Torturer's Apprentice: Stories

Torturer's Apprentice: Stories

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by John Biguenet

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This brilliant debut collection of stories by O. Henry Award winner John Biguenet is as notable for the rigor of its intellect as for the sweep of its imagination. Whether recounting the predicament of an atheistic stigmatic in "The Vulgar Soul" or a medieval torturer who must employ his terrible skills upon his own apprentice in the title tale, these stories


This brilliant debut collection of stories by O. Henry Award winner John Biguenet is as notable for the rigor of its intellect as for the sweep of its imagination. Whether recounting the predicament of an atheistic stigmatic in "The Vulgar Soul" or a medieval torturer who must employ his terrible skills upon his own apprentice in the title tale, these stories decline to settle for ready sentiments or easy assurances.

Rather than add to the massive canon of the victimized, for example, "My Slave" takes the perspective of the victimizer. In "The Open Curtain," a man achieves intimacy with his family only when he recognizes — watching them dine as he sits in his car at the curb — that he lives in a household of strangers. Menaced by a gang of skinheads in a Jewish cemetery, an American tourist in Germany placates the Neo-Nazis with a formula he continues to repeat even after he is safely back home in "I Am Not a Jew." And as for love, it makes demands in such stories as "Do Me" that shake our very notions of what it means to love.

If these stories engage the world in sometimes shocking ways, they are virtuoso engagements, eloquent in their prose, surprising in their plotting, sly in their humor. Biguenet shifts among voices and narrative strategies and imposes neither a single style nor a repeated structure as he depicts the ecological catastrophe of "A Plague of Toads," the problem posed by a ghost in the nursery in "Fatherhood," and the ghastly discovery a grieving widower defends as "another kind of memory" in "Rose."

Such mastery of craft may come as a surprise in a first-time author, but even more impressive is the object of his art. For whether it seeks to prick or to tickle, each story in The Torturer's Apprentice addresses its subject with an authority unusual in contemporary literature as it entices the reader beyond the boundaries of the expected and the accepted.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Like a trapeze artist who disdains the use of a net, Biguenet takes considerable risks in this impressive debut collection, which shows the influence of both American realism and European intellectual fiction. Building his stories around hard-to-like people a medieval torturer, a beautiful masochist, a man who decides to purchase a slave Biguenet examines the complex moral conundrums they face. In "The Vulgar Soul," a man named Tom Hogue begins to bleed for no apparent reason. He gradually realizes that his wounds are remarkably like stigmata, and he becomes an object of inspiration for religious seekers, though he himself remains unmoved by his condition. In "My Slave," a prospective slaveowner describes with chilling dispassion his desire to own another person. He soon finds that he understands little of the "complex mechanisms of discipline and punishment" required of slaveholders, and even less of their effect on his own psyche. The title story sketches the life of an itinerant torturer, paid to extract confessions in the small towns of medieval Europe. The torturer's life is surprisingly banal, involving the hassles of guild membership and the difficulty of transporting heavy torture devices over poor roads, but his existence takes an unforeseen turn when he engages a young, gentle apprentice. Biguenet is equally surefooted in more domestic territory. "Lunch with My Daughter" is all subtext and guarded emotions, as a man struggles with revealing his true identity to his daughter over lunch. In "The Open Curtain," a suburban salesman, burdened by routine, finds that he can take surprising pleasure in his own family. As skillful as they are ambitious, these uncompromising stories herald the arrival on the literary scene of a provocative new talent. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Biguenet's stories have appeared in Esquire, in literary magazines, and in the 1997, 1998, and 1999 editions of The Best American Short Stories, but this is his first collection. The classic style of the stunning title story recalls that of Par Lagerkvist's The Dwarf (1958). Guillem, the torturer, searches for an apprentice to learn his trade as well as to keep him company, a union ending in tragedy. In "A Work of Art," a young man obsessed with possessing a Degas sculpture sells everything he owns to buy it, only to find that the sculpture possesses him. In "The Vulgar Soul," an unbelieving "bleeder" is skeptical when he is diagnosed with the stigmata but achieves a skewered faith because of the reactions of others. "I Am Not a Jew," a cautionary tale, explores a man's unwilling self-examination after an encounter with Nazi skinheads in a Jewish cemetery. "Lunch with My Daughter" highlights a loving father's lunch with the 16-year-old daughter who knows him only as a family friend and confidant. Each story in this collection is narrated in elegant, unencumbered prose, concluding with a twist of fate or an ironic ending. An outstanding collection; for all public libraries. Mary Szczesiul, Roseville P.L., MI Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Katherine Wolff
These stories, some of which have appeared in magazines like Granta, Esquire and Story, demonstrate a genuine artistry. Even the lightest one -- "Lunch With My Daughter,'' in which the narrator recounts a casual meal with the girl he secretly fathered -- vibrates with quiet sorrow. ...Biguenet's calm, lucid prose is consistently entrancing.... A set of marvelously eerie folk legends.
New York Times Book Review

