Weird #29: “Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim (1942)

Donald A. Wollheim’s story “Mimic” captures the unveiling of a hidden world with remarkably succinct storytelling. The premise is simple enough: insects have evolved to survive in the rainforest through camouflage. We see it in how butterflies mimic leaves and in how certain beetles imitate army ants. But what if insects evolved a way to mimic the ultimate army ant, human beings?

A butterfly camouflaged as a green leaf.
A Brimstone butterfly mimicking a leaf. https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3296838

Wollheim tells his story using a bare number of elements. In the beginning, there’s a street man he remembers from childhood, a man in a black cloak who never talks to women and who remains very private, “a sight from some weird story out of the old lands” (280). He hammers metals sheets but remains a cypher.

The protagonist grows up and forgets him, taking a job at the entomology exhibit at a museum. As he learns the ways of science, a discipline still in its infancy, he learns all about how certain insects use camouflage to hide themselves–even one particular beetle that is marked to resemble “three ants walking single file” (281). The fact is that much is still unknown to science, and since there is an entire group of animals that mimic predators, what if human beings, the ultimate predator, also had mimics living alongside them?

Once this philosophical idea is expressed, the protagonist has a run-in with man in the black cloak. He hears a troubling sound in a room in the museum and bursts in to find the man dead. However, when he inspects his face and clothes, he is revealed to not be human:

What we thought was a coat was a huge black wing sheath, like a beetle has. He had a thorax like an insect, only the wing sheath covered it and you couldn’t notice it once he wore the cloak. The body bulged out below, tapering off into the two long, thin hind legs.

(282)

This man-beetle recalls Kafka’s cockroach, Gregor Samsa, and Wilbur Whateley, Lovecraft’s half-human creation of bundled-up inhuman organs and appendages. However, this beetle, unlike Kafka’s cockroach, has not transformed into a grotesque being from a human being: she’s a beetle through and through, who simply mimics human beings to survive long enough to lay her eggs. The beetle perishes in that room, after the natural end of her life cycle. When the protagonist unlocks the metal box that was also in the bare room, the beetle’s spawn swarm in the air, a reminder of all that which remains unknown to science.

The final sighting of this hidden world comes at the story’s end, when the narrator observes a chimney move and seemingly transform into a moth: “I saw it suddenly vibrate, oddly. And I saw its red brick surface seem to peel away, and the black pipe openings turn suddenly white” (283). The language used to describe this transformation calls to mind the poetics of metamorphosis in Ovid.

It’s this unpeeling that is so central to weird fiction: it reveals the surfaces of the world to be mere surfaces, with a writhing reality hidden underneath. The labels we use to categorize the world are only self-deception. The Other is hidden in plain view. I believe that this is one thing that weird fiction shares in common with surrealism: both reveal the falsity of the surfaces that define the reality to which we give our consent every day.

In all, “Mimic” manages to be both a powerful, visionary weird tale, while also being a focused science fictional extrapolation.

Next week I will be turning to another science fiction great, the legendary Ray Bradbury, in his story “The Crowd” (1943).

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