Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The electrocutioner's tale

Reading about the death of the hangman Nata Mallick – and the fact that West Bengal doesn’t yet have anyone to replace him (or anyone who wants to replace him?) – I was reminded of a short story I used to love: Stanley Ellin’s “The Question” (a.k.a. "The Question My Son Asked"), which is anthologised in one of the many horror/suspense collections I devoured as a child.

Set sometime in the 1950s or 1960s, this is a tale told in the first person by a state executioner – the man who pulls the switch for the electric chair. At first he appears a bit defensive about the real nature of his profession – his insistence on calling himself an “electrocutioner” seems like a subterfuge – but then we see that he’s really quite proud of what he does. He doesn’t have much time for the anti-capital punishment position, which he feels comes from people psychoanalyzing things too much, creating complexities where there are none – to the extent of claiming that there is no such thing as a criminal at all, only “sick people” who can be cured. Our narrator, on the other hand, believes that when someone commits murder or rape he is no longer in the human race, and he has to be exterminated the way any dangerous wild animal would be. A jury finds this person guilty, a respected judge sentences him to the chair, most people approve of the verdict … and then someone has to be found to do the actual dirty work – to pull the switch. Why should this person become a social outcast when he’s merely acting as society’s instrument?

But the problem the executioner faces now is that his own son doesn’t want to continue in the family profession. This is a difficult thing to accept for a “simple” man who feels that “if more people believed in tradition, you wouldn’t have so much trouble in the world today”. They argue. And then his son asks him a question.

Though my first and second readings of “The Question” were separated by nearly 20 years, I remembered every detail vividly when I revisited it. Even at a time when I wasn’t consciously thinking about writing styles or narrative structures, I was very impressed by how this story initially seemed to be about one thing and then turned into something else altogether; how my ideas about the narrator vacillated; how it led up to its surprise ending, the tone going from sombre, almost melancholy, to dark and twisted; and how this surprise ending didn't necessarily overturn everything that preceded it (even if that's how it seems at first). It's a wonderfully skillful tale.

I’m transcribing the final few sentences here for anyone who’s curious. SPOILER ALERT: if you ever plan to read this story (and it won’t be easy to get hold of, given that much of Ellin’s work seems out of print), skip over this:

He looked at me, puzzled. “Is that all it is to you?” he said. “A duty?”


“But you get paid for it, don’t you?”

“I get paid little enough for it.”

He kept looking at me that way. “Only a duty?” he said, and never took his eyes off me. “But you enjoy it, don’t you?”

That was the question he asked.

You enjoy it, don’t you?

You stand there looking through a peephole in the wall at the chair. In thirty years I have stood there more than a hundred times looking at that chair. The guards bring somebody in. usually he is in a daze; sometimes he screams, throws himself around and fights. Sometimes it is a woman, and a woman can be as hard to handle as a man when she is led to the chair. Sooner or later, whoever it is is strapped down and the black hood is over his head. Now your hand is on the switch.

The warden signals, and you pull the switch. The current hits the body like a tremendous rush of air suddenly filling it. The body leaps out of the chair with only the straps holding it back. The head jerks, and a curl of smoke comes from it. You release the switch and the body falls back again.

You do it once more, do it a third time to make sure. And whenever your hand presses the switch you can see in your mind what the current is doing to that body and what the face under the hood must look like.

Enjoy it?

That was the question my son asked me. That was what he said to me, as if I didn’t have the same feelings deep down in me that we all have.

Enjoy it?

But, my God, how could anyone not enjoy it!


  1. Jai, have you read Shashi Warrier's "The Hangman's Journal", in which he chronicles the agony that a hangman goes through when he has to carry out an execution? It is a fascinating, of course melancholic look at the Hangman's profession.

    Adoor's "Nizhalkuthu" also looks at the hangman's tragedy.He makes a fine statement when he says about the executioner-The Hangman is conventionally considered to be one with no fine feelings. The public does not expect him to behave like a human being, the law wants him to be neutral, the State sees him just as an instrument of its operation.

  2. As an aside - seen "The Reader" yet?

  3. E Pradeep: no, haven't read the Warrier, will keep it in mind. Had heard about Nizhalkuthu but haven't seen it.

    Pareshaan: yes, I saw The Reader on a flight to Germany of all things! Liked it overall. Mentioned it during this recent comments discussion.