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Vulgar Soul

It began as a chafing, a patch of dry skin, in the palm of his left hand. He ignored it at first, though at odd moments he found himself absentmindedly rubbing the chapped flesh.

It persisted. After a week or so, he appealed to the pharmacist in the old-fashioned drugstore and soda fountain near his house. The druggist, a young man whose diploma on the wall behind him was as fresh and white as the medical frock he donned before counseling customers about their minor complaints, asked the man to extend the hand with the rash.

"It's not a rash, exactly," he said, opening his palm over the counter. "It's just sort of scaly."

"Well, Mr. Hogue--"

"Tom," the man interrupted.

"Well, Tom, I think we've got what you need." The pharmacist led him down an aisle of ointments. Reaching for a purple box, the druggist explained that a simple moisturizing lotion would probably suffice. "But," the young man added gravely, "if itching develops, we may have to consider a hydrocortisone cream."

Sitting in his car in front of the drugstore, Hogue unscrewed the top of the bottle and coaxed a dab of the lotion onto his hand. Massaging the raw flesh with the moisturizer, he saw deeper cracks in the skin than he had noticed before. He poured more lotion into his cupped palm.

That night, peeling off his socks as he dressed for bed, he thought his right foot seemed blistered. Damn new shoes, he told himself, though a sly doubt vaguely tormented himas he rubbed moisturizing lotion into his hand. He restrained himself from looking more closely at the blister.

Work preoccupied Hogue for the next few days. The lotion seemed to soothe his chafed hand. The blister, which had engorged itself, burst, and filled again, required some attention, though. He bandaged his foot to prevent infection and waited for his body to heal its own wounds. He smiled at his overblown worries and let them drift away down the broad boulevards of a busy life.

It was with the startled panic of one who suddenly remembers a forgotten obligation that he felt the dampness on the bottom of his sock when he had unlaced his shoe a few evenings later. Slipping the sock off his foot, he was shocked to see the bandage soaked with blood. He hopped into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub with his ankle resting on the other leg. Holding his breath, he gingerly peeled back the tape of the dressing. As the bandage came loose, he glanced at the sore and quickly looked away. Taking another breath, he bathed it in peroxide. He was surprised that he could find beneath the cotton ball with which he wiped the blood no open wound, only a deeply chapped bruise the size of a quarter.

By the time Hogue fell asleep hours later, he had convinced himself that there was really nothing all that strange in what had happened. Rushing from meeting to meeting that day, he had done more walking than usual, which must have opened the blister. Tomorrow was Saturday. He would try to keep off his feet over the weekend and give the sore a chance to heal.

Despite two days on the couch with a pillow beneath his foot, by Monday he was hobbled by a tenderness on the bottom of both feet. The blistering had spread to the other foot.

He was embarrassed by the expressions of concern offered by his colleagues as he limped to his office. Though he wore bandages, his gait was deformed by the ache of the two raw bruises on his feet. He tried to stay at his desk all day.

