Why write a ghost story when you don’t believe in ghosts?

ghost

What’s the point of ghost stories?

In this post, ‘ghost’ is a proxy for anything supernatural: What’s the point of monsters, werewolves, and other magical fantasies?

I have a friend who disapproves of Harry Potter, but not for religious reasons — for scientific ones. His argument: stories about magic promote magical thinking, when the world needs more critical thinking. I can’t fault him on his main point, but do magical, ghostly, supernatural stories during childhood really contribute to lack of reason, and poor critical thinking?

For storytelling purposes it doesn’t really matter if ghosts are ‘real’ or not. The feelings definitely are.

‘I believe in whatever these feelings are.’

Meg Rosoff
The Ghost Stories by M R James, 1973, Illustration by Charles Keeping
The Ghost Stories by M R James, 1973, Illustration by Charles Keeping

PERFECTLY GOOD REASONS FOR WRITING GHOST STORIES

  1. To encourage readers to believe in ghosts. To encourage readers to consider there’s something beyond our own realities.
  2. To create a temporary setting in which ghosts do exist, to allow us to enjoy that frisson of temporary horripilation.
  3. To allow us insight into the way others experience fears. Supernatural stories can be allegories for mental illness or drug-induced hallucinations. The experience of non-reality as reality is indistinguishable from actual reality. If some of that fear can be provoked in us, we might achieve empathy with those people.
  4. Supernatural elements in a story can function as part of the symbol web, leading the reader towards new (non-supernatural) insight about the human experience: longing, obsession, uncertainty and disbelief. The symbol web might signify memories of things which exist no longer, or various other fears and anxieties.
  5. To allow scary experiences without leaving the audience in a downcast mood. Stories which genuinely scare me are about climate change, about missing children, about sickness and old age. This is a depressing kind of scary, and part of me would like to really enjoy a Stephen King novel, with beasts and supernatural beings which will never actually hurt me or my family. For most of us, ghosts are a pure, safe kind of terror.

GHOSTS AS PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS

In many ghost stories the ghost is a projection of the psychology of the person to whom it appears. If a character is seeing a ghost, this means there’s something unresolved in the character’s psychology. The Dickens ghost is a great example of this. Here’s how those stories go: Once the character’s issues were resolved they aren’t seeing the ghost no more.

For this reason, some storytellers call character flaws and psychic wound theghost.

GHOSTS AS EXPRESSIONS OF EMOTIONS

The following is excerpted from a 1974 young adult novel by Penelope Lively, and explains how old ghost stories can still be relevant in modern times. In a metafictional discussion about a school performance of Macbeth, 14 year old Clare speaks to Aunt Susan and Aunt Anne:

Aunt Susan didn’t agree. “They are psychological ghosts. You shouldn’t see them. They are an indication of Macbeth’s private guilt and anguish.”

“Surely you are being too modern?” said Aunt Anne, retrieving hair. “To the seventeenth-century mind ghosts were perfectly acceptable. Portents, maybe, expressions of guilt, if you like, but quite real and visible.”

The aunts argued, gently. The library clock whirred, clicked, struck five.

“What do people have now, then?” said Clare. “Instead of ghosts?”

“Have?”

“Have in their minds, instead of ghosts. If they’re in a state about something, like Macbeth?”

“I suppose obsessions would be the modern substitute,” said Aunt Susan. “Neuroses of one kind or another. Burying anxiety in some kind of obsessive fancy.”

Imagining something was going on that wasn’t?

“That kind of thing.”

The House In Norham Gardens

The uneasy feeling that we are not alone is remarkably common. So common I’d guess almost everybody has experienced it:

About halfway up the steps, every time, I was overcome with an unshakeable certainty that there was a monster behind me, chasing me. I won’t say I never get that feeling anymore, but I force myself to walk up the stairs slowly and calmly when it happens now, swallowing my fear. That’s called being an adult.

