Bizarre Tales for Our Bizarre World:
A Review of Norbert Zaenglein's The Last Autopsy & Other Inimitable Tales

Jeff J. Koloze
Reproduced with Permission

A few months ago I was fortunate to have received a copy of short stories by Norbert Zaenglein -- fortunate, because I was tired of reading yet another fiction work on abortion, or a critical evaluation of an anti-right-to-life slogan (like the infamous "one million teens become pregnant each year" lie that has been circulating for years now). I just wanted something "easy" to read, something to entertain me before I had to return to check papers or write another essay.

Zaenglein's collection of bizarre stories was the perfect antidote to the stress in the real world caused by some politically correct scholars, major network anchors, or politicians who support the killing of unborn children throughout the nine months of pregnancy.

Granted, the book has many flaws. Grammar errors are frequent. The English professor in me cringes when a semicolon is used improperly, or when the near-homophone "then" is used instead of "than", or when words are missing and an ellipsis is not intended. While one would hope that the frequent errors are typographic, the reality is that many of the errors are the responsibility of the author. If a second edition is printed, these errors must be corrected to restore the integrity of the author and his work. After all, while the ignorance of Americans about common knowledge matters such as correct language and writing may be increasing, the national languages is still Standard American English (and, second, Spanish), and one must know how to write properly. (To the author's credit, though, I understand that English is Zaenglein's second language. If so, then he writes better than some of my students who have spoken and written Standard American English for their entire lives.)

If one can look past these problems of grammar which most Americans know nothing about because they've gone through so-called "public" (actually, government) schools, then the stories can satisfy the reader by meeting the criteria for literature set by Horace two millennia ago. All literature, Horace said, should not only entertain but also teach us something. I will try to consider how certain features of the five stories in this collection do both.

For the entertainment part, I recommend that one read the book at night, when the kids are asleep. Sit in the living room or another quiet and dark area of the house. Have a cup of coffee or some other favorite beverage with you. Curl up....

Wait a minute. These sound like directions one would follow when reading a Gothic mystery. That's exactly the point. Several of the stories will enrapture the reader with the Gothic sensibility or at least with an aura of mystery. If the situations are not mysterious enough, then the characters are. The characters are people or entities whom one will not find in the real world.

"In the Shadows of Madness" is a first-person story of a man who finds a corpse buried in his basement; the corpse is himself.

In "The Last Autopsy" a coroner who receives a Coroner-of-the-Year award (what a happy honor!) and who is praised for having "the courage to do the right thing" discovers that the young woman that he had just cut into is alive (so much for considering absence of respiratory function as the sole basis for determining death). Many other characters within this story, the largest in the collection, read like distorted and perverted Dickens characters. Sheriff Parley is a sex fiend with women and at least one man. The vulgarity of the unjustly accused radical Jack Scully is probably a defense mechanism for his sexual abuse as a child. Never mind that he ignorantly believes that the Vatican collaborated with the Nazis or that "separation of church and state [is] in the Constitution". Reverend Godsend, who tries to convert Jack to Christianity, himself abandons Christian orthodoxy for an almost nihilistic religious system. No wonder he committed suicide. (By the way, his denominational background is confusing. If he is a Protestant minister, why does he use a crucifix, which is a Catholic art form? A similar confusion hovers around another character. Is Father Goodfellow in the story "Requiem for the Being" a Catholic priest or a Protestant minister? Details like these are important, can be confusing to the reader, and, if erroneous, should be amended in future editions of the work.)

"Whisper of Butterflies" is a female orangutan's first-person account of her experiences with a traveling circus.

"Requiem for the Being" involves a doctor who has discovered ways to keep unborn babies alive artificially -- unborn babies who would have otherwise been aborted. The characters Mary and Jon (the names are rather archetypical, aren't they?) discover that one of their children is a "deformity" because they are brother and sister. Ironically, Mary was one of the children saved by the doctor's efforts -- ironically, because it seems that she was saved from being killed by abortion only to commit incest with her brother.

The main characters in "Last Night in the Desert" are two brains, Tony and Cathy, who are artifacts in an interplanetary museum.

If the characters are not entertainingly unique, then certain expressions or lines will at least grab the reader's attention. The Devil is called "herself" -- a subliminal expression of male rage which demonizes (literally) women? "Murky thoughts that slipped incessantly through my mind like worms through pudding" is a simile that is bizarre certainly, but it's unique, grabbed my attention, and will make me wonder what's in the bowl of chocolate pudding whipped up for dessert.

So much for entertainment. What is teachable in this collection of short stories? Certainly, the point behind the trial in "The Last Autopsy" is scathing criticism of anti-lifers. Heather, the young woman who was killed by the coroner's rush to perform an autopsy (how illogical that sounds!), was pregnant. Members of WOW, Women Our Way (the fictional counterpart to another famous anti-life group), try their best to crush the idea that the unborn child was a person and that the coroner who killed the child should be tried for murder of two people (think of the Peterson case). The conversation on the humanity of the unborn child illustrates to what illogical and bizarre lengths anti-lifers will go to safeguard the killing of the unborn.

A moving passage in "Requiem for the Being" illustrates the emotion that a young woman would feel if she had the chance to confront the mother who would have aborted her. That is a dramatic passage in the abortion debate that we hear and read little about.

I'm glad that I had the chance to read these stories. Zaenglein certainly offers some bizarre reading on contemporary issues. While I hope that the Twilight Zone nature of these stories will not come true, I know that the real world is so bizarre in its disrespect for life that the fictional may become the reality. If that were to happen, the question then becomes: how do we prepare for such a bizarre world?

Norbert Zaenglein.
The Last Autopsy & Other Inimitable Tales.
Clay Center, Nebraska: Night Howl Productions, 2003.
183 pages
$12.00 paper