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

A Red Skel(e)ton In Your Closet, edited by Red Skelton, illustrated by Jim Flora, pub Grosset & Dunlap 1965

What’s the point of ghost stories?

A really good and scary ghost story focuses me. It pulls me from my ordinary, self-focused fears and connects me with something older and more mysterious. 

Claire Cronin at Rumpus

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.

Alone in an unchanging environment, the sensory information available to us, and the ways in which we process it, can change in unpredictable ways. For example, we normally spend most of our time attending to and processing external stimuli from the physical world around us. However, monotonous stimulation from our surroundings may cause us to turn our attention inward, which most of us have much less experience handling.

This can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings: Is that creaking sound upstairs just your old house pushing back against the wind, or something more sinister? This ambivalence leaves us frozen in place and wallowing in unease—especially if we’re alone. When we’re uncertain, the first thing we usually do is to look to the reactions of others to figure out what is going on. Without others with whom to share information and reactions, ambiguity becomes very hard to resolve. When this happens, our mind can quickly race to the darkest possible conclusions.

Psychology Today

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

The Science of Ghosts: What’s Really Happening When Your Brain Detects a Ghoul? from Big Think

Header illustration: A Red Skel(e)ton In Your Closet, edited by Red Skelton, illustrated by Jim Flora, pub Grosset & Dunlap 1965

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.

SETTING 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.

thumbs_up_down

Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

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.

SETTING 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.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

King Bait by Keri Hulme Short Story Study

king bait keri hulme

“King Bait” is a short story by Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People, which won the Booker Prize. The setting is a magical realist New Zealand. “King Bait” is a good mentor text:

  • If writing in the oral tradition, inspired by the tall tale
  • If writing a story with supernatural elements in which the characters never understand the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon. (There’s an unwritten rule about telling such stories — read on for more.)
  • A good example of a short story which links opening sentence to final sentence, creating circularity and a sense of a conclusion.

In “King Bait” we see a number of features common to Keri Hulme’s narrative style:

  • New Zealand qualities: Content – whitebaiting, Friday night at the pub; Language – Maori words e.g. kai (food)
  • Mixes colloquial language with poetic prose. She makes use of colloquialisms in dialogue to convey characters and their lifestyles. When rising to the thematic climax she is inclined to make use of poetic techniques.
  • Very graphic description – sex, violence, disgusting descriptions of blood e.g. ‘moise warm groove’
  • Dense use of symbolism e.g. hooks are symbolic of many things. Lots of symbolism is left mysterious and ambiguous, like the cones and goblets of Hooks and Feelers.
  • Magic realism
  • Uses first person narration but with irony and precision. She as the reader and we as the readers are aware of things the main character is not. The first person is often androgynous.
  • Use of ellipsis. She often leaps forward and leaves the readers to form our own connections. Ellipsis serves to economise space, add mystery and encourage alertness. Absence can be more powerful than presence because the imagination can take over.
  • Paralinguistic features such as unconventional capitalisation, running words together, separating words (parataxis)
  • Varied main characters. Hulme is able to transcend gender.
  • Like Katherine Mansfield, Hulme uses idiomatic expressions of her time to build character. e.g. Katherine Mansfield says ‘diddums’. Hulme says ‘bloody oath’.
  • Stories are multi-layered. Both Katherine Mansfield and Hulme are interested in subconscious drives and motivations.
  • Unlike Katherine Mansfield, Hulme is inclined to avoid describing beautiful things such as flowers, dwelling instead on the macabre. She shares this in common with American writer Annie Proulx.
  • Mansfield is often omnipresent, writing from an omniscient point of view. Hulme takes one viewpoint.

SETTING OF “KING BAIT”

WHITEBAITING IN NEW ZEALAND

Every country has its weird delicacy. For this white girl, who grew up in the South Island of New Zealand, that weird delicacy was whitebait. Ask me to describe them? They taste of squish and air. It’s not about the flavour, you see. They look like strips of grated potato, which is what our mother used to bulk out the patties when there wasn’t enough whitebait to go around — which there never was — because you rarely catch a family sized amount. If you want to buy whitebait from the fish shop, it costs a fortune. There’s one difference though, between grated spud patties and proper whitebait patties: the crunch. As kids we were glad not to have to endure those eyes, which crack between your teeth. We preferred the hash brown version. Whitebait enthusiasts LIKE the eyes. Indeed, that’s the entire reason for eating them. When creating the cheapo version, some people have been known to sprinkle poppy seeds into their grated potato just to recreate the sensation of crunchy little black eyes. In the West, we rarely consume animals in their entirety. Not in modern life. But certain water creatures are one exception. (Mussels are another, but let’s not get into those.)

This eye-eating culinary fetish is creepy, and Keri Hulme must have thought so too, because in 1984 she published a story about white bait, with focus on the eyes. “King Bait” is published in her first short story collection, Te Kaihau (The Windeater). This was one of our high school set texts. Our English teacher introduced us to the concept of magical realism with this particular story. (The following year he introduced us to The Bone People, Keri Hulme’s masterwork, which I had to read again in English 101 at university, which is when I read it properly, and even looked up the meaning of ‘pederast’.)

Our retired neighbours took me whitebaiting once. I was six. By coincidence, Te Kaihau (and this story) was published that same year. Our neighbour Don wore very long white gumboots which came up to his thigh. He could wade far enough into the river to set nets without getting his feet wet. Meanwhile, Noelene and I set about making a cup of tea. We caught one whitebait, singular. It contained less meat than your average garden worm. I don’t remember making it into a patty. We probably threw it back.

THE WEST COAST

In New Zealand, the West Coast is a place where rain is measured in metres. The West Coast catches most of the torrential downpours coming off the ocean — across the island, the main city of Christchurch is dry by comparison. I grew up in Christchurch. I had an uncle from the West Coast — he was drawn back there at every opportunity, to reflect quietly, to fish, to drink. Once a West Coaster, always a West Coaster. There’s a separate West Coast wave which only Coasters use. They’re seen as different and feel that they’re different. It’s a good place to start a cult.

A small town on the West Coast is a good retreat if you are — as Keri Hulme describes herself and her community — “intellectually-different”.

Of anywhere in New Zealand, you can almost believe magical things do happen over that side, over the mountain, exposed to the Tasman Sea.

The story is set in a specific, real place — under The Cobden Bridge. To be honest, I get a bit homesick just looking at the streetview. It’s such an archetypically New Zealand scene.

The river is an important geological feature of Greymouth. Rivers in storytelling can symbolise many things, and here the river symbolises plenitude. It also symbolises the Power of Nature.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “KING BAIT”

NARRATION

“King Bait” is written in the tradition of a tall story — heavily associated with hunting, fishing and camping. The tone is conversational, opening with:

I think this season’ll be the last, you know.

The rest of the story explains why the narrator thinks that. The oral feel is achieved with questions, as if there’s a narratee present in the room:

How did your mother cook them when she got them from the shop?

The modern legend “King Bait” is told via a first person narrator but this is a story of a town event, and a story about human nature. The viewpoint character has the character arc — a new belief that the world wasn’t quite as she saw it before.

SHORTCOMING

We are told in the opening paragraph that the storyteller doesn’t know what to make of the tale she’s about to tell:

Here I am, wound round in a welt of words, with a mystery on my hands, and very uncertain what to say about it. But this is the core of the matter, the heart of the nut: King Bait.

This is a clear connection to the Anagnorisis part of the story. (The psychological shortcoming always is.)

DESIRE

Surface desire: A successful fishing trip with a feed worth of whitebait, like everyone else in the town.

This year I’m all enthusiasm. Buy myself the regulation round Grey net, and a bloody great pole to go with it. Equip myself with gumboots, get out old fishing clothes, and head down to the river at odd hours, waiting on changing tides. […] hopeful of a nice little pudding at the bottom of the nylon bag. Or a very large one, for the season’s started out a boomer. Tons of bait about. Happy faces all around, reflecting my smug grin. Full stomachs abounding, appetite satisfied, bankbook replete, and yet expecting much, much more.