The sense of someone near you when no one is actually there is called “feeling of presence” or FOP

The Brain Makes Its Own Ghosts

GHOSTS AS EXPRESSIONS OF ONE’S OWN MADNESS

Claire Messud touches upon the relevance of ghost stories to modern life in her novel The Woman Upstairs:

There is a story by Chekhov…that had fascinated me in college. The black winter of my second year, assailed by doubt at not having gone to art school, I’d read it over and over. ‘The Black Monk’: about a man who imagines himself visited by a ghostly monk, with whom he has life’s vital conversations, about creativity, and greatness, and the meaning of existence. The monk assures him of his importance, of his exceptional talents. Then he realizes that the monk isn’t real; that he himself must be mad. But how much better to be made in the company of the monk, than to be sane, and constrained in his aspirations, and alone.

“The Wer-Trout” by Annie Proulx is not a ghost story but draws from the supernatural ghost story in a tale which is realism. In classic modern horror story, the supernatural creature of the story is made up by a drunk man’s imagination, but in the Anagnorisis phase he sees himself reflected and reflected back is the face of the creature he’s concocted to scare his fishing buddy. The function of the Wer-Trout in Proulx’s story is very similar to the function of the ghost in Messud’s novel: imagined supernatural creature as outworking of one’s own frightening parts. This is generally how modern writers use ghosts, monsters and supernatural events — to allow a character insight into the inner darkness of themselves.

WRITING SUPERNATURAL STORIES

For storytelling purposes, I divide supernatural stories into two separate groups:

  1. The supernatural element is part of the plot. The writer creates a full fantasy setting in which supernatural elements are not only explained, but they also have their own detailed lore. Enjoyment from reading these stories derives partly from getting to know a supernatural milieu so different from our own. Twilight would be an example of that.
  2. The supernatural element is part of the symbol web. The writer is probably writing a story set in the real world, or something quite close to it. The origin of the supernatural element is never explained. It comes, it makes its impact on the main character(s), and it may leave at the end, or hang around to create chaos beyond the story. “King Bait” by Keri Hulme is an example of that kind of story. We don’t know where the whitebait river came from, or anything about it, but Hulme uses the supernatural fish to say something about the human condition. Neil Gaiman’s short stories are often like that, too: teenagers gatecrash a party and find they’ve gatecrashed an alien party. We don’t know where the aliens came from or why they’re at the party — the story is only about the human experience of encountering something very strange and beyond us.

Related Links

Ghost Stories As Literary Guide

The Greatest Ghost Story Ever Written And Why We Care from Word And Film

A Country Killing by Annie Proulx

lawnmower

Jehovah’s Witnesses must find some things. Knocking door-to-door on their missions, they are uniquely placed to enter the most downtrodden parts, hoping to find salvation. “A Country Killing” may sound a bit like the title of a cosy mystery set in Surrey but no, this is a story by Annie Proulx, about coercive control and domestic abuse, set in the poorest demographic of New England in the 1990s. If you want vanilla essence ruined for yourself forever, read “A Country Killing”.

The opening sentence is particularly effective at conveying a lot in just fifteen words:

Two Jehovah’s Witnesses, suffering in hot clothes, found the bodies a little before the cloudburst.

From that opening sentence we know:

  • The general context — because we all know that Jehovah’s Witnesses go door-knocking. So they’re at a residence.
  • There’s been a murder.
  • It’s very hot.
  • There’s going to be a ‘cloudburst’ — forces will coalesce to create this situation and the story will fill us in.



“A COUNTRY KILLING” AS MENTOR TEXT

“A Country Killing” makes an excellent mentor text if you’re:

  • Making use of ‘framing’ techniques, at various different narrative levels
  • Writing ‘hillbilly’ dialogue, with questions unanswered, answers unquestioned, words left hanging. There’s a particularly fine example of a monologue from a man describing a traffic accident involving horses. If you read it aloud you’ll find it sounds exactly like someone recounting an event like that. The dialogue is especially interesting for its non-sequiturs — the dialogue doesn’t follow previous dialogue in any sensible order — the narrator’s descriptions break up snippets, and the reader has to fill those in. This mimics the nonsensical nature of the crime, and also of the mindset of these people, who we are shown do not lead their lives according to good sense and logic, but are instead driven by their passions.
  • Writing telling detail about a cast of characters, each with their own quirks which foreshadow events to come.
  • Associating characters with a particular colour. Archie is associated with red, but others are associated with the colour blue, setting them in tonal contrast as if we’re watching a movie and it’s had post-processing over it. The farmer buys bananas and even his fingers are yellow, or perhaps that really is a reference to the bananas. We have all the primary colours in this one. Primary colours, primal urges.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “A COUNTRY KILLING”

Two Jehovah’s Witnesses find Rose Noury and Warren Trussel dead in his trailer at the end of a long country road. [FRAMING STORY] As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that their murderer is Rose’s husband and Warren’s former friend, Archie Noury, a man from a lawless and violent family, who has taken revenge for Rose’s leaving him.

The story ends with the nagging uncertainty of another character [OPEN ENDING], Albro Sweet, who has become obsessed with fat Rose, a woman who smells of vanilla, and has had sex with her in his truck outside the trailer not long before her death. At the moment of climax there was a flash of light. Rose explained it away as heat lightning, Warren shining a flashlight, or a car turning around in the yard. At the time Albro wondered if it could be Archie spying on Rose or Warren taking a photograph of Albro and Rose. [BIG STRUGGLE] When Albro’s wife comes to his workshop to tell him about the murders, she sees the bench littered with empty vanilla bottles, guesses at the affair, and warns Albro to keep quiet. “He knew that much, anyway,” Albro thinks at the end of the story, but he harbors the fear that he could be Archie’s next victim. As in earlier stories, the desire for revenge and the fear of it have become all-consuming passions.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

CHARACTERS

In “A Country Killing” we have a viewpoint character who is interesting in his own right — Albro Sweet. He makes a good viewpoint character because he’s in the habit of driving around at night due to insomnia. You want your viewpoint character to have some means of seeing things not normally seen, whether they’re a writer keeping a diary, a child looking through windows trying to work things out, a servant who blends into the background or whatever.

Rose Noury — a violent woman with a healthy sexual appetite and little time for romance. I’m thinking of the Melissa McCarthy character in in the Bridesmaids movie. Fat, smells of vanilla. We can deduce that she’s raised a gun to a man more than once in her life. She’s moved in with Warren Trussel after her marriage to Archie ended. White/yellow hair all over. We can assume she’s pale, but she has a purple mouth. She wears a magenta dress like a (warning?) bell. The summer air is also described as ‘white’. This links Rose to the air, which works to emphasise that ‘Rose is in the air’ — Albro can’t get away from Rose in the same way he can’t get away from the damp air of summer. (Albro also can’t get away from the smell of vanilla, since his wife uses it to make brownies every single morning.)

Archie Noury — Rose’s husband, who murders Rose and Warren Trussel after Rose leaves him. Ginger hair, bloodshot eyes, a scar down the middle of his nose. Bad-tempered. Associated with the colour red, obviously. Proulx gives us a very brief scene ‘Miles away…’ in which Archie takes pot shots at a post, talking to it as if he’s a crazed man, and this foreshadows violence but doesn’t prove beyond a doubt that it was him who killed Rose. This is all carefully managed by Proulx, of course. We get another brief scene after the shooting in which Archie starts drinking in the morning. He says, “Bam, bam. Thank you, ma’am,” to himself, which is circumstantial but not damning.

Warren Trussel — used to be Archie’s friend. Lives in a trailer surrounded by construction odds and ends, living on cheap cans which have lost their labels. He wears brown overalls, has coldsores and ingrown hairs in his neck beard. He seems to think dog food is made out of kangaroo — probably a story he made up to justify eating it himself, since he considers it too good for dogs. He’s tall ‘like a henyard post’. He makes a kind of a living from collecting cans and minding people’s horses, though only makes enough to keep himself in booze and cigarettes. He buys lotto tickets and we can guess that’s his dream.