  4. Minor quibble this, but if newspaper reports are to be believed, then in re Nata Mullick, his son, who had been assisting him previously, shall be following in his footsteps.

    Now, whether the same is merely a simple employment opportunity, or even a promotion; or whether we need to delve into some kind of a deeper primordial/primal analysis, is ofcourse, always open to interpretation!

    That apart, the short story appears to be an absolute classic. Much thanks.

  5. Nata Mallick's death reminds me of the title of the Fritz Lang movie that I'm yet to check out - Hangmen also Die! The title notwithstanding, the movie has nothing to do with Hangmen per se.

    I'm also reminded of the rather bizarre little tale narrated by a movie character who's a hangman's beneficiary in Mankiewicz's People will Talk. It goes something like this -

    A man is unjustly incarcerated for 15 years for a murder that didn't actually happen. He serves out the sentence. Upon his release, he discovers the man he was accused of killing very much alive in a restaurant. A scuffle ensues and this time he actually kills his victim on the spur of the moment. He is tried again for murdering the same man and ends up with a death sentence. Following the execution, the hangman presents the "cadaver" to Cary Grant, a medical student who is dating the hangman's daughter. Just as Grant is getting all set to eviscerate the body, the "cadaver" wakes up and bites Grant's thumb.

    All very silly ofcourse. But it made my day when I watched the film.

  6. Nice Post . specially the climax . i have one point of curiosity here so i would like to know your thots on it .

    "Why should this person become a social outcast when he’s merely acting as society’s instrument?"

    isn't it a case of Nuremberg defense . ( )

    in a society where values law and morality is always evolving how can we ever be sure that person deserve to die ? specially true for political and ideological cases . courts have punished Galileo, Darwin and Socrates in past . just a thot

  7. Prashant: those are very valid thoughts, and some of them would be well-used in any argument against capital punishment. (Though of course the scope of your comment is wider than the capital-punishment debate: it touches philosophically on the very nature of authority and law, and the hegemony of a particular ideological position being adopted at a particular point in history.)

    Having said that, the "why should this person become a social outcast when he’s merely acting as society’s instrument?" applies in this story to a hypothetical case where 1) the punishment is a completely deserved one and 2) everyone in the society approves of the sentence and back-slaps each other but treats only the executioner as a social outcast - because he's the man with the dirty hands. Can't equate that with Nuremberg. The situations would be mildly similar if the Allied powers let Hitler and the rest of the SS top brass off the ethical hook and held only the camp commandants and doctors responsible for the Holocaust.

    Btw, I do hope the post makes it clear that the "social outcast" question represents the thoughts of the story's narrator - who is, to say the least, a very conservative-thinking man with very clearly spelled out notions of right and wrong.

  8. Um, you mean "flick the switch" or "pull the lever", right, rather than "pull the switch"? :^)

  9. Rrishi: no, I meant "pull the switch".

  10. I used this as a speech cutting in high school. I think it was my first exposure to Ellin, but I haunted the library until I'd read all they had, and managed to find pretty much all of his output. If you're searching for him, well, online's probably best, but here's a tip for when you're poring through bookstores: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine used to put out a 'best of' collection every year, and every year there would be an Ellin story. That's where I first saw this one. He was a real experimenter, trying different forms and situations. One of my favorite short stories was "The Day of the Bullet," where the author recalls a pivotal event in the life of a former friend (in flashback, starting with a funeral). Even when he announces in advance what he's going to do, the endings of his stories are as shocking as a physical blow to the stomach.

    Thanks for this article. It's as close as I can find to an online version of the story, and I sometimes want to direct people to it.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kip. I must look out for some other Ellin stories - it's been such a long time since I read him. And there are so many other wonderful writers operating in popular genres from that era, whose work is so hard to find these days.

  11. What a fantastic short story, exactly the sort of thing I really really like 😎 Odd how I came across it and your thoughts on it. Our musical duo Springworks have a song called Electrocutioner's Tale, although we had not known of this story. No surprise I guess that I loved the story. What an odd coincidence ! Here is a link if you or anyone is interested :)