In the period after my mother's death in 1990 I wrote a bunch of short horror stories, some of them very dark and twisted. Most of them got published, but I wasn't writing with any particular market in mind. Some of them, in fact, appeared at first glance to not have a suitable market, and "A Public Hanging" was one of those.
For one thing, it's unclear whether it's science fiction, or fantasy, or what. It isn't set in the contemporary world, which meant many horror markets wouldn't be interested, and it was too grim for most of the SF markets of the day. It's sort of an "if this goes on" story, about unintended consequences and bad ideas in government, but it doesn't read like SF. So I wasn't at all sure I'd ever sell it.
But then Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine announced that they were going to shut down after their twelfth issue, and that the theme for that issue would therefore be death. That seemed like a good match, so I sent it to the editor, Kris Rusch.
She rejected it.
But then a week later I got an e-mail from her asking whether it was still available; she'd had it stuck in her head for that whole week, creeping her out, and while she still hated it, she said any story that got under her skin that much deserved to be published.
It was still available, so she bought it, and it ran in the Death Issue.
I included it in my collection, Hazmat & Other Toxic Stories, but other than that it hasn't been reprinted. This doesn't surprise me.
About "A Public Hanging"
This story happened without much conscious planning; I'd been reading something, I really don't remember what, about the cathartic value of public violence. It might've been a defense of pro football, I'm not sure. Whatever it was, I sat down and started writing, and found myself with a story that serves me nicely as a comment on a great many things -- simplistic theories of human behavior and the Law of Unintended Consequences probably foremost.
And there's also the notion that there are natural limits to what people will accept, for that matter. Anyone who's read history, and really paid attention, ought to realize that people can accept anything.
In a way, I think this story is my subconscious attempting to carry Shirley Jackson's classic story, "The Lottery," a step further.
I suspect that the story will be widely misread. The point is not a specific one, that this action or that will have bad results; it's that we don't know what the results will be, and good intentions aren't enough.
A Public Hanging
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
Russ and Ginny and Terry and I all went down to the hanging together, along with Ginny's baby Carol, who was three months old and still pretty ugly, the way young babies are. Not much more than a lump with hands and a face. Couldn't very well leave the little nuisance at home, though, so Ginny hauled her along.
I wasn't sure Russ would be up for it, what with his bad leg, which he'd got at the hanging last year; some of the crowd had got rough with him, and it didn't heal right, so from then on, even once he could walk again, he had to sort of drag his left foot.
So we had a limp and a lump slowing us down, but we were all eager to see it, to work out our aggressions the way we're supposed to. So we went, but we were a little late.