"The Ziggurat" by Gene Wolfe is one of my favorite science fiction stories by one of my favorite science fiction authors. Actually, it really isn't a science fiction story. It could be read as one, I suppose, but it isn't. It's a horror story as told through the mind of a psychotic killer.

Emory Bainbridge is a retired NASA engineer living in a remote mountain cabin in the woods. He is in the middle of a nasty divorce. When the story begins, he is awaiting the arrival of his wife, Jan, his young son, Brook, and his twin daughters, Alayna and Aileen. Jan is to drop Brook off then return home with the girls the next morning.

When Jan arrives, she has the divorce papers in hand. She practically orders Bainbridge to sign them. He refuses. At this point, things get ugly. She says she will ruin him by making it known that he molested the two girls. Bainbridge snaps. He murders his wife, one of the daughters, and his son. He decides to keep the other daughter as his new wife.

End of story.

Sounds like an ordinary thriller--except that Gene Wolfe doesn't tell it this way at all. Instead, he has Bainbridge concoct a fantastic story about finding a spaceship that has crash-landed in a lake in the woods. There are three women on board. Time-traveling aliens. A tall one and two smaller ones. They kill Brook and one of the girls, but Bainbridge is able to track them back to their spaceship. He drowns one of the smaller aliens in the lake.

Back in his cabin, he is surprised by the remaining two aliens. The tall one "jumps out of the bed Jan was to have used" and attacks him. He shoots her. But when the remaining one gives Bainbridge a look of "mingled despair and mute appeal" he finds he no longer has the heart to pull the trigger: "He threw his gun aside. 'That's why I quit hunting dear,' he told her almost casually. 'I gut-shot a buck and trailed him six miles. When I found him, he looked at me like that.' " He tells her they will marry.

Wolfe, as he always does, sprinkles the text with clues to make this all clear (but you must pay close attention!).

The supposed problem with this reading is that the story is told in the third person, not first person as one would expect. But this is just another Gene Wolfe literary device: how best to show that Bainbridge's mind is divorced from reality than to write it that way.

There are, of course, lots of other Gene Wolfe touches that give the story its depth. It takes place during a horrendous snowstorm (which is described in magnificient prose.) We learn Bainbridge is suicidal and has been spending his time trying to lure a coyote to his cabin, perhaps to become his pet. He contemplates how he can make millions off the spaceship's technology (this just after his family has been slaughtered). I know of no author other than Gene Wolfe who could pull this off.

The image conveyed in the last sentence is eerily beautiful and a perfect summation of all that has come before.

"The Ziggurat" is available in Gene Wolfe's collection Strange Travelers: New Selected Stories and anthologized in David Hartwell's Years Best SF, Volume 1.