Driving home, he passed the drugstore but thought better of conferring with the young pharmacist when he imagined how ridiculous he would look, tottering on one leg as he laid a bare foot upon the counter. And what if it started to bleed? He often ran into his neighbors at the little store.

Hogue decided to wait. Except for the soreness, he was perfectly healthy. He felt sure nothing was wrong, or so he told himself.

The tenderness eased over the next few days, although there were a few incidents of bleeding. He began to use the moisturizing lotion on his feet. Religiously, he continued to apply the lotion to his hand, but while the dry skin did not worsen, neither did it improve. In fact, it was while rubbing his palms together with a dollop of lotion that he first felt the roughness on his right hand.

He was surprised to find himself almost resigned to his discovery, as if he had been waiting, unknowingly, for this last extremity to exhibit the chafing of the other three.

But there was nothing foreseen in the revelation he received as he undressed one night. Naked before a mirror, he saw a pink circle glowering at him just below his ribs. He watched in the mirror as his fingers inched over his body toward the chapped skin. His hand recoiled as it brushed the intensely painful spot. Suddenly blood began to ooze from it. Hogue lifted his hands to his face; each expressed, drop by drop, thin streams of blood. He did not have to look down to know that his feet were bleeding, too.

It seemed a contradiction to him even as he felt it, but a horror somehow calm and deliberate took hold of him. He held out his hands and watched himself in the mirror quietly bleeding. The terror that rose in him had matured so slowly over the last few weeks, had teased him so often with its acrid taste, that he felt no panic. But he did feel absolutely lost.

The next morning, Hogue convinced the nurse who answered the phone to schedule an immediate appointment with his doctor. He would have to hurry right over, she told...

The Torturer's Apprentice. Copyright � by John Biguenet. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

John Biguenet's fiction has appeared in such publications as Esquire, Granta, Playboy, Story, and Zoetrope. The winner of an 0. Henry Award for short fiction, he lives in New Orleans. Ecco published his debut collection of stories, The Torturer's Apprentice, in 2001. Oyster is his first novel.

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Torturer's Apprentice: Stories 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
SavageBS More than 1 year ago
As a big fan of short stories, I'm constantly looking for new books and "The Torturer's Apprentice" kept showing up wherever I looked. The book has a near perfect 4 1/2 out of 5 stars rating, so I decided to take the plunge. This is John Biguenet's first short story collection and he has since published a novel "Oyster", which I have not read. This collection has 14 short stories, my favorites were - "The Vulgar Soul" a man named Tom Hogue begins to bleed for no apparent reason. He gradually realizes that his wounds are remarkably like stigmata, and he becomes an object of inspiration for religious seekers, though he himself remains unmoved by his condition "I Am Not a Jew," a cautionary tale, explores a man's unwilling self-examination after an encounter with Nazi skinheads in a Jewish cemetery "A Plague of Toads" a man has proof that a town once existed as the capital of a country (unnamed), only to be overrun by a plague of toads and their toxic slime, the capital was then moved to another city, will anyone believe him "Gregory's Fate" Gregory can transfrom into other things, animals, but each time he does, it takes longer & longer to return to his "original" form "A Battlefield in Moonlight" the only survivor of a bloody battle wakes up among piles of dead men "Do Me" a man can't belive it when his girlfriend wants him to hit her when making love, he later is the one saying "again" "And Never Come Up" a father and son battle a near unstoppable force in a marsh near the Gulf when fishing, after thier boat runs out of gas For fans of short stories, you'll find alot of enjoyment here. Highly recommended! Enjoy~
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
In this collection, John Biguenet displays incredible range. His stories are set in medieval Europe and in modern (well, pre-Katrina) New Orleans. Some stories are realistic in the usual sense, others, such as the story of the man who miraculously transforms himself to please a woman, are touched with magical realism. And pyschological realism is always in play. This collection is a very special achievement.
Guest More than 1 year ago
it's a very interesting book, has all the twists and turns that one would look for in a suspenseful read. the short stories are each very nicely written and i especially liked 'The Vulgar Soul'. Highly recommended