One of the primary differences between the naturalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau is the manner in which they present the idea of God in their writing. The former attributing the glories of nature to the Christian deity in doctrinal fashion, the latter veers toward a universal model of spirituality that most often transcends monotheism. The story of a man recovering from a serious accident in the countryside, Clifford Simak’s 1970 novella The Thing in the Stone slides into the middle of the two.
Wallace Daniels is a man whose wife and daughter died in a car crash. Alive but still suffering from the bang he took to the head, Daniels has moved to the wilds of Wisconsin to recover. Living like a hermit, he raises farm animals and tends a garden, taking relaxing walks through the hills and valleys that surround his rural home to heal. Neighbors not the friendliest, they are, however, the least of his concerns: strange things appear on his walks and in the twilight hours—pterodactyls and saber-toothed tigers, mastodons and ancient ferns, and other extinct life forms. Investigating a cave one day, the reason behind his hallucinations begins to take shape.
The Thing in the Stone is novella that creates mystery and builds suspense simply but admirably. Daniel’s time in the cave crosses and re-crosses the line between delusion and reality to the point the reader can only wonder where Simak is headed with the tale. Yet at the same time, the story does not confuse itself, progressing consistently and positively. Written in cogent prose that effectively utilizes nature to supplement scenes, the transcendence escalates, and then collapses nicely into a relatable reality in keeping with the mood and tone created. From a storytelling perspective, Simak shines.
Regarding the story’s spirituality, it is not obvious at the outset, but slowly becomes clearer and clearer—despite the usage of the most common science fiction tropes known. To say what that trope is would be a minor spoiler, so it’s best for the reader to discover on their own, particularly the role it plays in outlaying Simak’s symbolic perspective of cosmology. Christian? Ultimately I think yes, but not in any televangelical, knock-on-your-door, let-me-explain-doctrinal-truths fashion. Even agnostics like me can enjoy it.
In the end, The Thing in the Stone is a good novella that relates a man’s coming to terms with the spiritual side of life after an accident took his family and left him with a strange ability. Never melodramatic, as stories with such a premise have the tendency to become, Simak sticks to the more thought-provoking and metaphorical aspects in relating Daniels’ experiences in Wisconsin’s countryside. Neither proselytizing, Simak nevertheless has a spiritual agenda that, whether you agree or disagree, is presented via a nicely told story with an aligned theme in the same indirect manner that Gene Wolfe and Cordwainer Smith present their worldviews.