Albro Sweet — obsessed with Rose, and her vanilla smell. Has a symbolic last name. Owner of Sweet’s Country Store, which is on the highway, at the end of a long road leading up to the Nourys’ trailer. He mows his grass every day, which kills it. He seems to think it’s a horse that needs exercising every day. This detail is beautiful — he has aspirations of being some kind of cowboy, and also tells us in one small detail that his carefulness can do more harm than good. Used to be good looking. Now Proulx describes him as greasy. He has a ‘congealed’ face and ‘oily hands’. The oil is from fixing lawnmowers. He’s been married before and has always been a cheater. He has a scar ‘the size of a beer cap’ to prove it. ‘That supple, hot-blooded self was still stored in his stiffening body, though long unused’. He goes driving at night because he often can’t sleep. Proulx lists three resonant things he’s seen on his night travels — one of them a dead body after a wreck and perhaps freezing to death. (We’re told the man has Arizona number plates, so probably isn’t used to the cold.) During his sexual encounter he wears yellow boxer shorts, linking him to Rose.

Simone Sweet — Albro’s wife, works in the shop. Contrasting with Rose, Simone has ‘arms like dowels’. She makes her own brownies for the shop. A telling detail about Simone: She keeps a nail puller with a broken claw under the counter. Albro asks him what she wants it for and we get no answer — just a playful threat. From this we deduce that her personality doesn’t match her married name. Simone is a heavy sleeper. Her feet look like dead fish. But when she’s awake she’s always working, and even looks in your coffee cup to see if you’re done yet, hoping to tidy it away. Simone is a Cybil Fawlty character who asks her husband to do one job, and as soon as he’s doing that job she’s urging him to get onto the next. Dark humour. When Rose comes into the shop, Simone knows her entire backstory, too. Relating to story structure, notice how in hindsight we understand that Simone absolutely saw Rose grab her husband’s crutch. Proulx made sure to give Simone that opportunity. Even for the most observant of characters, when you’re writing a story and a character is going to somehow know something (revealed to the reader later) you do need to include a scene where the reader thinks, “Oh right, that’s how they knew about that.” In this story, it is the lawn-mowing, crotch-grabbing scene, with Albro cracking on she was asking him for the time.

Farmer — unnamed customer who buys sundae ingredients from Sweet’s Country Store and recounts the story of Warren and the horse accident. But he’s not just there for that one story reason — Simone, we’re told, has seen him come out of a restaurant men’s room in a nearby town naked to the waist and blushing scarlet. ‘Who could say what that was about?’ We are told, in short, that Simone is observant and knows things about people.

Arsenio and Oland — Albro’s grown, intellectually disabled sons from his first wife, who live in a care facility. He sees them on Father’s Day and tells them all the news. Narratively speaking, this is a handy way to summarise what’s been happening so far, from Albro’s point of view. We learn that someone broke into the store and took only the shoelaces. Someone else off-stage has died.

The story is bookended with the wrapper story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who stumble upon the dead bodies of Rose and Archie.

Male Jehovah’s Witness — ‘thin and sallow from some long trouble’. Recent convert to the religion. Has seen a few things before, possibly dead bodies. (He’s quick to realise what they’ve found.) But when the story ends with the second part of the framing story, by this point the man has started shaking. As it has for the reader, the situation has started to sink in.

Female Jehovah’s Witness — A more experienced door-knocker. A take-charge type but a little naive. Needs to be told the bloodied corpses are dead. When wet, her hair twists into snakelets — a description that reminds me of Sauvage’s mentally ill wife in “The Wer-Trout”. Although she’s initially more shocked than the man, she ends up taking charge. In this respect, the couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses are parallel characters for Albro and Simone Sweet. Simone is about to take charge of the situation with her husband and the dead people. She has also found a chicken in the oven, well burnt up by now, but greasy, like several men in the main story, including Albro Sweet.

