Back For Christmas by John Collier

As soon as I read “Back For Christmas” by John Collier (1939) I thought of Roald Dahl. Sure enough, I google both names in a single search and learn that, for Dahl, among many other male writers, Collier is listed as a heavy influence.

Credit where credit is due, though: Roald Dahl’s two most famous short stories — Lamb to the Slaughter is one — was actually plotted by Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame. I learned that listening to the interview between Neil Gaiman and Tim Ferris. (The other Dahl story plotted by Fleming is “Parson’s Pleasure”, about the evil antique dealer.)

Why is that list of Collier-influenced authors entirely male? That’s not to say women haven’t also been influenced by Collier, but this does feel like a very masculine story.

I have a working theory on that. This sort of story, in which a criminal trickster type gets his comeuppance after a twist at the end, is closely related to the tall tale, and the tall tale tradition is very masculine. That begs the question, though.

Why are tall tales so popular with men? Masculine humour tends to be more about establishing hierarchies than feminine humour, and there’s nothing more hierarchical than a character at the top of his profession, beloved among his fictional peers, ending up on his knees in prison (we extrapolate).

This story is admirable partly because of the swift pacing. Notice how Collier takes us across continents with nothing in the way of boring logistical detail. And once the outcome is revealed, story over. Get in, get out, short story writers are told. Collier omits the entire New Equilibrium phase. He can, because he’s given us all the information we need.

I considered saving this story until the Christmas season, but it’s not a Christmasy story at all. It is set three months before Christmas — the gift-giving of Christmas is useful to the plot and that is its function.

If you’re after a heartwarming Christmas story try “The Gift of the Magi“. O. Henry’s story also involves a twist in the tail, but rarely, that twist says something positive about humankind. These two stories fit at each end of a single continuum — optimistic at one end, pessimistic at the other.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BACK FOR CHRISTMAS”

WEAKNESS/NEED

Mr Carpenter is clearly high on the psychopathic spectrum. At least, that’s how we might fictionally diagnose him today. This isn’t his weakness, though. I’m reminded of Kevin Dutton’s proposition in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, in which Dutton argues that psychopathy confers certain advantages (for the psychopathic themselves). Top doctors (especially surgeons) can benefit in their work. They don’t tend to have the same fear response as the neurotypical population. The amygdala tends to be under-aroused.

So I’m not going to say that his sociopathy is Mr Carpenter’s weakness. His weakness is that he doesn’t appreciate his wife. I mean that in several senses of the word: He doesn’t like how organised she is, and he doesn’t realise the extent of her organisation. Her organisational skills annoy him. In one short paragraph we learn that his main beef with her is that he feels she over-schedules his life. (That is her entire job as housewife to a doctor, back in 1939.)

DESIRE

Mr Carpenter, it is suddenly revealed, is moving from England to America. He is taking this opportunity to kill his wife. He wants to start a new life with a new woman. He wants to stay on in America, where he justifiably believes (in 1939) he will never be caught.

OPPONENT

Mrs Carpenter doesn’t realise she is his opponent, but she is.

PLAN

After the murder itself, Mr Carpenter’s plans make up the bulk of the story. The narrator offers a look inside his head. It is a point of pride that I don’t understand how a sociopath thinks, and you probably don’t, either. That’s why this phase of the story is so important.

What makes him think he can get away with this? Why would a man kill his own wife? The interest of the story lies in answering these questions.

BATTLE

As in a story like “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, the murder happens swiftly and quickly — the story is about what happens after. There is a symbolic Near Death Moment:

He threw himself down in the coal dust on the floor and said, “I’m through. I’m through.”

But no meaningful Self-revelation follows. This is just him panicking. To find the structural Battle scene, look for the part that comes before the Self-revelation. Except there is no Self-revelation in this one. The point of this character is that he is so full of confidence that he never once doubts that he’ll get away with murder.

SELF-REVELATION

Mr Carpenter has no meaningful Self-revelation, but the twist at the end leads directly to a satisfying Plot-revelation for the reader. (And also for him as a character, though his response is left off the page.)

Comic characters don’t often have self-revelations. That’s part of what makes them funny — their enduring stupidity. This lack of self-awareness is part of what makes “Back For Christmas” a darkly comic tale.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

“Back For Christmas” is a good example of a story which lets the reader extrapolate the New Equilibrium.

