the law of retaliation, whereby a punishment resembles the offense committed in kind and degree.
Lex Talionis was written by Russell Kirk and first appeared in the Whispers II compilation. In addition to the magazine, Whispers published several hardcover books with Doubleday that were both collected stories from the pages of the magazine, as well as new stories. This tale by Russell Kirk is one of those new stories added to the hardcover.
Russell Kirk is incredibly famous. He is incredibly famous as an American conservative political theorist, who happened to also write horror fiction in his spare time. From Wagner’s tone in the intro to this story it seems like Kirk rarely wrote genre fiction, but when he did it was great and coveted. Wagner seems like a career criminal lucking into the score of this story with his buddy Stuart Schiff, editor of Whispers.
Fitting because this story read to me like a hardboiled noir. We follow Eddie, who seems to be recently out of jail. He was originally trained as a Catholic monk, but fell on hard times and into a life of crime. Atoning for his sins, he walks the streets of an unnamed city at night waiting for a sign from above. He mentions after being released from jail that he thinks of his last name being Cain. We get a sense that he sees himself as having some sort of righteous mission after leaving imprisonment to atone for his sins. (Hmmm, Kane walking the Earth? I wonder why Wagner liked this story?)
The city Eddie walks fits the tropes of a hardboiled, nameless American city. Buildings and parking lots are abandoned, the result of failed ‘urban renewal’, everything closes at sun down, churches included. That is of course except for the bars, the bars that are littered with the down and out and the criminal. Kirk is really getting in some of his political ideology with the state of things in this section. It is at one of these bars that Eddie bumps into former jail mate Butte. Butte was a bully that ran things to a certain degree on the block and is surprised to see Eddie. The last time he saw Eddie he had put him in an incapacitated state in the jail hospital.
Butte decides to bully and threaten Eddie into robbing an abandoned house with him. The family was recently murdered and a fortune is just sitting in the basement for the taking. Eddie sees this as a message from God and follows along.
I felt like Kirk expertly balanced me on the razor blade of uncertainty with this story. Is this a story of gritty noir with a constantly escalating plot, or is this going to be a horror story of a chosen one of God (Eddie) becoming a retributive hand against the sinner (Butte)?
Lex Talionis is the longest story in the collection and one of my favorites so far. It almost feels like this could be turned into a pulp novel series about the exploits of Eddie Mahaffy, now Eddie Cain. I would read it.
And for anyone keeping track, below are all the saints that Eddie prays to before his night on the town with Butte.
John Bosco: patron saint of illusionists
Gregory the Great: patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers
Rose of Lima:patroness of the Americas,the first person born in the Americas to be canonized as a saint
Augustine of Hippo: patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, the alleviation of sore eyes
Francis de Sales: patron of writers and journalists
Mary, Mother of Christ
Joseph the Worker: patron saint of workers, husband of Mary, mother of Christ
Thomas of Cantebury: aka Thomas Becket, saint and martyr
Elizabeth Seton: patron saint of seafarers, first saint of the United States