STORYWORLD OF “A COUNTRY KILLING”

Other stories in the Heart Songs collection are set in snow — this is set in the heat of summer. Summer heat can mean relaxation but it can also mean fast decay and stench. When it’s this hot and humid, characters don’t want to do much. In the plot of “A Country Killing”, reluctance to go far in the heat leads to the discovery of car sex and the subsequent murder.

The characters live in trailers, built of terrible materials.

Annie Proulx makes great use of Pathetic Fallacy as a device. As soon as the Jehovah’s Witnesses discover the bodies the heat breaks into a storm. This brings with it a flood.

The area is in a river valley among scrolled cornfields that break green against sudden cliffs. “A Country Killing” takes place along a road, and I believe we’re meant to use some of the symbolic meaning normally attached to rivers, because we’re told the road runs along the river, ‘into the northern spruce, to Quebec. Because it went to Canada the road had a blue mood of lonely distances and night travel. / A spring ice jam had forced the river onto the road.’ (Note the road is described as blue — the symbolic colour of water.) The road (river) eventually runs uphill, with bends like ‘a folded straw’ and that’s where you find Warren Trussel’s trailer, which ‘resembled a sinking boat’.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A COUNTRY KILLING”

FRAMING

Annie Proulx describes the setting at times as if it is a picture — the reader views scenery as snapshots:

  • One by one the watchers, left marking the macadam with muddy arcs as they turned around. the fogged cliffs buried their heads in rain, the dripping woods were as ill-defined as a grainy newspaper photograph.
  • The Sweets lived in a double-wide with awnings and picture window, set off by a scribble of fence and two plywood ducks.
  • ‘The window fitted around a sky like milk’.

The way these images are framed matches the way the entire story of “A Country Killing” is framed (by the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and is perhaps a deliberate wordplay on ‘framed’ as in, set up for someone else’s murder.

The storm is used to help with the framing story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Looks like we’re going to get it,” Simone says. And it takes a second but then you realise she’s meaning the storm. The next paragraph returns to the Jehovah’s Witnesses calling the state police.

Halloweensie 2018: Delight Night

No Tricks, No Treats.

Felina Nightbone used jagged teeth to rip sticky tape. She affixed the cardboard sign to her letterbox.

“Right. I’m off to bed.”

She shut the iron gate. Inside she snuffed candles.

Still they came, giggling in ridiculous dress-up. They thought she’d carved the pumpkins for them. They thought this house had been decorated.

Felina peeked through tattered curtains from her attic window. “Why do they come?”

The cat swished its tail.

But the house knew why they’d come. The cauldron howled, floorboards creaked. Walls shivered.

Costumed children ran screaming, happy, toward the iron gate.

 

(If you’d like to participate in Halloween flash fiction for junior readers, here’s the details.)

And here’s my Halloweensie entry from 2017.

The Wer-Trout by Annie Proulx

trout fishing

Do you like the idea of river fishing, without the annoying realities? One option is an afternoon plumped in front of Deliverance, starring the late Burt Reynolds. Another option is Annie Proulx’s short story “The Wer-Trout”, included in her Heart Songs collection of the late 1990s, though first published 1982. You won’t know what to expect from this one, as Proulx’s short stories can be darkly humorous or downright dark, and you might think you’re in for a Wallace and Gromit Wer-Rabbit experience. Be forewarned, this is one of the dark ones, with a little humour to make it even darker.

I’m also reminded of The Homesman, with the psychotic episode of a woman who’s stuck in the middle of nowhere with no social support (and past the point where she can seek it out herself). I’m reminded also a short story by Keri Hulme from her Te Kaihau collection, “King Bait“, which is more clearly magical realism. The magical realism in Proulx’s story could be interpreted as character invention, or part of a tall tale. The tall tale is a strong part of masculine, living-in-the-wild tradition that’s probably where the genre was birthed.

This story is written in present tense. An interesting exercise is to look at why Proulx wrote some of these stories in past tense and a few in present. I believe it’s because “The Wer-Trout” has an element of build-up, as in a traditional supernatural tale, and the present tense is good for maintaining a suspenseful tone.

