The Father-Thing

Story Background
“The Father-Thing” was first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in December 1954. Look for it in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 101–110.

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Plot Summary
June Walton commands her son Charles to retrieve his father from the garage for dinner. Fearfully, Charles tells her that his father, Ted, is talking to himself. She insists that Charles is worried about nothing. Charles tells her that he does not know which father he should tell, that they both “look alike.” Ted walks in without being called and praises his work sharpening the pruning shears, his work in the office, and the beef stew placed before him. Charles pulls away from his father and tell his mother that the other father came in. For a moment Ted looks alien to his family but he quickly goes back to laughing and joyously consuming the dinner. Charles flees to his room as soon as he can. Not long after, Ted follows, but before he can enter Charles’ room, Charles flees through the window and escapes the “father-thing” by hiding in the garage. In the garage he finds a barrel filled with dead leaves and old magazines. Deep in the barrel, Charles finds the remains of his real father, the discarded bits that the “father-thing” did not need. When “Ted” comes toward the garage, Charles again flees, this time in the neighborhood.

Charles seeks out help from an old neighborhood kid, Tony Peretti. Tony arms himself with a BB gun and accompanies Charles back to the Walton home. Looking inside the house, Tony does not believe there is anything odd, but Charles shows him the remains of his real father in the garage. Charles explains that he saw the two of them talking to each other and the “father-thing” must have eating his father while he went back inside. “Ted” and June argue over Charles not coming home. As soon as June leaves the room, the “father-thing” slumps down limply, like someone turned it off. The boys want to locate what force is controlling the “father-thing” and seek out help from Daniels, a neighborhood black kid good at “finding.”

The three boys search the neighborhood for the alien force that seems to be controlling the “father-thing.” They find a large insect with a metallic, plated body. They shoot it with the BB gun and hit it with a rake, but it is able to defend itself with some psychic attack. Just as Charles is about to kill it with a close-up shot with the BB gun, Charles is grabbed by the “father-thing,” who takes him home for a spanking.

The “father-thing” begins leading Charles to the garage, informing his mother about the upcoming spanking. He tells Peretti to go home and reminds him of the restrictions against BB guns in the town. Peretti shoots the “father-thing” in the eye. The “father-thing” snatches the gun from Paretti, while Charles flees into the nearby small bamboo grove. Inside the grove he finds a “mother-thing” in the final stages of maturation, another smaller larva, and the used cocoon that must have held the “father-thing,” and a nearly mature “Charles-thing.” Just as the “Charles-thing” was about to eat Charles at the orders of the “father-thing” they fall silent and still. Coming up the driveway are Paretti and Daniels. Daniels killed the bug by pouring kerosene in its tunnel. Killing the bug killed the creatures.

Analysis
I am not sure “The Father-Thing” is meant to be read literally. What we have here is a fairly typical invasion of the body-snatchers type of story. What makes it unique and powerful it is setting and exploitation of very real tension in the suburban family. At the very least, it is much more entertaining to read as a commentary on the family and the suburban community. The idea that your father is split into two different forms—a father and a “father-thing”—must not be that uncommon of a sentiment. Children witness their parents in all sorts of stages. They see the bouts of anger and the moments of fear as commonly. How can a child interpret these actions next to their moments of courage, strength, kindness, and love? I think now, “The Father-Thing” would have be a better story if Charles had not found the dead body of his father in the garage and actually had to come to terms with some sort of dual personality father. This is probably closer to how children experience their parents. To salvage this, we can read the story as an evening game among the neighborhood kids, the details a product of their imagination, but the core fear a very real one. (In fact this is the interpretation that Dick seems to prefer. He wrote: “I always had the impression, when I was very small, that my father was two people, one good, one bad.”)

The solidarity among the neighborhood boys is a touching aspect of the story. Charles and Paretti do not have much in common. Paretti (six years older) at first seems bothered by Charles’ requests for help. Yet he jumps at the chance to break out his illegal BB gun and go on an adventure in the town. Suburbs were still large playgrounds for children in Dick’s time. Growing up in a small Wisconsin town, I recall spending most afternoons and evenings (when it was not winter of course) on various elaborate adventures. I suppose the current generation is a bit more domesticated by technology.

Resources
Wikpedia entry for “The Father-Thing.”

More background from Philipkdickfans.com.

Schizophrenia and fatherhood (this is a clinical, not a general study).

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About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Alien Invasion, Alien Life, Childhood, Family, Philip K. Dick, Suburbia and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Father-Thing

  1. Vivi says:

    I for one never had the impression that my parents had some sort of split personality. They always seemed very consistent and reassuringly reliable to me. But then, my parents didn’t get into loud arguments in front of me (except once, going right up to threatening divorce seemingly out of the blue, but I was already a teenager then), and they never, ever beat me…
    I know this sort of physical abuse was considered normal “discipline” in the 1950s – still is, in lots of American families, from what I’ve been told. (I’m Western European – hitting children for any reason is technically illegal in my country, though it wasn’t yet when I was that age.) But from a modern death-of-the-author type perspective, this story seems like an allegory for the way physically (and especially sexually – given that bit about the “father-thing” following the boy to his bedroom and the kid fleeing in fear) abusive parents will overcompensate by being all over-indulgent charm and smiles in front of people not in the know about the abuse (in this case, the mother). And how the mother (usually the father is the abuser) often won’t believe the poor kid when they try to tell her that Daddy is very different when they’re alone. I’ve certainly only ever encountered this sort of comment that people didn’t feel like they could predict how their parents would react to anything they did as a child, or like their parents behaviour didn’t seem consistent, when talking to people whose parents were physically and/or emotionally abusive, usually due to being seriously mentally ill and/or addicted to something (alcohol, hard drugs, etc.). You also commonly read this sort of thing on self-help sites for the kids (or lovers) of people with narcissistic personality disorder. (A sort of milder version of sociopathy that’s fairly common and leads to emotionally abusive relationships.)
    From that perspective, the latter half of the story looks like a desperate escapist fantasy in which the boy imagines that his abuser isn’t “really” the father he knew before the abuse started (maybe before he started drinking; or while they were still in the “grooming” phase of sexual abuse, before the part that hurt), and that it’s possible to get rid of the abuser and get out of his horrible situation, despite the fact that he’s too young yet to survive running away and that his mother won’t do anything to protect him.

    Kudos to Dick for making his 1950s suburban community multi-ethnic (aside from the black kid, “Paretti” sounds like a South-Asian name), and for making the black boy the hero who saves the day.

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