This hooks into a main idea of the story: Greed. The narrator started off with low expectations of a good feed, but when she saw it was a good season, her expectations rose accordingly. Even on the night before, the narrator has been enjoying herself at the pub, and has a belly full of whitebait. She doesn’t want for anything more at that point.

Deep desire: To believe in something bigger than human life itself. I believe the narrator is hoping for some external force to put a lid on her untamed desires, which get bigger and bigger according to circumstance.

OPPONENT

This is a tough one. The massive whitebait (named “King Bait”) that comes down the river doesn’t pose any overt threat to the whitebaiting community. But Keri Hulme injects much needed opposition with the character of the ‘thigh-booted, dungareed individual, made distant and inhuman by his action. For he is swinging his net like an automaton, scooping the bait, flinging it silver and anywhere onto the shore. There is saliva hanging in a shining string from the corner of his mouth, and I am not so far away that I can’t see the money-glaze on his eyes.’

By the way, the description of this man accords with descriptions of whitebait in a close up shot — the ‘shining string’ of saliva most of all. The technique of linking humans to animals is something I notice especially often in short stories compared to in longer works. Alice Munro does it in “Runaway“, linking a human character to a goat. In modern illustrations of The Pied Piper, the piper is often depicted as ratlike. Caleb by Gary Crew is another illustrated short story example, this time comparing a person to an insect. Angela Carter uses the technique in “Lizzie’s Tiger”, comparing Lizzie Borden to a circus tiger.

PLAN

Everyone catches the fish and cooks them up and eats them. This is conveyed succinctly, and also creepily:

All over the Coast the hiss of hot fat and the crunching of little eyes…

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is better described as a Climax in this particular story. On the other hand, there is a big struggle, but not between fish and people — the fish themselves are unlike normal whitebait — once caught they just lie there, as sacrifice.

The story next zooms in on the man who is possessed with greed. The narrator herself is knowingly possessed, pushing her way through ‘small fry and lame old ladies’. This is a big struggle between people with themselves and their own need for more and more and more. This was a recurring theme in work throughout the 1980s, and probably since the Mad Men era actually. Until the business of advertising kicked off, people could live in relative peace without constantly being told they needed the next latest thing. A picture book example with the same message is More and Better by Margaret Neve, published in 1980.

ANAGNORISIS

The narrator describes herself in a knowing way. She knows full well that on the night of King Bait, she was as crazed with greed as anyone else. She has not gone easy on herself, admitting to her audience how she pushed through weaker characters to get to the great feed. The anagnorisis concerns her own psychology.

As for where the river of bait came from and where they’re going, the narrator remains perplexed. In this regard, “King Bait” by Keri Hulme is the inverse of “In The Pit” by Annie Proulx.

“King Bait”: psychological revelation without our character understanding aspects of the plot.

“In The Pit”: our character comes to understand what happens regarding the plot, but there’s no anagnorisis regarding his own psychology, shortcoming and need.

And that’s the key to writing a supernatural story in which the supernatural phenomenon is never explained. Readers will accept supernatural stories with no setting explanation, but the writer is absolutely obliged to include another kind of personal anagnorisis, emphasis on SELF. Otherwise the story will feel pointless and you’ll get complaints that it’s unbelievable.

NEW SITUATION

The final snippets of dialogue “I hope they get there” and “God love us all, but are they ever coming back?” stuck in my mind, even though I read this story years ago.

For story crafting purposes it doesn’t matter that these questions remain unanswered, because the Anagnorisis was so robust: People are greedy and in times of plenty keep wanting more. We all have that tendency within is, and we must fight it at all costs.

We’ve had enough to expect this event will never happen again, signalled in the opening sentence. The final sentence therefore answers the question posed in the first, creating a circular ending.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Runaway by Alice Munro Short Story

Runaway cover Alice Munro

“Runaway” is the first short story of Alice Munro’s 2004 collection. It was also published in The New Yorker, where you can read it online. “Runaway” makes for a great mentor text for the following reasons:

  • Nuance of human motivations. The desire is at the ‘complex’ end of the spectrum — our main character doesn’t actually know what it is she wants. How do you write that kind of character, when we’re told over and over that our main character has to ‘want’ something? Carla is a great case study.
  • A Plan which is actually a fantasy plan, but still works as a proxy.
  • A Battle scene which follows the ‘real’ big struggle.
  • A Anagnorisis had by two characters first presented as ‘parallels’, now revealed to be ‘inverse’ characters. One achieves more insight into her own psychology; the other — we extrapolate — never will. The latter does realise something — a proxy revelation — just not about herself.

SETTING OF “RUNAWAY”

horse fog

Stories which place a rich and poor character side-by-side make for excellent conflict. Annie Proulx made the most of this in her collection Heart Songs, in which rich city folk come into poor rural areas and buy up expensive properties, trying to bend the existing world to their whims — and often succeeding, with casualties.

Rural areas are perhaps the most realistic place you’ll find rich and poor living literally side by side. Farmers themselves fall outside the traditional socioeconomic delineations used by economists — while wealthy in assets they are often living frugally. In Munro’s short story “Runaway”, we have a genuinely well-off woman of the academic class living on a bit of land next to a young couple with nothing but dreams of running a horse farm. Clark has managed to save enough to buy the land, but they live in a trailer on it. This rich-next-to-poor scenario is common in rural areas — the owner/renter divide is very real in urban areas too, but amplified in the country.

The country is Canada, the nearest city is Toronto — Munro’s familiar territory. We can expect harsh season changes with plenty of snow, though in “Runaway” the fog is utilised to create a faux-supernatural event which aids in character epiphany. Overall we’re told ‘this was the summer of rain and more rain’. I did wonder if it can be raining and foggy at the same time — here is the answer to that. (It’s low humidity where I live, which explains why I’ve never seen heavy rain and fog at the same time.)

The character of Clark is connected to the rain:

But they talked about [their extortion plan] the next day, and the next and the next. He sometimes got notions like this that were not practicable, which might even be illegal. He talked about them with growing excitement and then—she wasn’t sure why—he dropped them. If the rain had stopped, if this had turned into something like a normal summer, he might have let this idea go the way of the others. But that had not happened…

Clark is like the rain in that he is relentless. He also reminds Carla of the rain because in her eyes he is being unusually relentless. He drops mad ideas, but not this one. But I don’t believe the reader is meant to see this episode as unusual — this is Carla’s new normal. We know this by the end of the story.

Plot wise, the rain also prevents Carla and Clark from earning money in their horse business. It also contrasts with sunny, laidback Greece, where Mrs Jamieson has just come from. Mrs Jamieson lives in a different world (even when she’s home in Canada).

STORY STRUCTURE OF “RUNAWAY”

SHORTCOMING

For my purposes, the main character of “Runaway” is Carla. But you could equally argue that this story stars Mrs Jamieson equally, because both Carla and Jamieson learn something. They both undergo a character arc.

Carla’s psychological shortcoming: She is naive, unable to stand up for what she knows to be right in her marriage, is isolated from her family (and effective orphan).

She also has a clear moral shortcoming: She is playing along with Clark’s plan to extort money from a recently widowed neighbour, and to tarnish the reputation of a dead man.

Munro encourages us to dislike Carla very much. Then we see a complete turn-around once Carla gets to Mrs Jamieson’s house. She’s either had a spontaneous change of heart, or always planned to spin a different story, casting her own husband in the bad light, but in any case, Carla is dangerously flaky. She’s not just dangerous to herself, but to those around her.

We can’t speak of Carla without mention of the goat. For storytelling purposes (though not in any sort of fantasy way), the goat is the spirit animal of Carla. They are linked visually by the ‘dandelion’ descriptor — Carla’s hair looks like a dandelion, because of the strands too short to fit into her braid. Later, the goat turns up  and ‘transformed itself into soemthing spiky and radiant. First a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward…’ Then of course there is the running away from a violent man aspect, and their mutual return.

DESIRE

Surface desire: Carla wants money, because she and her husband are lacking funds to live. They’re not finding it easy to muster up coinage for the laundromat, instead using musty towels.

Deeper desire: Carla wants to hide in the security of her existing marriage, even though that means much sacrifice on her part, with her husband’s volatile nature having a direct influence on the amount of custom they can expect, among other things.

