A Story Worth Reading: Richard McKenna's "The Secret Place"

My local library has a large collection of science fiction anthologies from the 1960s and 70s, and in Nebula Award Stories 2 is an amazing story you maybe haven't read, Richard McKenna's "The Secret Place."

McKenna was a sailor and writer best known for his novel The Sand Pebbles, set on a navy gunboat in 1930's China and made into a 1966 Hollywood film. But McKenna was also a well-respected science fiction author, and "The Secret Place" shows him as a master of the short story form.

The story follows the work of a geology assistant, part of a team searching for uranium in the desert near Barker, Oregon, during World War II. The only reason the team is there is because a local boy was found dead in the desert a decade before holding a sack of gold and a crystal of uranium oxide. But the lead geologist knows this search is a waste of time--the desert here simply doesn't contain either gold or uranium. Still, the team works on because the Army has ordered them to.

Eventually the assistant is left behind to carry on the pretense of a search. At this point he runs head-long into the myths of this desert region. The locals aren't happy with outsiders attempting to find their mythical mine, or to prove it doesn't exist. The dead boy's sister, who played fairy games with him in the desert, knows much more than she is capable of saying. As the assistant geologist flings himself closer to the truth, pursuing his own cruel ideas of what this game means, science and myth spin into worlds he can't possible understand.

"The Secret Place" is amazing, and well deserving of the Nebula Award for Best Short Story it won in 1966. Unfortunately, the story was published posthumously, as McKenna died two years before of a heart attack. This is a shame, as one can't help but wonder what McKenna would have written had he lived. "The Secret Place" could stand with the best literary short stories even if published today, and anticipated by more than 20 years the fusion of psychological myth and literary writing Robert Holdstock used to such great effect in his Mythago Wood series.