Some authors are so famous, their works part of the collective imagination of a society, that you think you already know what they write about and how they write even if you've not read their books. Well, sometimes I think this way. I actually have read Truman Capote, however. I read Breakfast at Tiffany's ages ago, but enough time has passed that the story has faded from my mind and only the movie made famous by Audrey Hepburn remains as a visual. When Chihiro recommended reading Capote's short story, "Miriam" I thought I knew what I was in for, at least I didn't expect a story quite so unnerving. I wonder if this qualifies as Southern Gothic? It seems very Daphne du Maurier-esque to me, and she can do creepy very well.
Mrs. H.T. Miller is a widow. She leads a carefully ordered life. A place for everything and everything in its place. "Her interests were narrow". And "her activities were seldom spontaneous". Until she met Miriam, that is. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, Mrs. Miller's name is Miriam, too. One wintry evening Mrs. Miller decides to take in a movie. Galoshes on, purse in hand she sets off and gets in line for her ticket when she is approached by an unusual little girl.
"Her hair was the longest and strangest Mrs. Miller had ever seen: absolutely silver-white, like an albino's. It flowed waistlength in smooth, loose lines. She was thin and fragilely constructed. There was a simple elegance in the way she stood with her thumbs in the pockets of a tailored plum-velvet coat."
When the girl and Mrs. Miller make eye contact, Mrs. Miller feels strangely elated. Miriam is too young to buy a movie ticket and allowed in the theater alone, so when she asks Mrs. Miller to do her the favor of buying her ticket, Mrs. Miller agrees. She gaily responds that it makes her feel like a criminal but hopes she hasn't done anything wrong. When the movie begins they each go their separate ways, but that's not the last of Miriam Mrs. Miller will see. Several days later Miriam will show up on Mrs. Miller's doorstep long after bedtime in the wintry cold and wearing a white silk dress, asking to be let in. Mrs. Miller is aghast that her mother has allowed her out so late at night. "Your mother must be insane to let a child like you wander around at all hours of the night--and in such ridiculous clothes. She must be out of her mind."
For such a young girl, perhaps ten or eleven, Miriam is very precocious. She has a large vocabulary and shows no fear. It's the fear she provokes in Mrs. Miller that's so unnerving. Although Mrs. Miller gets Miriam to leave (three slices of bread and jam later, and minus her favorite brooch), like a bad penny she keeps turning up. The thing is, Miriam makes Mrs. Miller realize just how alone in the world she really is. "It came to Mrs. Miller there was no one to whom she might turn: She was alone; a fact that had not been among her thoughts for a long time. Its sheer emphasis was stunning." Who's going to believe Mrs. Miller? And how is she going to make Miriam go away?
I'll leave the denouement to you to discover. This was a great story, one I recommend. It's a case of not being quite sure what's real and what's in Mrs. Miller's imagination. I suppose it could be read either way, and I'm not sure which is less disturbing. I believe this story can be found in The Complete Stories of Truman Capote, but I happened across it in First Fiction: An Anthology of the First Published Stories by Famous Writers edited by Kathy Kiernan. And yes, I'd like to read more of his work.