“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.
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.
“Yours” is a 1982 short story by American writer Mary Robison. The year before The New Yorker published this short story, Robison published a novel called Oh! which was adapted for film in 1989. The film is called Twister. I don’t meant the late 90s blockbuster but a domestic drama set during a cyclone.
As for “Yours”, this is a very short story, so won’t take long to read. But you’ll probably want to read it again right away. Otherwise you may be left wondering what it’s all about, especially regarding the significance of the pumpkins.
THE PUMPKIN AS SYMBOL AND MOTIF
The pumpkin is clearly a motif. What’s the difference between a symbol and a motif? Symbols are more universal. They tend to stand for the same sorts of things across different stories, and even across time and culture. Motifs work like symbols, standing in for something else, but they are specific to the work of art at hand.
So what do pumpkins symbolise, generally? Hallowe’en, for Americans, and increasingly for the rest of the world. (Here in Australia kids are starting to Trick or Treat, even though Halloween happens in spring.)
Pumpkins are also sometimes a sexual symbol. (What isn’t?)
Mary Robison’s short story is set around Hallowe’en, so the story utilises the Hallowe’en pumpkin as part of the plot. But these carved pumpkins are doing more than simply establishing a Hallowe’en setting. Let’s take a closer look.
“Extra” is a short story by Chinese-American author Yiyun Li. Deborah Treisman and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum discuss this story in 2021 at the New Yorker Fiction podcast. This was the second story Yiyun Li published anywhere. “Extra” was included in Li’s 2005 debut collection A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers.
Brilliant and original, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers introduces a remarkable new writer whose breathtaking stories are set in China and among Chinese Americans in the United States. In this rich, astonishing collection, Yiyun Li illuminates how mythology, politics, history, and culture intersect with personality to create fate.
From the bustling heart of Beijing, to a fast-food restaurant in Chicago, to the barren expanse of Inner Mongolia, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers reveals worlds both foreign and familiar, with heartbreaking honesty and in beautiful prose.
CHARACTERS OF ANY AGE CAN ‘COME OF AGE’
When we think of a ‘coming-of-age’ story we generally think of teenagers and young adults. Yiyun Li’s “Extra” is a good example of a coming-of-age story about a character who is in many ways a metaphorical newborn but not young in years.
As the story opens Granny Lin has just lost the job she worked at for her whole life. She is about to describe the experience as a dream. Yiyun Li could have chosen to interweave prior experience into Granny Lin’s story of the present, but did not. Granny Lin is an excellent example of a truly in statu nascendi character. Another author who wrote like this was Modernist short story writer of the early 20th century, Katherine Mansfield.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
“Extra” is a wonderful example of a short story which avoids giving the main character backstory. This isn’t just done to keep the short story short. There’s a narrative reason for it.
As an aside, the author has claimed that at time of writing she barely knew what a backstory was, a good example of how authors don’t necessarily need to know all the theory and literary terms before writing an excellent story. Some do, of course. Margaret Atwood can talk at length about storytelling as a craft, linking it to history, politics and myth.
Readers don’t realise until after the reading experience how adeptly Yiyun Li transitions between summary and scene. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum points out, “We barely notice the shifts between summary and scene because the routines of her life and the habits she creates are all summarised, but the summaries are rendered as visibly and palpably as a scene would be.”
The descriptions of routine — technically flashbacks — are so vivid and engaging that we don’t realise we’re not in the present time.
“Gallatin Canyon” is a short, grim road trip story by American author Thomas McGuane. This story served as the title of McGuane’s 2006 collection. In 2021, Deborah Treisman and Téa Obreht discussed its merits on the New Yorker fiction podcast.
A man and a woman drive through Gallatin Canyon, toward Idaho, where the narrator (the man) intends to use his obnoxious guile to undo a business deal. “I’m a trader,” he tells his companion, on what will be their last day together. “It all happens for me in the transition. The moment of liquidation is the essence of capitalism.”
Place exerts the power of destiny in these ten stories of lives uncannily recognizable and unforgettably strange: a boy makes a surprising discovery skating at night on Lake Michigan; an Irish clan in Massachusetts gather at the bedside of their dying matriarch; a battered survivor of the glory days of Key West washes up on other shores. Several of the stories unfold in Big Sky country, McGuane’s signature landscape: a father tries to buy his adult son out of virginity; a convict turned cowhand finds refuge at a ranch in ruination; a couple makes a fateful drive through the perilous gorge of the title story before parting ways. McGuane’s people are seekers, beguiled by the land’s beauty and myth, compelled by the fantasy of what a locale can offer, forced to reconcile dream and truth.
The stories of “Gallatin Canyon” are alternately comical, dark, and poignant. Rich in the wit, compassion, and matchless language for which McGuane is celebrated, they are the work of a master.
“A Sheltered Woman” is a short story by Chinese-American writer Yuyun Li, and a subversion on the trope of the domestic suspense story. In a subcategory of these stories, an unstable woman enters the family home and threatens the family unit.
These domestic suspense stories — in which the woman a mother trusts most turns out to be a homicidal killer — have been around for a long time, but found a new lease of life with The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992) about an evil nanny.
After her humiliated husband kills himself, an embittered pregnant widow loses her child, and embarks on a mission of vengeance against a woman and her family.
Domestic suspense was already back in fashion with the 1987 success of Fatal Attraction. Some commentators have no ideological issues with the Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and consider the opening scene of molestation followed by miscarriage an accurate insight into the lack of agency afforded women during the period of time around childbirth. Writer Amanda Silver inserted some feminist talking points and the story was taken as feminist (a trick utilised later by Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl, cf. The Cool Girl paragraph).
“Marriage á la Mode” (1921) is a Modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, first published in a December edition of The Sphere: An Illustrated Newspaper for the Home. Magazines don’t normally publish summery stories in winter, but it makes more sense to know this magazine was aimed at British citizens living in the colonies.
This story was later published in The Garden Party And Other Stories.
Love letters are a risky business. Revealing yourself to another person opens the risk of rejection, but if you had to do it onstage? What if the recipient of your ardour and your expression of vulnerability thought it was funny, and shared your most private, loving self with others for jokes?
Have you ever sent a love letter? What about a revealing email? A selfie? A naked selfie? This story is 100 years old, but we are still sharing ourselves with others in ways that leaves footprints. In fact, we now do this in a variety of uber-revealing ways. People we trust still betray us by sharing our secrets more widely, without our permission. With the Internet, the size of the audience, and the size of possible shame, has grown many times over. The point of shame in this story is probably even more relatable to a contemporary audience.