“The Wer-Trout” makes an excellent mentor text if you’re writing:

  • Two characters (or couples) living different but parallel lives
  • Creating suspenseful atmosphere
  • Writing a story with magical realism elements but which is nevertheless grounded in realism
  • Writing a character who is living in denial, pretending he doesn’t care, when his Anagnorisis is that he actually does.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WER-TROUT”



[Rivers] has left the city to open The March Brown, a failing shop [WEAKNESS] stocked with “custom-tied flies, antique rods, imported English creels and old fishing prints, his books of Chinese poetry”. At the beginning of the story his wife leaves him [ROMANTIC OPPONENT], her exit precipitated when the woman who lives in the trailer up the road drives through their garden and mows down their little apple tree. Rivers tells himself he does not care about his wife’s departure [MISIDENTIFIED DESIRE], finding peace in his Chinese poetry and the ambiance of his empty shop: “He has found a way to cure himself of all suffering and worry by memorizing ancient Chinese poems and casting artificial flies in moving water. He is solaced by the faint parallels between his own perception of events and those of the string-bearded scholars of the Tang, enjoying, as he does, a sad peace at the sight of feathered ephemera balanced on the dark-flowing river.” Realizing that all his ambition is gone, he “doesn’t know if this is contentment or deadly inertia.”

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

THE TWO-SIDED NATURE OF REPOSE

This paradox around inertia/idleness/relaxing seems to be at the heart of the themes in this story. Others have noticed the same thing, in which the concept of repose forms a kind of contronym:

When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break.

Kieran Setiya, Idleness As Flourishing

As busy as we think we are today, people were complaining about business back in 1982. Traditionally, the rural life is considered the arena of relaxation (symbolised by all the hobby equipment Rivers sells in his shop), whereas city life is considered the arena of work and productivity. While this distinction has its problems (farming and rural shopkeeping requires many hours’ labour, though they may be lower in stress), the idle/busy distinction is nevertheless a distinction maintained in city minds. I believe Proulx is encouraging us to examine that part of our rural idyllic collective imagination. She makes sure to tell us that Sauvage works very long hours, lingering on descriptions of how his headlights look as he leaves in darkness and comes home in equal darkness.

On the same day Rivers’s neighbour, Sauvage, the husband of the woman who smashed the apple tree [PROXY OPPONENT], comes home to discover his wife eating a mouse. Because she has thrown their telephone in a sink full of hot water, Sauvage rushes to River to call an ambulance to take her to a mental hospital.

Visiting Rivers’s shop the next day, Sauvage proposes a fishing trip to the Yellow Bogs in the north-country swamps, a place he has heard about from his French Canadian grandfather, who spoke of the huge brook trout to be found there. The two men set out on their adventure, which reads like a parody of Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925, in which Nick Adams gains a measure of psychological renewal after the trauma of the First World War.

On the trip Rivers plunges into a fantasy world of his own making. An alcoholic who has not had a drink in six years, he begins drinking heavily. While fishing apart from sauvage, he takes off all his clothes except his boots, wades into the water, and fishes with his shirt wrapped around his head as protection against black flies. After he dresses and returns to camp, Sauvage, who has seen him through the fog but not recognized him, says there is another, crazy fisherman in the bogs. Thinking to scare Sauvage [PLAN], Rivers tells him he saw the Wer-Trout (man-trout), a being with a man’s body and a trout’s head, who goes after fishermen who catch female trout. “That’s how come our wives are gone,” Rivers adds. “In the daytime when we weren’t there the Wer-Trout came around …. and scared them away”. Sauvage laughs off Rivers’s story [BIG STRUGGLE], but later, alone in his tent, Rivers pulls out his last bottle of whisky and sees his face distorted in the curve of the glass, “the chinless thorat, the pale snout, the vacant rusted eyes of the Wer-Trout”. Having become a grotesque embodiment of all the pain he has sought to avoid, he finally glimpses his own culpability [ANAGNORISIS] in the failure of his marriage.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

MASCULINE COMMUNICATION

I feel this is a commentary on masculine communication, or lack thereof. Annie Proulx really does seem to be a part of this culture, though gendered female in life. It’s quite amazing. In any case, it seems that, aided by alcohol, Rivers would like to open up about the situation with their wives, rather that this displacement activity of fishing. But Sauvage isn’t having any of it. He’s a rough, manly man who goes into nature to escape his domestic problems, not to indulge in them. He retreats into his own tent, angry with Rivers for bringing his wife up in the context of a joke.