OPPONENT

Alice Munro introduces the opponent as a mystery in the opening paragraph. We wonder who Mrs Jamieson is and why Carla is so interested in her. The existing corpus of narrative may lead us toward the conjecture that Mrs Jamieson has been sexually involved with Carla’s husband. I think Munro may intend this, because she focuses on Mrs Jamieson’s physical description:

Carla got a glimpse of a tanned arm bare to the shoulder, hair bleached a lighter colour than it had been before, more white now than silver blonde

But if we think that, Munro will soon subvert those expectations. Mrs Jamieson is an example of the most humane type of opposition: Like a parent in a children’s book, she does want what’s best for Carla. But because Carla wants something different, that casts Mrs Jamieson as an opponent.

In opposition to Carla’s desire, Mrs Jamieson wants Carla to leave her husband. But more selfishly, she probably wants to feel responsible for someone else and immerse herself for a little while in someone else’s problems, helping Carla to ‘fix’ them, as displacement activity after losing her own husband.

In some ways, Carla and Mrs Jamieson are living in parallel — literally side by side. But they are revealed to be the inverse of each other. Young/wise, wealthy/poor, uneducated/educated. Importantly for this plot, one has just lost her husband — the other fights to keep hers, no matter what.

Carla’s husband Clark is an interesting romantic opponent because of his duality: He is friendly with people at first then turns on a dime. We will see this in action during the Battle with Mrs Jamieson (when the goat reappears), but Munro gives us some vignettes which describe his character beautifully — Clark in the pharmacy, Clark alienating clients, Clark almost scalding a child with coffee which he then denies.

PLAN

Carla and Clark, though mostly Clark, concoct a fantasy plan. They will extract money from Mrs Jamieson by saying her semi-famous dead husband was sexually inappropriate with Carla. At first I was a little wary of this storyline. I’m absolutely done with stories about women who ‘cry rape’ for personal gain. I’m done with Gone Girl stories, in other words. They contribute to a mainstream, real-life narrative (false) in which people really do think women lie about rape on a regular basis. But Alice Munro — of course — has a far more nuanced understanding of human nature. Carla is playing with a kind of rape fantasy, and it’s the husband who picks this up and runs with it. This does actually accord with what tends to happen in the few real-life instances of false rape accusations — about half of the total of false rape accusations are lodged on behalf of a woman, not by the woman herself.

I’ve noticed that for storytelling purposes, an imagined or fantasy plan is as effective as an actual plan, because the reader doesn’t know at first that it’s nothing but fantasy, so the fantasy plan still works to propel the action along.

BIG STRUGGLE

Carla gets her Battle, but it doesn’t look like a fight — Carla’s big struggleground is sitting in Mrs Jamieson’s house playing at posh ladies, probably turning over in her head whether she should leave Clark or not. I believe she means to leave Clark at the time.

The clear Battle Scene (the scene that looks like a Battle) is not between Carla and another character but between Clark and Mrs Jamieson. This feels very true to Carla’s character — Carla is staying with Clark because she knows he’s always going to fight her big struggles for her, whether those big struggles are worth fighting or not.

ANAGNORISIS

It’s not until Carla leaves Mrs Jamieson’s house she realises she can’t leave Clark. But the reader is kept out of Carla’s head for that little epiphany. Instead we learn of this decision at the same time Mrs Jamieson learns it. By this stage of the story, our sympathies are clearly with Mrs Jamieson. We know far more than she does about the whole situation as Munro has kept us in audience superior position, starting off with Clark and Carla, and only later switching to close third person on Mrs Jamieson as she goes to sleep on the couch and is rudely awakened by Clark.

It can be a real writing challenge, depicting the Self-Revelation phase in a short story. The writer doesn’t have much room to lead up to it, and it can feel contrived when a character suddenly realises something without much in the way of preamble. In “Runaway” Alice Munro gets around the ‘suddenness’ of Mrs Jamieson’s anagnorisis: that she has been too heavily involved in Carla’s life, by showing the reader the note that she left for Carla afterwards. Again, this works for the character because Mrs Jamieson is a writerly, academic type with sufficient life experience to be able to craft an apology.

Carla’s epiphany is more brutal, and is to do with Clark, not Mrs Jamieson. She realises Clark may have killed her beloved goat. Yet for Carla this doesn’t lead to change. She is stuck now. Earlier we’ve had a brief snippet of conversation between Carla and her mother. When she left her natal home it was in search of a life ‘more authentic’ than the suburban idyll she learned to despise. Alice Munro seems to be questioning what it means to lead an ‘authentic’ life. Is an authentic life one full of misery?

I don’t want to give the impression that Mrs Jamieson’s epiphany is complete whereas Carla’s is not. Each woman’s revelation is incomplete in its own way. Mrs Jamieson thinks she’s discovered something about herself, but remains blind to Carla’s real situation. She mistakenly attributes the appearance of the goat to Clark being not so bad after all — she thinks she was scared and uncomfortable mainly due to the time of night and her vulnerability, standing there in her long t-shirt. When he touches her shoulder, all is forgiven. Really, Mrs Jamieson should be more worried about Carla than she was even before. But Mrs Jamieson is probably happy to have the young woman nearby, as she has a bit of a crush on her (though she has rejected that terminology, feeling it’s not sexual).

NEW SITUATION

The reader can extrapolate that if Carla hasn’t taken the opportunity to leave Clark now, she likely never will. Especially after she learns he may have killed her goat. Notice that Carla and Clark both have names beginning with the same letter. This binds them together in our minds.

Carla no longer cleans for Mrs Jamieson, so we can expect the two women to live side by side but separately from this point forward. When written in close first person from Carla’s point of view, Mrs Jamieson is referred to by her last name, which sets her apart from Carla.

Like Annie Proulx, and most famously Joseph Conrad, Alice Munro makes use of ‘delayed decoding’, in which the reader doesn’t understand the full extent of the situation until after reading the entire story. This is why short stories need to be read twice.

[Delayed decoding serves] mainly to put the reader in the position of being an immediate witness in each step of the process whereby the semantic gap between the sensations aroused in the individual by an object or event, and their actual cause or meaning, was closed in their consciousness. This technique is based on the pretence that the reader’s understanding is limited to the consciousness of the fictional observer.

Literary Lexicon

In other words, delayed decoding mirrors the way in which readers may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. I believe the term ‘delayed decoding’ is another word for ‘foreshadowing’, though ‘foreshadowing’ refers to writer technique, whereas ‘delayed decoding’ focuses on the experience of the reader. I think it’s best described as ‘extreme foreshadowing’ — an entire paragraph or scene may not make sense on first reading. We’re not talking about brief mentions of guns here.

On second reading of “Runaway” it’s clear to me that Clark is abusing the animals. He neglects the boarding horses, but is taking his frustration out on the goat, who in Carla’s dream has a hurt leg. But is the dream based on fear and on reality? When we first read it, it’s just a dream. (In short stories especially, dreams are never ‘just dreams’.) We are given another clue to the abuse when the goat likes Clark at first then attaches itself to Carla, henceforth less skittish. By the time Carla wonders if Clark has killed the goat, we know it to be true.

We can also safely extrapolate that Clark will abuse Carla, and if not Carla, their future kids. That’s if Clark does not kill Carla first, as he has killed her spirit animal, the goat. For now, Carla will live on eggshells. Or as Munro writes it:

It was as if she had a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs, and by breathing carefully, she could avoid feeling it. But every once in a while she had to take a deep breath, and it was still there.

In the final scene, Munro makes use of a technique I’ve heard described as side-shadowing. In one version of the ending, Carla finds the skeleton of the dead goat and visits it as if she visits a grave.

Or perhaps not. Nothing there.

Other things could have happened. He could have chased Flora away. Or tied her in the back of the truck and driven some distance and set her loose. Taken her back to the place they’d got her from.

