Back when I was doing Blaugust I said in my review of Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died that I really wanted to get back into reading. And while her book did absorb my life for the duration of time it took me to read it, afterwards I just sort of didn’t read anything else for the whole of September or October. So I thought I’d get back into it with some short stories, which require much less commitment on the reader’s part, to spark myself up again.
The short story I started with was the tragic horror and cautionary tale, To Build A Fire by Jack London. It was written in 1902 and, the more I read, the more I find I have a soft spot for this era of literature. Other books I’ve read from this time like War of the Worlds and The Wendigo are among some of my favourites. In fact it’s been at least 10 years since I read The Wendigo, so should my dive back into reading succeed that may be next on my list.
But I digress. To Build A Fire is a horror story, but not in the conventional sense. It’s not about ghosts or killers. It’s not about monsters, mystery or the unknown. It’s about one man and his dog hiking through the northern Canadian wilderness during the winter. That’s it. That’s the premise.
The hook of the story, from the get-go, is the man’s mindset regarding his frozen environment, in that he underestimates it at every turn and seems to ignore every instance of the cold escalating around him. Before we get deep into the story we understand that the man is of the belief that he is travelling in fifty degrees below freezing, but allows himself the further beleif that it must be sixty or seventy below after one too many instances of the cold proving to him it’s much worse than he thinks. But in reality we know it’s seventy-five below freezing and rapidly dropping.
I think it’s to easy to attribute some deep metaphor of man’s hubris to the naive mindset the protagonist has in this scenario. The way I read the book, I didn’t get that notion at all. As the only character in the book, aside from his dog, every detail feels so uniquly individual to the man that it’s hard to apply anything to humanity in general. I think, more than anything, this mindset is nothing more than a comment on his character, because the man’s inability to understand he is at all in any danger isn’t sourced from because he is human and thus must be able to conquer anything, but rather because of small and narrow minded he is.
In fact, it’s this that I like most about the book. The idea that the man’s underestimation of his environment comes form his inability to see the big picture, rather than because he does see the big picture but is determined to prove it wrong, is much more relatable to the reader. Not everyone could be the person who is big arctic explorer who goes on an expedition doomed to fail by their own hubris… But anyone could be the man who goes on too long a walk thinking everything will be fine even when it isn’t.
‘50 degrees below zero meant a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear coverings, warm moccasins, and thick socks.‘
‘50 degrees below zero was to him nothing more than 50 degrees below zero. That it should be more important than that was
a thought that never entered his head.‘
I also enjoy the dog who I find to be just as compelling as the man in it’s role in the story. There is a contrast drawn between how intelligent the man is for being able to understand why it is cold and how to combat it, but being wholly unable to do so because of his naive mindset, and the dog’s instinctual knowledge that it is cold and it must remain warm despite having no ability to understand why it is cold or exactly how to combat it. If the dog and the man were one being, with the dog’s instinct and man’s knowledge, they could perfectly survive the environment. But they are two beings, scarcely able to communicate and thus unable to guaranteeing the survival of the other despite it.
The dog knows it is cold and does not want to hike with the man. But just as it has been instinctually taught by nature to avoid this environment, it has been nurtured by humans to follow their every order and thus it follows the man against all natural urges because it knows the man is the only one of the two that can build a fire and restore warmth. And that’s all the dog wants.
But the man doesn’t want a fire. The man wants to reach his destination by six o’clock so he can have supper with the boys – presumably miners – at a camp many miles away. In his rush the man wets his boots and is forced to make a fire, lest his feet freeze. And make a fire he does, with ease. But in the worry for his feet, he built it under a tree. And when the fire begins to warm the tree, snow collapses and extinguishes it.
And only then is it that the man realises how dire of a situation he is in.