THE WOMEN OF “THE WER-TROUT”

The women are unnamed archetypes. Sauvage’s wife is described like a modern (Greek) Gorgon a woman with hair made of living, venomous snakes. Her eyes turn men into stone.

Rivers has noticed the wife driving the Jeep up from the mailbox at the base of the mountain, her animal-brown hair long and tangled, shooting away from her head like dark, charged wires, her beaked nose, bloodless lips, black eyes like wet stones.

But in this story, Rivers sees the woman as a crow. Later she will mow down his apple tree with her wagon. Crows are known to feed on apples if you don’t put bird nets on them.

The wives are linked whereas Sauvage’s wife is compared to a crow, Rivers’ wife likes to embroider birds. By linking the wives, Proulx also links the husbands. She’s creating two couples living in parallel.

STORYWORLD OF “THE WER-TROUT”

As she always does, Proulx makes a strong connection between character and environment. Characters who can’t cope with the harsh environment are spat out:

In “The Wer-Trout”, Sauvage’s wife seems unhinged by living in a trailer in an isolated spot “at the base of the mountain,” and Sauvage returns home one day to find her eating a mouse; she is hospitalized. Thus the decay Proulx identifies encompasses not just the effect of climate on manmade structures, but also the corrosive effect it has on the psyche of individual characters.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt

The weather is especially important to a story set in Northern Vermont:

The stories in Proulx’s Heart Songs suggest that newcomers to northern Vermont will be unable to cope with the weather and this factors in their decisions to live. […] In “The Wer-Trout”, Rivers’s wife leave him during the late wet spring to return to the city, sick of living “on a back road where tongue-tied, hostile natives squat in claptrap trailers.” It would seem these transplants, in addition to their personal problems, cannot manage the severity and monotony of the northern Vermont climate, and since they have the means to leave, they do.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt

CHARACTER NAMES

Annie Proulx likes to use unabashedly symbolic names. She uses them here for the two main characters.

Because of Dior’s marketing, I’m familiar with Sauvage from this:

sauvage

Which frankly was crying out for this modification on billboards:

sausage

ESPECIALLY since the name is meant to be so evocative of manliness. In English it’s also a common wine term:

Sauvage is a French term meaning “wild” or “natural.” There are three things it might refer to. First, when appearing in a tasting note, it might mean gamy, earthy or forest floor flavours. Second, it might reference a wine that was fermented with wild or indigenous yeasts. Finally, I’ve also seen it refer to a sparkling wine, to indicate that no dosage (a sweet syrup added just before bottling) has been added, making it very dry, even drier than a brut sparkling wine.

Dr. Vinny

Then there’s Rivers, who is has chosen for himself an equally symbolic name as his French-Canadian neighbour. His father’s name was Riverso, meaning “Misfortune, Reverse, Wrong Side”. I have a similar family name it started out as Eustace (in French) but was shortened to Stace at some point, probably because it was being shortened naturally anyway, but also perhaps because it rhymes with English ‘useless’.

The Symbolism of the River in Storytelling

What’s the new thing Annie Proulx has done with the river and symbolism in this story? It’s authentic genius. I believe Proulx’s rivers can always be tied to the fatalistic nature of life plonk certain archetypes in a certain environment and just see what always happens. But rivers also contain a paradox they are slow in some places, fast in others. Moreover, we tend to sit by rivers, watching them move past us this effect is seen no more clearly than when river fishing. The moving nature of the river underscores our fixed position beside it. This ties back to the dual nature of repose sitting by the river fishing can be considered a fun pastime, but that kind of idle repose can equally be a torture, as it turns out in this story. Quietude is what drove the women away.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WER-TROUT”

Two men are in superficial, dick-waving conflict with each other, but this stands as proxy for another kind of deeper conflict: concerning that of their respective wives, who aren’t there to catch it.