Another short story making use of this technique, in which the reader is given a variety of possible scenarios and invited to pick the most likely, is “The Wrysons” by John Cheever.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

In The Pit by Annie Proulx

snow cabin

“In the Pit” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in the Heart Songs collection. “In the Pit” is a good example of a story with no Anagnorisis for the main character. If anyone has a revelation, it’s the reader. Character arcs are not compulsory. In real life as in fiction, sometimes people simply don’t learn and they don’t change. They go their whole lives with little understanding of themselves and others. A TV series with an unchanging main character is Mad Men. Don Draper, also with the ghost of a problematic childhood, is unable to move past his backstory. Season after season he doesn’t change while around him the world changes a lot. This juxtaposition is the point of interest. Blue is a kind of Don Draper character, but from rural New England.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “IN THE PIT”

Like Snipe [in the story “Heart Songs”], the outsider protagonist of “In the Pit” causes emotional pain through his misreading of others’ intentions.

During a winter visit back east, Blue goes to his family’s Vermont summer camp, for the first time in years, to inspect the damage done by vandals. Once there he finds some of the furnishings buried in a deep snow in a pit at the base of a small cliff behind the house. Dreaming of coming to the camp in the summer with his wife and child, he reestablishes contact with Mr. Fitzroy, a dairy farmer who has been kind to Blue as a child. Fitzroy’s wife has died; his house has burned down; and he has turned to drink while living in the former milk room on his farm. He does not remember Blue, but he welcomes him kindly and introduces him to Gilbert, a former convict to whom he has given shelter because, Fitzroy says, “I don’t hold the past against nobody.”

Blue is less tolerant. After seeing what looks like his family’s old toaster in Fitzroy’s quarters, he accuses Gilbert of vandalizing the camp and takes the toaster by force. The next day he looks in the pit again and sees his family’s toaster. The reader is left with the impression that this discovery has embarrassed Blue and probably dampened his plans to vacation at the cabin, but it has contributed little to his understanding of his own character.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

In plot of “In the Pit” is a little similar to that old yarn whereby a man on public transport sits face to face with a dangerous-looking character. The dangerous-looking character defiantly takes the man’s cigarettes, then another, then another. The viewpoint man also keeps smoking from this box, and the big reveal at the end — when we’re expecting a Battle — is that it’s the viewpoint man who is mistaken — he’s been smoking the cigarettes of this menacing guy, who’s obviously not as menacing as he looks, otherwise he would’ve said something.

I don’t know if it’s a Jeffrey Archer original, but Archer wrote this story and called it “Broken Routine”. The story is collected in A Quiver of Arrows.

Annie Proulx does the story far better. The message here isn’t the simplistic: “Be careful how you judge people, because it might be you who’s wrong,” but a far more subtle portrait of a man’s psychology as he visits his childhood arena.

SETTING OF “IN THE PIT”

Like the others in this collection, newcomers are pitted against old. This conflict is symbolised not only by the people themselves but by a rich symbol web, first, in the opening with junk mail:

When the modern world intrudes into Chopping County, it does so via junk-mail coming through the post, as in the story “In the Pit”, where “Papers, magazines, letters, bills, offers to develop her film in twenty-four hours or insure her credit cards against loss, fliers and folders” provide the connection between consumerist society and the quiet lives in rural communities.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

The season is winter, with thick snow covering objects in and around the yard. The snow covers objects like Blue has buried his memories.

SYMBOL WEB

Apart from photographs of his wife and adopted daughter, Blue brings his mother flowers called ‘gentian’.

Gentian is an herb. The root of the plant and, less commonly, the bark are used to make medicine. Gentian is used for digestion problems such as loss of appetite, fullness, intestinal gas, diarrhea, gastritis, heartburn, and vomiting.

Though it’s not said, perhaps Blue was named Blue because it’s his mother’s favourite colour. The camp is decorated with accents of blue, so that seems likely. The description I pulled up on the Internet isn’t exactly romantic, but it’s the first to come up. The flowers are already past it by the time he gives them to his mother. This sets the tone of the story.

gentian

The holes Blue makes ‘in the depths of the snow were a deep, unearthly blue’.

I’m not entirely clear about the symbolic significance of the blue, except it may contrast against the flame of Gilbert, sitting by the fire. Fitzroy’s house burned down — everything associated with Fitzroy is the complementary colour of Blue. This is supposed to cast them as opposites in the reader’s mind, perhaps.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “IN THE PIT”

SHORTCOMING

Blue has not been well-parented. That much is clear from the beginning. His mother drives by at the father’s funeral, is not interested in her own son, nor who he’s married. She’s fed Blue nothing but corn syrup growing up, to the point where he needs to make a complete U-turn in his diet after leaving home, losing some of the weight. He’s bought a toupee to sort of paper over his deficiencies.

We learn the most about Blue’s shortcomings from the brief conversations he has with his wife. That is, she’s pushing him for more and he’s not giving it. It’s clear Blue wants to keep his childhood home separate from his wife and child, playing the big man now. But until he opens up about it, his wife will never fully understand him.

I do wonder a little about Blue’s ghost. What has he done in the past? Fitzroy seems to reassure him later in the story, “I don’t hold the past against nobody.” When we see what Blue does regarding the toaster, perhaps Blue has done some pretty awful things himself. We get just an overview of that at the beginning. We’re also told he’s been to Assertiveness Training. (He seems to make use of those skills when retrieving his toaster, using a firm voice.)

DESIRE

Inciting incident: the sheriff has written to his mother to say the summer camp house has been broken into and vandalised. Blue wants to return to that long-forgotten place and get the mess sorted out.

As the story progresses, Blue thinks he’d like to bring his wife and child to this childhood summer camp. That’s what he thinks he wants, anyway, so he sets about cleaning it up with that in mind. But this desire wanes over the course of the story as he’s reminded of long-ago memories. I get all this from one small detail — Grace’s voice on the phone, and her demanding to know what kind of camp it is makes him not want to bring her up here. She seems to think it’s like a scout camp, and perhaps Blue’s afraid she’ll only be disappointed. I suspect he’s told his wife very little about his past.

OPPONENT

Blue’s mother is at first glance his enduring opposition, but in this particular story she doesn’t stand in his way. So she’s not really the opponent of this particular narrative. For story purposes she’s asking him what he wants to go up there for, so she’s functioning as more of an ally, in which another character interrogates the main character, allowing some insight for the audience into the main character’s motivations.

The mother is described in the opening sentence as ‘looking like Charles Laughton in a flowered wrapper’. This works great if you know who film actor Charles Laughton is.

Charles Laughton

This is a story with an imaginary opponent standing in for a character whose main opponent is himself. The imaginary opponent is Fitzroy’s room mate, fresh out of prison. For storytelling purposes, an imaginary opponent is as good as a real one.

PLAN

Blue plans to tidy up the camp in preparation for getting it liveable again. He’s not sure what comes after that — his mother wants him to see about putting it on the market.

BIG STRUGGLE

The On-the-page Battle scene is between Blue and Fitzroy as Blue pushes past Fitzroy to retrieve the toaster.

Big picture: The big struggle is between Blue’s present self and his past. He thinks he’s left his past behind to the point where he can bring his own young family up here, but…

ANAGNORISIS

…turns out he can’t. The memories are too much, and the new reality too grim. But this is the reader’s revelation, not his.

Blue himself is not clear about why.

This short story contains many food references — Proulx doesn’t often dwell on those. The food is the food of poor, rural America. Even treat food is bad food because they haven’t tasted better. Blue buys up all the food he thinks he’d like to eat then realises he doesn’t really want it. This is a kind of displaced anagnorisis. He realises he doesn’t want the food he bought in, but what he doesn’t want is much larger than that. A displaced anagnorisis is a good proxy for when a character never gets to know themselves.

Dinty Moore beef stew

An earlier recollection, in which Blue cries about a cheese sandwich ‘as though it was the last one in the world’ clues us in on Blue’s failure to understand himself. He wasn’t crying for the cheese sandwich, but for the fact he was yelled at, and he caused his parents to yell at each other by burning the sandwich in the toaster.

Then the storm comes — pathetic fallacy — when the storm clears and Blue sees the camp is sound (except for an imaginary dripping) this affords Blue sufficient clarity to clear out, job done.

Even in stories where characters don’t have a anagnorisis, there will probably still be a reveal. The reveal here is that Blue is wrong about the theft. No one broke in and took the toaster, but this is plot related, not character related.

