Short Fiction Review: The Man Who Carved Skulls by Richard Parks

th_a0580aaeccec739569f2502c0aa86498_lightspeed_36_may_2013Title: The Man Who Carved Skulls

Author: Richard Parks

Publisher: Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 36 (Reprint from 2007 Weird Tales)

Date: May 2013

Review:

“I married your mother for her skull. It’s no secret.”

So begins the story of Jarak, the skull carver. His profession is a noble one — etching images into the skulls of the deceased to forever commemorate their lives in the House of Skulls. Jarak’s son, Akan, takes an interest in his father’s work, hoping one day to follow in his footsteps.

Jarak tells his son how he met his mother and how she ultimately married him in hope of having her own skull immortalized with greater beauty and prestige than any of the other heads on display in the tomb. It’s a vain love story, but both Jarak and his wife, Letis, are happy.

The conflict begins when Jarak’s health takes a turn for the worst and it appears that Jarak’s promise to decorate his wife’s skull will go unfulfilled. She has not the courage to commit suicide and Jarak doesn’t have the heart to kill her. Only Akan can intercede if his parent’s deepest wishes can come true.

At first, after reading this story, I was reminded of the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel, Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. Ender Wiggin is faced with a similar dilemma where he must commit a violent act against an alien species for the “piggie” to be immortalized. Card adroitly deals with the subject of conflicting ethics and norms, making this novel superior to its predecessor, Ender’s Game.

In The Man Who Carved Skulls, Akan’s dilemma is not one of ethics, but of cost. Is it worth the cost of losing his own freedom and future so that his parents’ dreams can be fulfilled? There is also a message of love, asking to what extent a person will carry out an undesirable act for the ones he loves.

I found the story to be well-written and thought-provoking. I love situational ethics and the dilemma presented touches on this subject. Where I was a bit lost was with the selfishness of Letis. Not only is she vain, but she is so cowardly that she would rather have her son punished for his entire life than kill herself. Akan, rather than being a selfless hero, becomes a victim. Not even his deed is noble, for all it accomplishes is fulfilling her shallow pursuit.

While my later reflections have mixed thoughts, the story did provide an idea that made me think beyond the last line. Even though the characters were not all that likable, I really liked the premise and overall found it to be a rewarding read.

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