Below is a motley collection of illustrations but I feel they share something in common: They seem to have started from an assemblage of large shapes of colour. On top of those shapes, some are rendered and shaded while others aren’t.
The peak example of what I’m talking about is the illustration below.
“Germans At Meat” (1910) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, and opens her first collection (a series of journalistic travelogues). The collection is called In A German Pension.
Mansfield later regretted these stories and did not want to republish them in 1920, three years before she died. She considered them ‘immature’ and ‘a lie’. Unfortunately for Mansfield, a gaggle of us are still talking about them over 100 years later.
Some of the stories in this collection are said to be sketches rather than complete stories. But that depends what you mean by a story. Below, I consider from a wholly technical point of view whether “Germans At Meat” is technically a story or a sketch.
Also, what exactly made these early stories less mature than Mansfield’s later ones? Mainly it was to do with the narration and the imagery. She hadn’t quite cracked her sophisticated system of imagery yet, and she had not yet invented those trademark narrative techniques exemplified in her final “Prelude” trilogy.
“Open House on Haunted Hill” is a Nebula Award winning short (ghost?) story by John Wiswell, published in 2020. I’ve recently immersed myself in ghost stories from the 18- and 1900s. But how does one go about writing a contemporary ghost story?
Can modern writers still write an original and surprising ghost story? I mean, haven’t all the ghost tropes been done to death? Aren’t modern audiences super well-schooled in these tropes, if not from primary sources then from pop-culture descendants?
John Wiswell allays these particular fears. “Open House on Haunted Hill” may sound like a Shirley Jackson pastiche…
or a 1980s horror film…
But this is one of the kindest most original ghost stories you’ll read. If you’re in the mood for kindness (and who isn’t?), jump right in.
“The Signalman” (1866) is a ghost story by iconic English author Charles Dickens. If you’ve ever fantasised about leaving your open office or customer service job to work alone in a tiny box in the middle of nowhere, unbothered and free to get on with your straight-forward but very necessary job, this might be the story for you.
HOW DO I GET A JOB IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE AS A SIGNALMAN?
First, the bad news. You’d have to travel back in time.
A signaller is an employee of a railway transport network who operates the points and signals from a signal box in order to control the movement of trains. Some signallers are women. The job of signallers in boxes next to railways started in the early 1800s. At first they were called the Railway Police. They were as important as air traffic controllers today.
Early signallers would hang out in their signal box until a train passed by. Then they would check for the red tail lamp on the last carriage of a train to ensure nothing had fallen off. Then they’d write it down in a Train Register Book. These books were pretty large and heavy. Signallers recorded train movements and every communication that happened between other signallers at different boxes. They didn’t actually talk to anyone. They communicated via bell codes.
Sounds pretty cruisey, but this was a stressful gig! You had no computer back up. Keeping trains on the right tracks and apart from each other was entirely up to you and you had to stay awake.
Since the early 1800s, the job description of a signaller has changed a lot due to computerisation. Centralised Rail Operating Centres now do the work originally conducted in signal boxes. Old buildings are often repurposed by communities (e.g. for cafes or community projects) if they’re sufficiently distant from a working railway line.
You can still find many signal boxes throughout Britain and other British colonies, notably India, South Africa and along the three east coast states of Australia. (The Australian signal system is especially ridiculous because the signal colours weren’t shared between states!)
Oh, there was no good news, by the way. Death comes to us all.
Oftentimes in stories and metaphor, the train track symbolises our linear human experience of the passing of time. (Astrophysicists tell us that’s not actually how time works; none of the pop science communicators has ever managed to help my brain understand how space and time are the same thing. Congratulations and a stiff ticket if you are one of the few who can get your brain around that.)
What else do you associate with trains? Tunnels, probably. Tunnels (man-made caves) have a whole symbolism of their own. Train tracks are also frequently set either above or below the surrounding land. In this case, the narrator must go down a steep slope before reaching the train track. He descends into the underworld.