NEW SITUATION

The tragedy: although Blue realises he’s wrong about the toaster, he doesn’t take that line of thought any further. He doesn’t think maybe he’s wrong about other things, too, like how his wife needs to understand where he comes from, which will involve more information about his mother.

He’ll probably be too ashamed to come back. Then again, he might visit Fitzroy to return the toaster and ask if he really is able to forgive.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

The Juniper Tree Fairytale

The Juniper Tree Maurice Sendak

“The Juniper Tree”, as told by the Grimm Brothers,  is a horrible tale. I don’t have a problem with gruesome. I can deal with fairytale cannibalism. The murder of the boy is comical rather than realistic and he comes back to life anyhow. No, “The Juniper Tree” is horrible for its symbolic annihilation of the mother. This is a tale written by men, for men, to reassure men of their dominance within the family hierarchy. Though it draws directly on a long history of tales in which children are fed to parents, the Grimm version inserts an extra level of female erasure.

This goes a long, long way back in history. “The Juniper Tree” is a newer take on a couple of ancient Greek stories. Medea took revenge on her husband by stewing their children. Season that story with the tale of Philomel, who transformed into a bird to sing about being raped by her brother-in-law. So her sister chops up the kids to feed to rapist dad. Because what did medieval humans use as stories? Europeans were well-schooled in the myths of Ancient Greece. It’s natural that these myths became basis for what we now call fairytale.

The Pennywinkle ghost story from the Ozarks is a ghost story riff on “The Juniper Tree”.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE JUNIPER TREE”

This is the story of a family and a commentary on family structure. But the hero is the son/father who — for symbolic purposes — are one and the same. Literally. I mean, the father eats the son, incorporating him into himself. The hero is ‘the male of the family’.

WEAKNESS

Though this is a modern interpretation, the shortcoming of the father is that the woman and daughter run the household. The women may be indentured — unsupported even if they do want to go out into the world and work outside the kitchen — but since women do work in the kitchens, women are also in charge of what the family eats. This gives women some power, and must therefore lead to some dark fears among men. Food, of course, symbolises something bigger: nurturing. The women have to do all the child-rearing, but they also have the privilege of doing all the child-rearing.

The great shortcoming of the father: He doesn’t get to control what goes on at home. He goes out to work. While he’s away, the women could get up to all sorts. And they do. Oh, how they do.

DESIRE

The father wants a more secure role within the family. He wants to know he is the father of the children; he wants to be involved in nurturing (and controlling) them.

OPPONENT

The women. Women in general, symbolised by the second wife and the mean daughter who like nothing better than to kill boys and feed them to men.

PLAN

It is the bird version of the son/father who has the plan to dispose of the female characters altogether. He collects a variety of things by singing his truth in the song. Then he takes them to the father. This way, the father will know he’s still alive.

BIG STRUGGLE

The bird drops the millstone onto the mother’s head and kills her.

Warwick Goble for The Juniper Tree by the Brothers Grimm (The Fairy Book) Ca. 1913
Warwick Goble for The Juniper Tree by the Brothers Grimm (The Fairy Book) Ca. 1913
For the Juniper Tree by the Grimms by Maurice Sendak
For the Juniper Tree translated by Jarrell and Lore Segal’s by Maurice Sendak (1973).

ANAGNORISIS

The father and Marlene learn what a wicked woman Marlene’s mother is, and so they are pleased when she is killed in an act of retributive justice.

For me, the revelation is that a happy ending in the culture of this story means killing off the woman (the second one), who is too powerful in her femininity to bear.

NEW SITUATION

Father, little brother and Marlene are happy — well, at least until the son inherits the entire house in a culture of primogeniture which excludes women and girls. And then who knows. I suspect the father will eventually dispose of Marlene, too, when she hits adolescence and becomes a reproductive threat.

JUNIPER AND BIRTH

“The Juniper Tree” is a fairy modern tale (though as shown above, its inspirations are ancient). But in the medieval era, people used herbal remedies which have since been lost to us. Some of these were surprisingly effective (experimental medicine wasn’t against any law, so I guess that helped move things along). For instance, willow bark was given to patients with fever — much later, this lead directly to the invention of aspirin. And juniper was used to promote contractions during birth. I do wonder if the people who told early versions of The Juniper Tree knew of the connection between birth and juniper as medication. For a modern audience, there’s nothing feminine about juniper — but was this story an attempt to redistribute (re-)birthing to men?

Other writers have made the most of the link between femininity and the juniper tree. Monica Furlong named her girl hero ‘Juniper’ in her Wise Child series, which is one of those books with a cult following and which should be widely known, but which is sadly out of print.

juniper berries
Juniper Berries

UNUSUALLY VIVID DESCRIPTION IN “THE JUNIPER TREE”

Usually in fairytales:

Imagery and description: there is no imagery in fairy tales apart from the most obvious. As white as snow, as red as blood: that’s about it. Nor is there any close description of the natural world or of individuals. A forest is deep, the princess is beautiful, her hair is golden; there’s no need to say more. When what you want to know is what happens next, beautiful descriptive wordplay can only irritate.

Philip Pullman

But “The Juniper Tree” is unlike other tales anthologised by the Grimm brothers. The imagery is very clear, probably because it was sent to the Grimm brothers by Achm von Arnim after being written down by Philipp Otto Runge. It is already, therefore, more of a literary fairytale than those which came from the oral tradition. Philip Pullman doesn’t seem to share my own distaste for the tale:

ruhttps://www.slaphappylarry.com/three-ways-of-looking-at-character/In [“The Juniper Tree”] … there is a passage that successfully combines beautiful description with the relation of events in such a way that one would not work without the other. […] the passage I mean comes after the wife has made her wish for a child as red as blood and as white as snow. It links her pregnancy with the passing seasons:

One month went by, and the snow vanished.
Two months went by, and the world turned green.
Three months went by, and flowers bloomed out of the earth.
Four months went by, and all the twigs on all the trees in the forest grew stronger and pressed themselves together, and the birds sang so loud that the woods resounded, and the blossom fell from the trees.
Five months went by, and the woman stood under the juniper tree. It smelled so sweet that her heart leaped in her breast, and she fell to her knees with joy.
Six months went by, and the fruit grew firm and heavy, and the woman fell still.
When seven months had gone by, she plucked the juniper berries and ate so many that she felt sick and sorrowful.
After the eighth month had gone, she called her husband and said to him, weeping, ‘If I die, bury me under the juniper tree.’

This is wonderful, but it’s wonderful in a curious way: there’s little any teller of this tale can do to improve it. It has to be rendered exactly as it is here, or at least the different months have to be given equally different characteristics, and carefully linked in equally meaningful ways with the growth of the child in his mother’s womb, and that growth with the juniper tree that will be instrumental in his later resurrection.

However, that is a great and rare exception. In most of these tales, just as the characters are flat, description is absent. In the later editions, it is true, Wilhelm’s telling became a little more florid and inventive, but the real interest of the tale continues to be in what happened, and what happened next. The formulas are so common, the lack of interest in the particularity of things so widespread, that it comes as a real shock to read a sentence like this in “Jorinda and Joringel”:

It was a lovely evening; the sun shone warmly on the tree trunks against the dark green of the deep woods, and turtledoves cooed mournfully in the old beech trees.

Suddenly that story stops sounding like a fairy tale and begins to sound like something composed in a literary way by a Romantic writer such as Novalis orJean Paul. The serene, anonymous relation of events has given way, for the space of a sentence, to an individual sensibility: a single mind has felt this impression of nature, has seen these details in the mind’s eye and written them down. A writer’s command of imagery and gift for description is one of the things that make him or her unique, but fairy tales don’t come whole and unaltered from the minds of individual writers, after all; uniqueness and originality are of no interest to them.

Philip Pullman

There’s another rare example of a fairy tale which has such specific description that the characters are individualised, and that is Baba Yaga.

Cat Skin by Kelly Link

catskin

“Cat Skin” is a short story by Kelly Link, included in the collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, published 2010. Link says in her paragraph at the end of the tale that this is a brand new fairytale, based on on none in particular, but owes a debt to “Catskin“, “Donkeyskin” and “Rapunzel“. Link also acknowledges the influence of Angela Carter and Eudora Welty. I see similarities to Spirited Away.