‘It was like hearing his own judgment of death.‘
Not only now were his feet continuing to freeze, but so too were his hands. Having them out of his mittens to feed the now extinguished flames had caused them to be numbed by the cold. He had only been able to use them with his sight; unable to feel anything, he had to watch them close around twigs to recognise the twigs had been grabbed. But now they were not even moving. They refused to obey him and thus hands and fingers were but weights at the end of his arms.
The man attempts a second fire but struggles to light a match, dropping them all into the snow. By using his wrists he is able to place a match between his teeth and light it, but the smoke hurling up his nose causes him to drop it and extinguish it against the snow. By some miracle, the man is able to light all the matches at once and hold them to the flames. But they burn closer to his own skin than the wood and eat away at his flesh. The man endures it because he must. If he does not, the fire will not start and he will die.
The fire starts. But now the man is shivering. He is clumsy and imprecise. Unable to feel most of himself, he cannot calm the shivers for the life of him. And the shivers knock the foundation of the fire and extinguish it.
By now it is over. It’s no longer if he’ll die, but when. Alas, just as he had not realised the danger he was in at the start of this journey, he does not realise now that he is already dead. He looks to his dog and decides that if he can kill it, he can warm his hands within the carcass and start another fire. Miraculously he manages to trap the dog by curling around it with his body. But his hands and arms are numb. He had forgotten, in his plea to survive, that he could not possibly unsheathe his knife to kill the animal. he grows resentful of it.
In a bid to return feeling to himself he violently beat his arms against his chest and ran a hundred feet before falling in the snow, having failed to quell the numbness. Unable to move, and having previously fought all deathly thoughts away, the man finally accepts the circumstances he found himself in. And after doing so, he dies. And the dog? It is confused by the man’s stillness. It stays with him for a while until it smells death and then it runs away. It wants to go to the boys in the camp, to where more fire-providers are.
To Build A Fire is an extremely effective horror short for the opposite reason you might think. Most horror relies on the unknown – be it literal cosmic monsters, or on quieter ambiguity. But we know how this story will end long before the halfway point and long before the man realises he’sin danger. There is one line that keeps repeating; ‘It certainly is cold.’ Whenever the man withdraws a mitten, there the line is. Whenever he takes an ill-advised break, there it is. Whenever he fails to acknowledge the added danger the environment mounts on him, there it is. And when it dies, there it is. It acknowledges the man knows it’s worse than he thought but is so mundane a line that it doesn’t merit him taking action.
And yet it’s still dramatic irony. Because the man is at first unable to comprehend he could be in danger, and then so certain to avoid it, and then so reluctant to admit his defeat. It isn’t until the last two or three paragraphs that he is on the same wavelength as us. To say that he realised too late would be an understatement. He presumably should have known better before the story started – often recalling how he had been warned not to travel alone at fifty degrees below freezing, but thinking nothing of it because things seemed to be okay from his point of view. And it is those things that I think make this so horrific, and the story so effective.
The story is about cold. How it not only refuses to forgive mistakes, but also how it punishes them. It’s about some guy, whose name we will never know, dying before he knows he’s dying. Worrying about tea while he’s dying, casually chewing tobacco while he’s dying and trying to keep his lunch warn in his pockets while he’s dying.
There have been short films made of this story, but I don’t think any communicate the contrast between the man’s self deception and his reality anywhere near as frighteningly as the book. But they’re interesting, I suppose. I think the best adaptation of this story is in the featured image I have used for this post. It was done by American illustrator Frank Shoonover, who perfectly captures the reality of what’s happening in the story. I find that reality interesting to look at considering that the story itself is often pulled away from it, as we live in the man’s mindset that everything will be fine.
The fact I have written this much on a short story about some dude being cold, I think, makes it quite easy to recommend. Again it’s a short story, only 16 pages long, and easy to find online in a PDF if you don’t fancy throwing money about.
This was always a staple in public school when I was a kid. I wonder if students read it as much today.
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I didnt hear of it at all, but then the UK did kick a lot of American literature out of the learning curriculum while I was in school.