The title is meaningful, but only at the end. Mr Carpenter will indeed be back for Christmas, but he will have been summoned by police detectives, alerted to the presence of a dead body after the excavators visit the house for a renovation and dig up Mrs Carpenter’s corpse.

FORESHADOWING TECHNIQUES IN “HOME FOR CHRISTMAS”

I’ve written about literary shadowing elsewhere. In stories with surprise endings, the writer must be expert at foreshadowing. There’s a fine line between giving too much versus not enough.

How did Collier do it so masterfully in this story?

First of all, there’s the meaningful, clue-y title, mentioned above.

“He shall be back,” says Mrs Carpenter when we first meet her. She says this before the reader is told how very resourceful and organised she is. If we fully remembered what she had said, we’d know, after getting to know her later, that what she says goes. But we sort of half-forget detail like this. Instead, it all seems to somehow make sense after we learn the ending. (It is significant that every one of their acquaintances believes Mrs Carpenter. They know her much better than we do.) The takeaway writing tip: You can invert parts of the story in this way. Collier could have made the outcome more obvious by FIRST setting Mrs Carpenter up as a reliable type for whom plans always work THEN have her tell everyone (and us) that they definitely WOULD be back for Christmas, but showing us the other way round is the perfect degree of subtle.

“Anything may happen,” says Dr Carpenter in retort. This snippet of dialogue does double duty: The reader fully expects something to happen (as it always does in good stories) and it therefore functions as a suspenseful hook. But it’s also ironic in hindsight, because the ‘anything’ does not line up with Dr Carpenter’s expected outcome. There’s a meaningful gap between what he thinks and what actually happens.

This story would not have worked as well if Collier had left out the backstory of how Mr Carpenter has been ‘trying to scrape out a bin for wine’ and it would not have worked had he left out its addendum: ‘he had told Hermione’. In hindsight, we understand that Hermione saw him scraping out a barrel meaning to put her in it, but her interpretation was different: She thought he was developing an interest in wine, so arranged a renovation of the cellar as his Christmas present. It is important when writing a tale like this to attach a connecting thread of backstory to the simplicity of your poetic justice by explaining exactly how the pieces have come together in this way. It doesn’t take much, as shown here by Collier. It’s done in a single paragraph, embedded into action and forward motion.

There’s also a ticking clock, which Collier uses to divert our attention from this obvious clue about the barrel. The ticking clock is ‘the ringing’ from the friends, who will come back in half an hour.

Imagery works as foreshadowing here, too:

The Doctor was scarcely aware of the ringing as a sound. It was like a spike of iron pushed slowly up through his stomach. It went on until it reached his brain.

This should tell us that the doctor will come to a sorry end, but it doesn’t, directly. And that’s why it still works.

POETIC JUSTICE

Importantly, Mr Carpenter’s plot comes full circle, which gives a sense of ending. Seems simple in post hoc analysis, but it’s important that Collier chose to write such a direct and simple plot: A man buries dead wife in cellar; wife has planned a cellar renovation. The key is in the simplicity of that. This is poetic justice. Readers find poetic justice very satisfying.

Poetic justice is a literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished in such a way that the reward or punishment has a logical connection to the deed.

This has more to do with the supernatural belief of karma and heavily retribution than with legal justice. Poetic justice is the highly satisfying emotional response we feel when the innocent is vindicated and the guilty punished when the law doesn’t accomplish it.

In modern literature, this device is often used to create an ironic twist of fate in which the villain gets caught up in his/her own trap

— Karl Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact

In C. S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, Prince Rabadash climbs upon a mounting block during the battle in Archenland. When he jumps down while shouting “The bolt of Tash falls from above,” his hauberk catches on a hook and leaves him hanging, humiliated and trapped.

In John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas a concentration camp commander’s son is mistakenly caught up with inmates rounded up for gassing.

In Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book, The Sweetest Fig, a cold-hearted dentist is cruel to his dog and ends up getting his comeuppance.

Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner is a picture book in which a wolf builds a contraption to catch his guests and eat them, but he ends up getting trapped in it himself. His friends end up eating him without knowing.

A lot of Paul Jennings stories end with poetic justice.

I’ve written more about punishment in children’s literature here. A segment of modern book buyers avoid stories in which characters get punished at the end. You can see that by reading consumer reviews — bad behaviour followed by severe punishment is not always seen as suitable for kids. Others take delight in the very same endings.