“Cat Skin” is a trippy story and probably has many interpretations. This is what I get out of it, anyway.

Catskin, Arthur Rackham, 1922
Catskin, Arthur Rackham, 1922

WHAT HAPPENS IN “CATSKIN”

Like The Cat Returns, this is a story about the underworld of cat magic, in which cats are mysterious gangs who shapeshift and who knows what. “Catskin” opens with a description of cats who live in and around a witch’s house. Apart from many cats, the witch also has children, which she hasn’t birthed the usual way, but from a boil on her thigh, or from bits of old rubbish.

The witch puts children together as others put together a chess set, which is an interesting analogy and one I’ve heard to describe fairytale archetypes.  G.K. Chesterton said that Aesop’s animals can be considered pieces of games in chess. (Farmer, man, boy, widow etc.) Aesop’s use of animals in this way expressed a rather cynical view of human nature which has been influential in stories ever since. Marina Warner said the same thing when writing about ogres:

Ogres are used as stock in his stories: the word orco or orca designates a character in the same fairytale shorthand as ‘king’ or ‘princess’ or ‘prince’. As with a chess piece, the naming prescribes a certain position on the narrative board, and narrows the possible moves.

No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner

Link takes features of the oral tradition and addresses the reader directly:

If you are looking for a happy ending in this story, then perhaps you should stop reading here and picture these children, these parents, their reunions.

Are you still reading?

This direct address marks the switch from iterative to singulative. We learn that the witch is dying. One of her powers is ‘snatching Time’. She snatches it from here and there. I feel this is a modern update on the classic fairytale. From what I’ve read, the really old fairytales (more than 150 years old, say) don’t play with time very much. But because of modern astrophysics (and since Einstein) we now know that Time is way trickier and ‘spookier’ (to use Einstein’s term) than any layperson could’ve imagined. Link utilises the weirdness of Time, capitalising it in the German way. As soon as Time can be manipulated, this leads us to a fatalistic view of events. Link intends for us to make that link (heh):

Once the question of this revenge had been settled to her satisfaction, the shape of it like a black ball of twine in her head, she began to divide up her estate between her three remaining children. […] She could see Flora’s life, flat as a map. Perhaps all mothers can see as far.

By the way, Link is inverting the usual gender of fairytales it is usually Kings and Fathers who perform a deathbed division of their property in fairytales. The only way a woman can have any real power is by being a witch. So this witch has her own property, living like an outcast King.

The children are introduced:

  • Flora with red hair (The witch favours red hair), a modern sort of woman who has been waiting for her mother to die. She inherits the automobile and a Magic Porridge Pot sort of purse which will never be empty so long as you leave a coin in the bottom.
  • Jack, who can’t read but who inherits the books.
  • Small, the youngest, who still sleeps in his mother’s bed but who is ‘not as young as you think’. I’m thinking of Pope from Animal Kingdom. Small is described in a feminine manner he does the care of their ailing mother witch. But he is pragmatic about death. He asks only for the mother’s hairbrush, as Beauty asked only for a rose, and Aschenputtel asked onto for a hazel twig. A marker of fairytale virtue, or stupidity? We’re yet to find out.

The witch tells them the house will be of no use to any of them because without her in it, it will pine and grow sick. She created it long ago from a doll house, with a staircase that goes nowhere. The cats will know what to do with it, apparently.

The witch vomits up all sorts of things as she dies things that aren’t edible, like she’s a human shaped trash heap. I’m reminded of No-Face from Spirited Away.

The witch dies and the children bury her in ‘one of her half-grown doll houses’. Small prepares her body for burial, and puts on every single one of her dresses. This layering seems significant we each have many layers, different dependant on the day. While the children rig up her coffin, we get short paragraphs about what the cats are up to all this time. They’re agitated, coming in and out, getting sicker and sicker. They’re carrying Time, which is heavy. Time is treated as a concrete thing they build nests out of it.

Flora and Jack flirt, which feels uncomfortably incestuous, because they were both ‘birthed’ from the witch. But they each speak of finding ‘their parents’, which suggests they’re not really related if they came from a witch. Flora and Jack drive off in the opposite direction their witch mother ordered. (They drive North see The Symbolism of Cardinal Direction.) Small stays behind to look after the cats, even though the house looks frail and unwelcoming.

Jack sleeps outside with the cats, but finds they’re not good company. Still, they seem to be looking after him, making him a nest with their fur. One day he wakes up and sees a familiar-feeling cat. We know this is the reincarnation of the witch because the cat has red tufts and we’ve been told the witch favoured red. ‘”You may call me Mother,” she says.’ Link refers to this cat as ‘The Witch’s Revenge’ from here on.

The Witch’s Revenge says to burn down the house. This is a gruesome scene, as the witch’s cats have crowded inside. They’re burned, too.

More direct address the reader is told not to do any of this. Direct address as cautionary tale.

The house won’t burn down but the windows melt down the walls. The Witch’s Revenge goes inside and comes back with a cat skin. It keeps coming back with more and each contains a lump of gold. I’m reminded more and more of No-Face from Spirited Away. This Revenge seems to be rewarding Small for small generosities such as brushing its fur, just as Chihiro was rewarded for basic civility at the bath house.

The Revenge digs up buttons and makes Small a suit out of cat skin. She tells him this bit of land where they sleep was once the site of a big struggle. Together they go into the forest, where a witch called Lack lives.

On the hells of Spirited Away, there’s environmental commentary in “Cat Skin” when Link tells us the forest is smaller than it used to be. It’s been encroached upon by human development. (Small is also growing bigger, metaphor for more powerful.)

Now we get the link to Rapunzel. The witch explains that people made houses to lock their children away. But instead of a tower, Link creates basements. Link takes a familiar expression, ‘house cat’ and invents super creepy etymology:

Now people mostly bury a cat when they build their house, instead of a child. That’s why we call cats house-cats.

The coat is still alive with cats, meowing. As they walk, Small is turning into a cat himself. They live like wild animals, drinking from streams, and at night they sleep in a catskin bag, which carries Time.

Small and the Revenge lift the lid on a small forest house and set whatever’s inside free. They can’t see it, but it arrives in Small’s dreams. He imagines it’s following them now.

We are introduced to Lack. Supernatural fairytale creatures tend to be strongly gendered in our minds witches are female, wizards are the ‘male equivalent’. But in this story Lack is a male and also a witch. (Throughout Europe, a proportion of people burned at the stake were male most often they were burned because they were associated with female ‘witches’ so there will always be a gendered aspect to witches.) Lack is a bugaboo he has stolen his children from their beds, apparently unable to make them himself out of bits and pieces, as can a female witch.

Revenge intends to live at Lack’s house. There’s been some history between them, but we’re told no one knows what it is. Presumably this is where Revenge will take her Revenge. She instructs Small to behave like a pet cat for Lack’s children.

There’s not much build up like a cat pouncing out of nowhere, we’re told Revenge jumps at Lack’s throat and kills him.

The children scatter some mean to go back to their homes. But exactly what became of them ‘Small never knew, and neither do I, and neither shall you,’ which is one way of tidying up a narrative.

It is revealed that the children are cat children. Turns out Revenge is annoyed that children with mothers and fathers have been stolen. She intends to return them, but this is not a true desire, because we’re told she doesn’t care if she returns the right cats to the right parents. When she returns, she accuses Small of having sex with the female child of Lack. Revenge makes a cat toy which is more of a trap the remaining cats are made to run along behind, chasing it, as they leave Lack’s house.

The house is made of shit, which burns slowly. So although Small set it on fire it may be there still, we are told. Notice the present tense passages between the past tense ones the present tense points to the universal, the never-ending nature of the story.

There’s a summary which spans years of Small’s life, living with Revenge in a room rented off a butcher. The reader is left to imagine the form they take, because surely cats can’t rent rooms from butchers. They keep cats in cages, though Small takes them out for walks. One day he comes home to find one of the three cats gone. He is told it escaped through the window and a crow carried her off.

