a road” shared with one other house only and essentially cut off from the town where he hopes to discover his artistic worth.  Colonel Ritchey, who owns the house and is renting it to them, confides he was almost sure that his realtors would “fail to provide anyone this season.”  Ritchey walks in obvious pain with crutches but a military bearing and he has trained two Dobermans–Max and Moritz–for whom he has enormous affection.  He admires these dogs and says “It takes an animal to stop a man without hesitation, no matter if the man is cursing or praying.” The people who lived there last season, we are told by a local shop owner, must have up and left in the middle of the night. 

Ritchey takes a creepy interest in Virginia–he suggests she might like to wear a light-weight summer dress and put some plantings outside the rental to brighten up his day among other “requests”.  Virginia is an accommodationist just trying to get through this but Malcolm decides to fight back–and here we go with hunters and hunted, predators and prey all trapped on limited geography and playing for mortal stakes all over again–except this time we have added a third character, the woman to be fought over/defended (a common variation).  Ritchey at one point explains that dogs can be trained to do anything–they don’t understand particular words–and orders Max to “Kill!” Malcolm–whereupon the dog jumps on him and proceeds to lick him until commanded otherwise.  Malcolm seriously overestimates his ability to strike at Ritchey and in a wonderful twist to the story, all of the dug up ground around the development turns out to be from tunnels and not just abandoned housing projects (Ritchey had been injured in a tunnel collapse in a German POW camp) so that Ritchey and his dogs show up in Virginia’s and Malcolm’s bedroom whereupon Ritchey give the order to Moritz, “Kiss!” And the story ends.  Presumably that dug up ground that litters the site also hides the bodies of others who have come out to the end of the road. 

Most MDG (Most Dangerous Game) plots resolve themselves with the good guys winning (think Predator, Alien, Under Seige, any number of Westerns, and numerous other movies/novels); Budrys defies our expectation and gives us something different.  And the damsel now in distress has no one coming to save her. More on “horizons of expectation” and reader-response theory in coming weeks as it applies to both classical and pulp literature.

Next week detective stories and semiotics and more from Robert Crais–I think; I’ve got many ideas under consideration.

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