Natalie Babbitt first published “Simple Sentences” in her collection The Devil’s Other Story Book, which includes a variety of tales about humanity’s encounters with the Devil. The book is a follow-up to her collection The Devil’s Story Book, so there are plenty of tales for Babbitt’s fans. This particular story was selected by Terri Windling for inclusion in The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection, which Windling co-edited with Ellen Datlow and became the first volume of the twenty-one volume series that was later called The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.
Best known for writing the novel Tuck Everlasting, Babbitt clues in the reader with the first line that “Simple Sentences” will be a humorous story. The demons processing new arrivals to Hell are having trouble determining what to do with two men who arrived simultaneously. One of the men is a professional pick pocket, the other an author of complex books the surpassed the understanding of readers.
The Devil proceeds to interview the two men to determine what happened to cause their deaths. Unfortunately, he finds himself listening to rapid fire recitations of cockney and erudition, neither of which provide a clear or concise explanation for what happened and both of which appear to argue that the speakers do not belong in Hell, although all that is left for consideration is their punishments. The demon who brought them in attempts to translate their explanations for the Devil.
The humor from the story comes from the dichotomy of the speaking styles of the two characters and Babbitt is astute enough to realize that once she has introduced the speakers’ styles, there is little need to draw the humor out. The story’s title further reinforces the basic humor of the piece. Each of the men have four chances to clarify their situation, allowing the Devil to get more and more exasperated with the situation.
Ultimately, the Devil needs to make his judgement regarding their punishment, coming up with a punishment that would not be out of place in “The Lord High Executioner’s Song” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado. After pronouncing his judgement, the demon assistant praises it, allowing Babbitt to revel in one last final joke, revealing the multiple meanings of the title phrase.
Although written for, and published in, a book aimed at the young adult market, “Simple Sentences” is a short enough and clever enough piece of writing that it can be fully appreciated by adults, especially those who enjoy the power and ambiguity words can provide.
Steven H Silver is a twenty-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for eight years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference six times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.