Then Flora and Jack destitute now arrive on the doorstep of their new house. It seems the witch’s children are forever children, but adult in some ways. They’ve fallen out of love with other creatures and so on. It’s as if they’ve lived full, adult lives, yet here they are, once again the witch’s children. Only Small does not grow up, which I guess is why Link called him Small. He goes to school every day on a bicycle. (He’s large, apparently, which means he doesn’t need friends.)

Small’s adult fur begins to grow in puberty, of course. The story gets really trippy now and I have trouble keeping track. This sequence, with the miniature naked prince and princess, and Small dreaming and screaming “I want my mother!” and the ants coming out of Revenge’s body remind me of the Battle sequence in a carnivalesque picture book the craziness comes to a head. Things start happening more quickly until nothing more crazy could possibly happen and then we’re at the story’s end.

Once  he’s planned to live in the belly of a fish who has eaten his tiny shrunken self, we are told ‘This is the end of the story’. We get a kind of an epilogue without it called as such, in which we wear about The Princess Margaret. In a Charles Perrault kind of summary we are told something true about life as the author sees it: ‘There is no such thing as witches, and there is no such thing as cats, either, only people dressed up in catskin suits.’

This story seems to be telling us that appearances are deceptive, and not really that important, as they don’t speak to the essence of a character.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “CATSKIN”

To simplify it…

SHORTCOMING

Small’s shortcoming is that he is forever childlike, even after he grows bigger. He’s dependent on his mother, even after her death, when she reincarnates as a vengeful cat. Small is under her spell and must go with her on her travels.

DESIRE

Surface desire: Small isn’t comfortable with the cruelties exacted by the mother cat, so he does what he can to ameliorate the lives of people she touches.

Deep desire: His nurturing nature indicates that he wants to be mothered himself. This becomes clear as the story progresses, obviated only at the anagnorisis phase.

OPPONENT

Revenge, the reincarnated cat mother

PLAN

The magic in this story is of the fatalistic kind. Small is bound to go along with a cat who he sees as a mother figure. It’s Revenge who makes all the plans.

At some point in every story, the passive hero usually makes a firm plan of some kind. They ‘come into their own’. When he realises that the thing in the forest crawled inside him he starts having nightmares. He then, finally, demands his own mother. He knows the cat has taken her and demands his mother back.

BIG STRUGGLE

The ‘Battle‘ comprises the trippy in-and-out of bodies sequence where even size is variable, like something out of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

ANAGNORISIS

Small has always wanted a mother, but is told eventually that he doesn’t have one, as the lullaby said (earlier in the story). The singer of that lullaby says she has no mother and nor did her mother have one and so on, far back into time.

NEW SITUATION

Small has shed his cat body but morphed into something different, inhabiting the insides of a fish.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

The Unclouded Day by Annie Proulx Storytelling

grouse

“The Unclouded Day” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1985, included in the Heart Songs collection. Rich and poor, city and rural bump up against each other. This story is an excellent example of two narrative techniques in particular:

  1. Santee has both an outside opponent and one from within his own group. (Earl most obviously, but also his wife.)
  2. The revelation comes early for Santee, but the story has to conclude with Earl’s ‘fake’ anagnorisis before we’re done. If you’d like to write a trickster story, “The Unclouded Day” provides a successful template.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”

In other stories outsiders are largely a source of humor. … “The Unclouded Day” is in some ways typical of the sort of fiction that has been published for years in magazines for hunters and fishers, humorous stories that often feature a wily outdoorsman who gets the better of an arrogant city slicker. [Trickster stories, in other words.] In Proulx’s story Earl [OUTSIDE OPPONENT], a wealthy investment analyst who works at home in a large “Swiss chalet” with “moulded polystyrene pillars holding up a portico roof” hires Santee to teach him how to hunt game birds. Santee quickly decides that Earl has “the reflexes of a snowman” and will never learn to shoot properly, but Earl claims to be undiscouraged. He has read in books that learning to shoot birds is a long and difficult process. Santee would like to quit [DESIRE], but his wife appreciates the extra money he is making [HOME OPPONENT].

After an entire season in which Earl has failed to shoot a single bird, Santee agrees to hunt with him for a second season because, having taken Earl’s money for so long, he feels honor bound to keep hunting with him until he finally succeeds. One day, with a thunderstorm approaching, Earl wrongly believes that he has hit a bird. After Santee’s dog refuses Earl’s order to fetch the nonexistent bird, Santee finds three dead grouse that have just been killed when lightning struck a nearby tree. He praises Earl’s supposed prowess as a hunter, and then uses Earl’s criticism of the dog for not fetching the birds as an excuse to quit. Earl assumes that Santee is jealous, but Santee has the last laugh. Later that night he wonders “what Earl had said when he plucked three partridges that were already cooked”.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

RICH VERSUS POOR

One of the best ways to create interesting character webs in a story — a.k.a. ‘conflict’ — is to put a rich character with a poor one. The difference between their values will naturally come out.

Spoiler alert: Rich people usually come off looking like assholes when put in the same fictional arena as poor people. There has since been some scientific evidence to support this observation — apparently being rich lowers a person’s capacity to empathise. We can see rich versus poor stories not just as a commentary on the rich, but as a commentary on human nature, and what can happen to anybody when they become rich. Would you change if you won a big Lotto tomorrow? We all like to think we would not. But it seems Annie Proulx understood the rich-poor dynamic long before research was done. In “The Unclouded Day” she expresses this human tendency to both despise and emulate riches via Santee’s wife, at first glance a minor character:

For all its humor [“The Unclouded Day”] also includes social commentary. Because he is paying Santee, Earl treats him like a servant. In Earl’s mind this relationship allows him to imply to listeners in the general store that he has shot birds that were actually killed by Santee. Most hurtful to Santee, however, is his wife’s response to Earl’s wealth, and Santee comes to resent how she spends the money he earns from Earl to make their house more like the “gentrified” country homes of the city people.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
THE FAIRYTALE TRADITION OF GREEDY WIVES

There’s something very fairytale about this story. If you read the Grimm volumes you’ll find a series of stories about put-upon men who cannot do enough to provide for their wives. “The Fisherman and His Wife” is a good example. It’s a kind of subversion of the Rags to Riches story.

In these tales, the men’s greedy wives require their husbands do more and more to procure never-ending riches, eventually leading to the family’s downfall. The idea that women are endlessly greedy while their husbands can never provide enough speaks to a long-held misogyny which affects both men and women throughout the ages: Women are excluded from bodily autonomy and earning their own money; men are expected to provide for their entire families. Annie Proulx is not making any gender commentary here, not that I can pick up — Proulx did not create a wife who went out and bought new jewels. Verna clears junk from the yard. She collects river stones to use decoratively in the garden. She repaints the house — a very sensible thing to do given that unpainted houses eventually rot and fall down. So although “The Unclouded Day” has its basis in fairytale, it’s a far more subtle commentary than that. The white stones make an excellent choice for a turning point, because the stones don’t require any money. This is a subtle change in attitude — the nuanced psychology of a couple who have never valued wealth, and now, in late middle age, they must deal with some uncomfortable feelings around that.

THE FAIRYTALE TRADITION OF LIGHTNING STRUCK TREES

Another image reminiscent of fairytale is the burnt tree at the end of the story. This reminds me of “The Juniper Tree”, collected by the Grimm Brothers. In that tale a boy’s bones are buried under a tree, then the tree starts smoking and a bird rises up out of the flame, with the soul of the dead boy. In earlier times, it was sometimes believed that certain birds came from certain trees, probably because from a distance, when a flock of birds scatters from a tree upon which they’ve been roosting, it does seem as if the birds came out of the tree itself. From perhaps the same era as The Juniper Tree is the Biblical story of the Burning Bush.

SETTING OF “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”

Like other stories in the same collection, “The Unclouded Day” features a rural (poor) household compared and contrasted to a newcomer’s (rich) household. In “On The Antler“, the rich newcomers never have that much to do with the rural poor, aside from passing each other in the local store, but in this story Proulx brings two individuals together, one on one.

By the title, you might think this is a story about weather causing issues for people. Proulx makes great use of weather, using it quite often as pathetic fallacy, or ironically so.

