This is an appreciation I wrote for the science fiction short story “The Tenants.” It originally appeared as a part of The ED/SF Project (The Ellen Datlow/Sci Fiction Project) here. You can read the story for yourself here.
“The Tenants” by William Tenn: An Appreciation by Nancy O. Greene
“The Tenants” by William Tenn (Philip Klass) is laced with the kind of subtle horror and mental decline that comes with obsession. It starts out with the protagonist, Sydney Blake, going about things as he normally would as an employee of a Wellington Jimm & Sons, Inc., a real estate company, but the tale quickly goes from the normal to the bizarre with the introduction of two prospective tenants for the McGowan Building, Tohu and Bohu. These unusual characters are interested in renting a level of the building—the 13th floor—which doesn’t exist; while Blake is not successful in swaying them from their “impossible” interest, his boss eventually rents the floor to the unusual pair.
The situation goes on to become more bizarre. Movers and cleaning crews and even the protagonist’s secretary, Miss Kerstenberg, see nothing at all strange about the fact that “only those that have any business on the 13th floor” are able to reach the mysterious office. Blake’s mental acuity begins to decline as he tries trick after trick to get to the 13th floor, all to no avail.
Written in 1954, it appears that this story can be related to an examination of a type of “Beaver Cleaver” mentality–everything is accepted at face value, very little is questioned. People accept what should be unacceptable and those that question are seen as, and indeed driven, insane.
On the other hand, one wonders at the end of the story, and with the fate of the character, if he should not have adhered so stringently to his world view, his standards of normalcy, and his abnormal curiosity, because this is what ultimately leads to his subsequent downfall. His lack of imagination, his inability to see beyond his own experiences trap him, literally.
As his secretary explains to him, tohuoobohu is a Hebrew word for chaos and void, and the unusual tenants themselves deal in the intangibles. What kind? “The soft kind.” And they are not interested in answering questions about what they do or how they exist, the just are. Unfortunately for Sydney Blake, he wishes to know more.
But one should be careful what they wish for, as the protagonist soon finds out. By focusing on Tohu and Bohu, he is drawn into a sort of chaos and void of his own, and there is no one that can rescue him.
The well-known author and a Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University, Philip Klass—writing under his pen name of William Tenn—is primarily known as a science fiction satirist, though he also writes other types of fiction and non-fiction. “The Tenants,” just one of his many celebrated tales, is an interesting story; less satire and more subtle horror, astonishing in its simplicity.
Nancy O. Greene