Negatives by Annie Proulx Short Story

abandoned house

“Negatives” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1994 in Esquire, later included in the Heart Songs collection. You can read it online, with limited unpaid access. “Negatives” is the most brutal of the stories in this collection. Content note for rape.

Reasons to read this story:

  • If you’re writing a short story and think it may benefit from a ‘separatised’ introduction which forewarns the reader basically how it’s going to unfold. I do wonder at what part of Annie Proulx’s writing process she wrote that introduction. Did she write the rest of the story then realise it needed a little something at the beginning? That’s be interesting to know.
  • In any case, the way Proulx unfolds the story, mentioning the bath scene in the men’s dialogue, then later showing us the scene where Albina asks to have the bath that first time, is an interesting, spirally way to tell a story, and structuring a plot like this leaves the reader with the feeling of a vast unfolding, and even a short story feels like it has many layers.
  • Pathetic fallacy written beautifully: ‘The mountain pressed into the room with an insinuation of augury. Flashing particles of ice dust stippled the air around the house. The wind shook the walls and liquid shuddered in the glass.
  • A character dehumanised, in this case by turning Albina into a dog, in Walter’s eyes. Annie Proulx achieves this partly by telling us about Walter’s fantasises, as relayed at dinner parties, but eventually by stripping her naked. Her physical description also aligns somewhat with that of a dog, as well as the smell she leaves behind in a car (as dogs are inclined to do). Her children have ‘sown the back seat of his car with nits’, and she spends a lot of time sleeping in there. Dogs also sleep a lot. She hangs around like a stray, asking for an increasing amount of scraps. Nor does she retaliate, biting her owner’s hand, when abused like a dog. Her hair is short, ‘like fur’. Everything about Albina is dog-like.
  • A story with no clear ‘main character’: The character who changes (is traumatised) the most is a head we’re not allowed into.
  • This is because “Negatives” is basically what I call a ‘Blow-in Dastard’ story, which upends the ‘Blow In Saviour’ trope.
  • The way Proulx writes about the changing of a season, mirroring the change in character emotion, ending the paragraph by honing back in on the characters of this particular story:

THE DEEP AUTUMN CAME QUICKLY. Abandoned cats and dogs skulked along the roads. The flare of leaves died, the mountain molted into gray-brown like a dull bird. A mood of destruction erupted when a bull got loose at the cattle auction house and trampled an elderly farmer, when a car was forced off the road by pimpled troublemakers throwing pumpkins. Hunters came for the deer and blood trickled along their truck fenders. Walter took pictures of them leaning against their pickups. Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.


As Karen Lane Rood writes:

[Negatives is} another story about outsiders’ misperceptions of the rural poor [and] speaks to another of Proulx’s ongoing interests: the various meanings of photographs and—by extension—of her own art.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

Electric Arrows“, from the same collection, opens with a photograph. In that story, photographs function narratively as a base from which the storyteller skip backwards and forwards in time. The photography motif in “Negatives” is— as the title punnily suggests — far darker than that. This story is about how rich people see poor people—as snapshots rather than as rounded individuals with entire lives of their own. Rich see them as grotesques, which — in the days before mainstream digital photography — is exactly how I felt looking at anyone in a film reel — the teeth are black, the whites of the eyes are black. Film negatives make a grotesquerie of anyone.

film reel negative

Proulx’s treatment of Walter and his photographs shows her realization of the danger inherent in his art. Walter’s photographs are expressions of his vision, not representations of reality. They are ‘choked down and spare, out-of-focus, the horizons tilted, unrecognizable objects looming in the foreground, the heads of people quartered and halved.’ His best photograph, he thinks, is one of a small house with an arbor: “Guests sorting through the photographs kept coming back to this dull scene until gradually the image of the house showed its secret hostility, the arbor turned harsh and offensive, the heavy grass bent with rage. The strength of the photograph emerged through the viewer’s eye was itself a developing medium. It would have happened faster, said Buck, if Walter wrote out the caption: The House where Ernest and Lora cool were Bludgeoned by the Son, Buxton Cool.’ Buck is not interested in Walter’s explanation: “If you have to say what something’s about, […] it’s not about anything except you saying it’s about something”. Buck and his friends want Walter to take nature photographs, to create beautiful pictures that do not disturb their carefully created serenity. Barb Cigar wants Walter to photograph the “lovely perfect leaves” on her trees.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood



In “Negatives”, Proulx sketches characters who approach grotesque caricatures. Their names provide essential clues about their psyches. Buck B. has a name that is both tough sounding and cute. It is appropriate for someone who seems essentially asexual and comically naive in his desire to avoid anything disturbing in art or life; yet, as a wealthy man, he exerts power over others and harms them by his indifference. Bucks’ friend Barb Cigar is more dangerous, and more masculine, than Buck. Walter Welter’s name suggest his underlying sadism, while Albina Muth is the white moth drawn to Walter’s destructive flame for immolation.