To get a sense of the setting, there’s a 1976 BBC adaptation of “The Signalman”.
Charles Dickens was himself in a railway accident. He was lucky to survive. This story is certainly an outworking of the trauma he experienced after that experience, and from which he never recovered. It is extremely creepy (though a coincidence nonetheless) that Dickens died five years to the day after the accident.
Can men write woman and femme-presenting characters? Men can, do and may. William Trevor did it well. Apart from an excess of crying, Larry McMurtry also did it well. Ian McEwan is also right up there.
Content note: This is a gender binarist topic. Non-binary genders exist and continue to be invisibilised the vast majority of the time. This particular topic reflects the bimodal nature of gender and the fact that the vast majority of published books were created by writers who fit neatly into the gender binary, or who haven’t reflected much on their own gender identity. When I say ‘woman’, I mean anyone who is coded femme to others, as this is a particular experience of navigating the world.
MEN WRITING GIRLS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
In children’s literature, women write boy characters more than men choose to write girl characters. (You’re probably thinking of the exceptions right now, not of the overall corpus, but the count has been done.)
Children’s literature specialist Maria Nikolajeva urges us to look a little deeper at the men writing girl characters:
Some [girl character stories written by male authors] are plot oriented and mainly describe the external flow of events. This is the case of The Wizard of Oz, in which a male writer has chosen a female protagonist, but does not enter her inner world. By contrast, The Outsiders, The Planet of Junior Brown, The Giver, and Bridge to Terabithia depict the deepest and most secret corners of the different-gender protagonists’ minds. The Outsiders also uses a male narrative voice. Does this mean that “feminine writing” tends to be character oriented and introspective even when a male protagonist is portrayed? In fact, there are very few successful introspective portraits of female protagonists created by male writers.
Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction by Maria Nikolajeva
Science fiction author Ursula Le Guin had something to say about writers and their gendering of main characters:
MCPHERSON: I know you’re always hearing comments and questions about the fact that you write from men’s point of view in nearly all your books […]
URSULA LE GUIN: […] the women I write about tend to be more varied, more complicated; the men are more conventional. […] we write — in part — from all that we’ve read. There’s no tradition for us [women] to follow. Most of the books about women were written by men.
I once read an article about why so few commuters were inclined to take the bus. This would have eased congestion in my home city. New Zealanders are notoriously wedded to their cars (which have only gotten bigger and bigger since the aggressive marketing of double-cab utes).
Sure, we like our cars. But there’s this thing called ‘bus anxiety’. When I read the list of ‘anxiety provoking factors’, I identified all of them in myself, a regular bus user at the time:
Will the bus come on time?
Am I at the right stop, and will this bus go where I need it to?
Do I have an acceptable method of paying?
Will there be somewhere for me to sit?
If so, will I have to sit next to someone unpleasant?
The list went on. When I moved to Japan, I found the payment system of the late 1990s the most stress inducing of all. Some buses opened their front doors, other the back doors for you to get on. I could never remember which it was going to be. If you got on at the back, you took a ticket with a zone on it, and kept your eyes on the digital board of numbers at the front. This would tell you how much you had to pay by the time you got off. Like a taxi cab, the number kept rising. When you disembarked, you got off at the front, and on your way out, you dropped exact change into a large acrylic box with a slot in the top. The driver didn’t engage with travellers at all. He was there as an automaton.
The belief that walking under a ladder is bad luck comes from Ancient Egypt. A ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle. This is a sacred shape because it represents the trinity of the gods. Passing through the triangle would desecrate them.
The beach during daytime is mostly a fun experience: sandcastles, surf, sand in your sandwiches. Beach cricket, volleyball, fun with friends and family. Occasionally, storytellers take the happy beach and invert it for Gothic purposes.
But return to the same beach at night and you have something completely different. The beach at night requires no Gothic inversion. Under a cloak of darkness, the moonlit shoreline is now ethereal and spooky.
Okay so there’s no shore in sight in this one. Just two heads bobbing about in the open sea.
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