It was a rare thing, a dry, warm spring that swelled into summer so ripe and full that gleaming seed bent the grass low a month before its time; a good year for grouse. When the season opened halfway through September, the heat of summer still held, dusty lay like yellow flour on the roads, and a perfume of decay came from the thorned mazes where blackberries fell and rotted on the ground. Grouse were in the briars, along the watercourses, and, drunk on fermenting autumn juices, they flew recklessly, their wings cleaving the shimmering heat of the day.

Opening paragraph of “The Unclouded Day”

Note as usual for Proulx the juxtaposition: warm, swell, ripe, full <—> decay, thorned, fell, rotted. Rural life is both idyllic and tough, and in a hunting story it’s inevitable, but there’s death all around.

In the work of Annie Proulx there’s always something more than ‘description’ behind her descriptions of weather:

Proulx knows that geography and weather alone are not to blame for these blighted lives. Rather, it is bent politics, commercial exploitation and government neglect. Optimists who preach social rejuvenation get short shrift, along with a piece of native wisdom.

From a review of Close Range, by Mary Flanagan, The Independent

Here we have an environment which is basically quite nice, and it would continue being nice except for these new people coming in. The newcomers are much richer, and so things which seemed fine before now have the potential to seem lacking.

As ever, Proulx connects character to setting using various techniques. For instance, the men are compared to their respective guns:

Earl had come to Santee the year before and begged him to teach him how to hunt birds. He had a good gun, he said, a Tobias Hume. Santee thought it overrated and overpriced, but it was a finer instrument than [Santee’s] own field-grade Jorken with the cracked stock he’d meant to replace for years.

Santee’s gun, like its owner, was inelegant and long in the tooth, but it worked well.

PUDDING IMAGERY

Earl is compared to something sweet and insubstantial — a pancake, a local breakfast food I expect:

He wore nice boots, rich corduroy trousers in a golden syrup colour... his voice rolled out of his throat like sweet batter. … “Nice dog,” said Earl in his confectionary voice.

Pancakes are also greasy, like Earl’s voice, ‘buttering’ him up.

Earl oiled Santee with his voice.

Notice how deftly Proulx takes imagery and extends it. She uses word associations rather than spelling out the links. Sweet, batter, golden syrup, oil… All of these things are associated with pancakes yet the word ‘pancake’ is not actually used. He could easily be a waffle. On their first day out they see fallen fruit and ‘dusting in powdery bowls of fine earth’, reminiscent of pudding in general. ‘The bird fell like a nut‘.

The thing about puddings is, effort goes into them looking nice. That’s all they’re for really — there’s little nutritional value — it’s all about how they look and how good they taste. Puddings are about appearance, as Earl is playing at the appearance of hunting:

With his legs spraddled out he looked like an old-time gangster spraying the rival mob with lead.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”

SHORTCOMING

Santee is not someone who wants to be rich. He doesn’t want anything to do with the rich. That’s how he manages any dissatisfaction that might otherwise creep in — he keeps his mind off other people by indulging in the advantages unique (until now) to rural folk: hunting, a certain rural freedom to do your own thing, at one with nature, outside the human hierarchy.

But unfortunately he can’t look away. Not now that he’s being ‘hunted’ in his own right, as an expert grouse catcher with marketable skills. He suggests a weekday, probably hoping that Earl can’t do weekdays, but it turns out Earl has flexible working hours.

Santee said he would go out with Earl on Monday. He didn’t know how to say no.

Another shortcoming is that he has a conscience. He feels guilty taking Earl’s money when Earl’s got no chance of catching anything. If he could put this feeling aside there’d be no problem.

DESIRE

Santee is a character who is driven by not wanting to do something.

Santee did not care to hunt birds in such high-colored weather. […] Santee longed for the cold weather and unclouded days that lay somewhere ahead…

He does not want to take this new joker out on hunting trips because it’s ruining his own enjoyment.

OPPONENT

Earl is the outside opponent, but to add a layer of interest and explicate the theme of ‘money changes people’, Earl’s own wife, Verna, is also an opponent. She likes the money Earl brings in so she wants Santee to go out with him.

Verna’s opposition is subtle, conveyed mostly in the following paragraph:

“The money is good,” said Verna, giving the porch floor a shove that set the glider squeaking. Her apron was folded across her lap, her arms folded elbow over elbow with her hands on her shoulders, her ankles crossed against the coolness of the night. She wore the blue acrylic slippers Santee had given her for Mother’s Day.

“The Unclouded Day” by Annie Proulx

Later, she has come with him to Earl’s house, because ‘it was the kind of day people decided to go for a ride’. When they get there and she sees the house, she wishes she hadn’t come. The house has been described in pejorative terms, made of polystyrene. But this is not what Verna’s thinking. The narrator conveys what Earl’s thinking. Verna’s probably thinking she wishes she hadn’t come to see a house so much nicer than her own. She wants a house like that. Santee ‘knew how she felt’, but did he really? He doesn’t tell us. The reader is left to infer Verna’s feelings from the text, and it’s not clear until after reading the entire story that she is attracted to the house rather than fully repelled, as her husband is.

PLAN

Santee can’t think of any Plan to get out of these hunting expeditions — his lack of a good plan is his downfall. The weather does eventually inspire an impromptu plan — he’ll take the lightning struck birds and lie to his client that he got three in one shot. That means he can bring his lessons to an end.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle isn’t always between the main character and the opponent. Well, that’s how it works in a traditional mythic story — the hero big struggles the dragon — but short story writers can put all kinds of spins on that, according to the world of the story, which may not be suited to a fight, as such.

In “The Unclouded Day”, the Battle scene involves the same dynamics playing out but between his opponent and someone else this time — his opponent’s wife. At Earl’s house, Earl keeps shooting the clay pigeons with his noisy gun and although it’s upsetting his child, he won’t let wife and child go inside. This mirrors exactly how his controlling personality has been working with Santee, equally unable to say no to the man.

On the other hand, you could say the Battle scene of this story is the lightning storm. This one involves death — of lightning struck birds. The characters get wet and uncomfortable — it looks far more like a traditional Battle scene. But I argue the clay pigeon scene as the Battle scene because it is this which inspires Earl’s Anagnorisis. In the storm, he’s just going through the motions, waiting for his moment to quit. This is a trickster story, and the Big Battle is part of the trick on Earl, who thinks he’s had some kind of breakthrough of his own:

“I knew something was going to happen today. I guess I was ready for the big breakthrough.”

Of course, the real Anagnorisis belongs to Santee, and it happens early in the story.

ANAGNORISIS

Santee’s Anagnorisis happens after Verna collects the river stones, paints them white and lays them along the driveway.

Santee saw the beauty of it — the green shorn grass, the gleaming white stones. It all had something to do with teaching Earl how to hunt, but aside from the money he didn’t know what.

After a while he did. It was that she wouldn’t let him quite. She would go out into the yard at the earliest light of hunting days—Santee had come to think of them as work days—walking in the wet grass and squinting at the sky to interpret the character of the new day.

(Self revelations often coincide with new days and changes in light, especially, perhaps, in short stories.)

There’s a second Anagnorisis that underscores the first: Santee’s son Derwin overhears Earl bragging down at the store, and that’s when Santee realises that the servant/master paid relationship is a dynamic that leads Earl to disrespect him (make him invisible) like that. Derwin says, “You don’t owe him nothing'”

NEW SITUATION

Now Santee has had his Anagnorisis — that he is in danger of doing this for years to come — he is in a position to come up with the spontaneous plan of tricking Earl. We’re reminded of the unchanging nature of the future with this description of the landscape:

Nothing moved. They might have been in a painted field, walking slowly across the fixed landscape where no bird could ever fly, nor tree fall.

Earl uses the reason that he can’t have his dog disrespected to call off the hunting expeditions. We know this is the end of them because Earl smirks. However, we’re left to imagine the scene where Earl gets home:

He laughed to himself as he got back into the warm bed, wondering what Earl had said when he plucked three partridges that were already cooked.

This is the end of their hunting expeditions, but it may be the start of their rivalry.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.