In a very round about way I have Caroline to thank for this week's ghost stories, or better to call them stories of the uncanny since that is the theme of the collection I found at my library that I read from this weekend. I had a feeling it would be a good choice as it contains Truman Capote's story Miriam in it that I just recently mentioned. Caroline suggested giving Poppy Z. Brite a try, and while my library doesn't have any of her collections on hand, there was an anthology that contains her story "The Devil and Delery Street" which appears in McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories edited by Michael Chabon. I already have next week's selection picked out it would seem. For this week, however, I read two stories from Night Shadows: Twentieth-Century Stories of the Uncanny edited and introduced by Joan Kessler. These two books as well as one other happened to be sitting close to each other on the shelves so I did a little browsing and found a few new anthologies to explore.
So now a little something different than the last few weeks of stories. These two stories are not your traditional ghost stories, nothing to go bump in the night. From the introduction:
"Rather, their settings are the familiar scenes of modern, everyday life, and their characters are ordinary, twentieth-century people. As one might expect, these stories are more disquieting, their horrors sharper-edged, for their down-to-earth realism and verisimilitude. What their protagonists have in common, regardless of age, profession or social status, is that at a certain point in their lives, by imperceptible degrees or with disarming suddenness, reality turns strange, the unthinkable becomes actual, and uncertainty and fear become their constant companions."
I read two stories this weekend and both were studies in subtlety. Neither was scary in the way we think of ghost stories or horror stories being scary, but they both had that little something to make them unsettling.
I'm a great fan of L.P. Hartley's The Go Between, so when I saw he had a story called "W.S." in the collection I was intrigued. Then when I saw that the story had to do with a succession of mysterious postcards with postmarks coming closer and closer with each card, I was sold. The first postcard came from Forfar and on it was written: "I thought you might like a picture of Forfar. You have always been so interested in Scotland, and that is the reason why I am interested in you. I have enjoyed all your books, but do you really get to grips with people? I doubt it. Try and think of this as a handshake from your devoted admirer, W.S.".
Curiously the recipient of the card is called Walter Streeter, a novelist, who on receiving the first few cards thinks nothing of it. It's not at all unusual to get an anonymous card or letter in the mail when you have published books. W.S.? But the two share the same initials. Is Walter going mad? Surely he's not sending them to himself. The handwriting is so very ordinary. When he shows the cards to a friend, the friend is sure the sender is a woman. And the woman's a lunatic. A bit unfair, that, I'd say. The cards keep coming. And they are being posted from ever closer mailboxes. One of the closer/later card reads in part: "I have been rereading your novels, living in them, I might say. Another hard handshake."
To tell you more would be to spoil it and I hate to spoil a good story. This is the sort that gnaws at you after the fact. It's the sort that isn't so troubling on reading it, but later in the dark of night when you think about it and just who the sender turns out to be . . . very creepy.
Apparently Ray Bradbury not only wrote often from the point of view of the child, but his stories often center on death. "The Screaming Woman" has not only a young girl as the storyteller, but ten-year-old Margaret is hearing screams of a woman she is sure is buried in her back yard. Screams that only children can hear and that seem to get less frequent and quieter and quieter as the hours pass by. Is it just because children are so naive, or that they are so pure compared to adults--like slates that are more blank than written on, so that they are almost like conductors of energy between this world and some other. Adults are so jaded they simply refuse to believe anything they can't see before their eyes.
Margaret is sure she hears a woman buried alive. She cannot convince her parents--or even get them to listen to her strangely fantastic tale. She enlists the help of a friend, but then they are caught digging they are made to fill the hole back in. Finally Margaret tries to do her own to discover just who is buried, even if she doesn't understand the why. I love Ray Bradbury and while this is not my most favorite of his stories, it was nicely done (nicely in the 'impressed by' sense). It's told almost entirely in dialogue and he gets the 'voices' just right with a good twist at the end. Are you wondering if the woman was real or not, or just a figment of an overactive child's mind? You'll have to read the story to find out.
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I loved this week's New Yorker short story (September 15 issue). It is a perfect slice of life and a study all its own in subtlety. I had never heard of Irish writer Danielle McLaughlin before, but she is only now just working on her first book of short stories to be published in Ireland in 2015. In "The Dinosaurs on Other Planets"McLaughlin drops the reader into the lives of one family as they gather unexpectedly together. It seems unfair to call them dysfunctional, though they all have their problems and limitations. A daughter calls from London telling her parents she is coming to them. Home is rural Ireland, a house in what appears to be national parkland. Unknown to the daughter her parents have stopped sleeping in the same bedroom. And unexpectedly for the parents, the daughter brings not only her young son (that was actually to be expected) but also a lover who was never announced as a boyfriend. Of course there is a clash of personalities, things are said and hinted at, nothing is really resolved but at the same time so much is said and understood. I was hugely impressed by this one. I wish she had written more, but I will have to wait patiently for her first story collection, I guess.
You can read her Q&A here, where she says she is still relatively new to short story writing and has a lot of reading of short stories (by masters like William Trevor, Alice Munro, etc.) to do. You'd never tell by the sophistication of this story.