SHORTCOMING

This is the story of two men, but for storytelling purposes they are one and the same man.

They are unable to communicate well, but despite their wish for a solitary rural life, they do need company. They will try to find it in each other.

Rivers is never a sympathetic character. He has his sights set on ‘something more’ with the woman next door (presumably at least 20 years younger). He makes a rude gesture when she doesn’t wave, though he waits until she looks away before making it. Yet we do feel some sympathy for him. It’s not a good feeling to constantly be ignored by a neighbour, especially when you’ve moved somewhere to enjoy a rural lifestyle, with thoughts of making friends with your neighbours.

DESIRE

Overall, Rivers and Sauvage want to live in rural Vermont and lead quiet, happy lives with the love of their lives. That’s the long-term desire underpinning everything, but that’s far too broad for the purposes of a short story.

In this particular short story, two men want to find company in each other to paper over the fact that their wives are gone. They think a fishing trip would be good for this purpose.

Because they’re both telling themselves that it’s the act of fishing that’s the real thing they want, they head off on a quest for a really big fish, part of folklore. But the quest for the massive trout is a conscious desire.

OPPONENT

The opposition web involves men and their wives, then each other, as they try to clumsily find solace in each other’s company.

Of course, they are each their own worst enemies as well Sauvage because he’s not able to communicate with another man, and Rivers because of that and also because he mistakenly thinks alcohol will help him in that regard. It’s significant that these men are neighbours the geographical proximity tends to highlight to the reader their similar (parallel) lives. Like the four men in Deliverance, or each character in Winnie-the-Pooh, each of these characters represents a different aspect in men in general.

PLAN

Sauvage suggests the fishing trip, so they prepare for the trip and go.

Change of plan they’re not getting on very well so they split up.

Further change of plan Rivers wants to antagonise Sauvage and when he sees the opportunity he pounces.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle is the naked-man conversation between Rivers and Sauvage, in which Sauvage won’t talk about his wife, or engage in Rivers’ churlish attempts to talk about it, and retreats inside his tent.

ANAGNORISIS

This part of narrative structure is often emphasised in a short story, and “The Wer-Trout” is a good example of a short story in which the Anagnorisis is the main point.

By placing the mouse in the pan, Rivers tips over into seeing himself as a horrible person. But we deduce this is the end of a long line of wrongs. Those wrongs are left off the page, but we’ve had enough snippets of conversation between Rivers and his wife to guess that he’s put his needs above hers. It’s masterful that Proulx leaves this off the page. I did get the sense, reading the wife’s dialogue that there’s nothing unusual in the reasons for his wife’s leaving that’s why it’s not the main part of the story. A wife leaving a husband because she can’t cope with rural life is a story that feels done before. So instead the writer has focused on the Anagnorisis phase of the story.

NEW SITUATION

There’s an extrapolated ending, in which we know what’s going to happen without it being on the page. (The words end at the Anagnorisis, which can make short stories seem a bit perplexing to the uninitiated.)

Rivers won’t let Sauvage away with his attempt at escaping difficult conversation, and mean-spiritedly places a dead mouse in Sauvage’s pan for him to find later. The reader knows that of course Sauvage will be reminded of his wife’s psychotic episode when he sees this. It will ruin the trip for him, and possibly ruin future trips. It will certainly cement the rift between neighbours who might otherwise find solace in each other.

To tie up the conscious desire of catching the delicious trout, Sauvage has success (because he’s not drunk) but this story is still a tragedy for him, because he doesn’t get what he needs someone to provide emotional support in a difficult time. He probably thought Rivers was going to be a sage father figure, especially after Rivers did him the courtesy of leaving him to use the phone in peace, but drunk Rivers is quite a different character.