Nicholas Kaufmann‘s fiction had been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the International Thriller Writers Award. He is the author of Walk in Shadows, General Slocum’s Gold, Hunt at World’s End, Chasing the Dragon, Still Life: Nine Stories, and Dying Is My Business. He used to write the “Dead Air” horror and dark fantasy column for The Internet Review of Science Fiction. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, but you can visit him at nicholaskaufmann.com and follow him on Twitter as @TheKaufmann.
By Nicholas Kaufmann
In the speculative genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, the mysterious and the unknowable play enormous roles. Often their presence is transformative, affecting and permanently altering the lives of the characters, for better or worse. In many stories its hand is invisible. But in a few notable examples, it comes in the shape of a box.
In my new novel, Dying Is My Business, the protagonist, Trent, encounters a ragtag group of individuals dedicated to finding and securing artifacts, magical items that are too dangerous to be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Though their alliance is a rocky one, he winds up helping them keep a mysterious box safe from dark forces that would like nothing more than to get their hands on. Trent asks again and again what’s in the box, but never gets a direct answer. He’s told only that it’s dangerous and needs to be locked away before the approaching equinox. But the box is more than just a MacGuffin for the plot. What’s inside it proves to be very real, very dangerous, and utterly transformative, not just for the characters, but for everyone in New York City.
Of course, this is hardly the first time a story’s plot had hinged on a mysterious box. In fact, you can back more than two millennia to 700 B.C. and Hesiod’s poem Works and Days to find perhaps the most famous example of all-Pandora’s box. Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, is given a box (or, in some versions, a jar) by Zeus, with strict instructions not to open it under any circumstances. But her curiosity gets the better of her and she does open it, thereby releasing all the evil it contains to spread misery over the earth. Admittedly, I’m not much of a fan of the Pandora story, any more than I am of the story of Eve and the apple. It blames all the ills of the world on a woman not doing what she was told. I think that says a lot more about the culture these stories come from than about the nature of the evil. But Pandora sets the tone for the mysterious box story. Opening it brings nothing but trouble.
On the flipside of this, we have the 1982 Doctor Who serial “Kinda,” a very rare example of the mysterious box as a force for good, not evil-although it turns out to be no less transformative. The tranquil jungle planet Deva Loka is under being considered for colonization by Earth forces. The natives are a peaceful and seemingly primitive tribe called the Kinda, whom the Earth expedition is exploiting as slave labor. At one point, the Kinda present the expedition members with a small, plain wooden box. Fearing a bomb as retribution, the paranoid and increasingly insane Earth commander locks the Doctor in a room with the box. Under penalty of death, he forces the Doctor to open the box. Out pops a small jack-in-the-box doll. But other than that, the box is empty-or so they think. What the box actually contains is wisdom. Opening it restores the commander’s sanity, allows the expedition members to communicate telepathically with the natives, and essentially cures colonialism. Not your usual moral for a story out of Great Britain!
Another deceptively plain box appears in Jack Ketchum’s Bram Stoker Award-winning 1994 story, “The Box.” It’s one of the author’s few supernatural stories, though given the nature of this box’s mystery, it’s also quite possible nothing supernatural is occurring. A family comes across a box that causes each family member who looks inside it to stop eating. They lose their will to live and eventually waste away. Ketchum never tells us the secret of the box, and indeed, at the end, when the grieving and abandoned father finally looks inside, he finds it empty. Opening the box has taken everything from him and left him, literally and figuratively, with nothing.
Of course, not all mysterious boxes are empty or contain merely abstract concepts. Some boxes actually hold something monstrous. Consider “The Crate,” arguably the best segment from the 1982 film Creepshow. A ravenous, apelike beast captured on an arctic expedition in 1834 is somehow still alive inside its crate at a university. A janitor and a grad student find the crate under a staircase, and are immediately devoured by the creature inside. As soon as English professor Henry Northrup hears about this, he decides to use the thing in the crate to his advantage. He lures his abusive wife Wilma to the university and basically throws her in the box, leaving it to the hungry creature inside to remove her from his life. (“Just tell it to call you Billie!”) The box and the monster inside it become a tool for vengeance and, ironically, the key to a better life for Henry.
Other mysterious boxes are less about what they contain and more about what they do. In the 1987 film Hellraiser, solving a mysterious puzzle box-alternately known as the Lament Configuration and Lemarchand’s Box-summons a posse of extra-dimensional entities called the Cenobites. To them, pain and suffering are a form of pleasure, a pleasure they are all too happy to share with whomever solves the puzzle box. In this story, the box is a mystical device, a key that opens a door between dimensions. The box itself doesn’t contain anything, and yet it is just as transformative as any of the others I’ve mentioned.
These are just a few examples of mysterious and transformative boxes in genre fiction. Plenty of examples can be found outside the genre, too-the UPS box at the end of Se7en, the briefcases in Kiss Me Deadly and Pulp Fiction-but I think the realm of speculative fiction is most perfectly suited to it. Where else does the unknowable cross paths with the commonplace with such regularity? There are a plethora of stories in which the perfectly natural curiosity to open a mysterious box comes with a high price tag. We are told time and again not to open it. And, like Pandora, we do anyway. But maybe this is a good thing. Because if we didn’t open those boxes, just think of all the great stories we would miss out on.