Karen Lane Rood, Understanding Annie Proulx

Walter Welter — Proulx doesn’t shy away from poetic (borderline ridiculous) names. When I think ‘Welter’ I think of ‘welt’ — someone causing damage to skin with a strap. Walter is a photographer who moves in with a wealthy lover, Buck B. He has a fanciful, gossipy imagination and makes up stories about Albina Muth to entertain Buck’s dinner guests. Eventually Walter agrees to take a series of photos of Albina. As background he chooses an abandoned poorhouse and requires her to pose in increasingly degrading positions. Karen Lane Rood describes Walter’s feelings towards Albina as ‘eroticised hostility’ and I think this is a perfect term. This term has only become more and more useful — back in 1994 few had viewed pornography via the Internet. Now it’s common, as is the ‘eroticised, hostile’ feeling, I suspect.

Buck B — Another alliterative name, joining the two men symbolically together. Buck has been forced to retire from his job as the host of a children’s TV show. He’s come to northern New England for the scenery. In time for his arrival, he’s built a massive glass house on a mountainside. He takes up with the hobby of pottery, because isn’t that what rural, rustic people do?

Albina Muth — Albina is a poor, malnourished, unkempt woman whose age I revised downwards as I read. Buck dismissively calls her ‘The Local Downtrodden’. She lives with an abusive husband, and leaves him over the course of this story. With nowhere to go, she starts sleeping in Buck’s Mercedes, leaving behind a smell that Buck finds repulsive. This is the ultimate rich-poor juxtaposition. She begs Walter to take her picture, though we are never allowed inside Albina’s head, so we don’t know what’s motivating her. We can only guess. When someone takes your picture, for a moment at least, you feel important.

Barb Cigar — One of Buck’s new friends, whose aesthetic sensibility stands in direct opposition to Walter’s. She would like Walter to take a photo of her tree, which has sprouted pretty leaves, but Walter is caught up in the art movement of the 1980s and 1990s, in which there was a move away from ‘pretty’ photography into the aesthetics of the grim. Wabi sabi, with exaggerated emphasis on the sabi. Barb herself is a masculine figure compared to a dog due to the skin folds around her mouth.

Walter’s photographer friends — off the page, but we get snippets of dialogue on the phone. I read them as not just geographically but also emotionally distant types, who are all caught up in this idea that nothing means anything — nihilistic criticism — and there’s no point looking for meaning because art only means something to the person who took it or made it. (I wonder what Proulx’s own outlook is, regarding criticism and reviews of her work.)


YEAR AFTER YEAR rich people moved into the mountains and built glass houses at high elevations; at sunset, when the valleys were smothered in leathery shadow, the heliodor mansions flashed like an armada signaling for the attack.

“Negatives” opening sentence

The opening of “Negatives” packs a whole lot of setting information into one sentence. Proulx is gifted in economy. (Some even call her ‘elliptical’ — as stories progress you have to fill in the gaps yer own self.)

The large house made mostly out of glass is freighted with symbolism in any work of fiction. I’ve yet to see a happy fictional family living inside a glass house. In the TV series Nashville, Juliette lives in a massive glass house but she’s pretty far from happy. A house is an outworking of the characters living inside it — more so in fiction than in real life. What is it about glass houses? Is it because they cost so much to heat, so we think of them as cold? Or is it because there’s no real barrier between the inhabitants and the difficulties of the outside world, so the house fails to provide protection? Anyone can see into a house made of glass.

Heliodor is a word I had to look up — it’s a yellow crystal. ‘Heliodor radiates the warmth and power of sunshine,’ apparently. So I guess Proulx is using it ironically. Is Proulx taking the mick out of crystal healers?

Heliodor has been used as a talisman to bring out honesty in others, and to regain what has been lost in terms of employment, prospects or money. It is an excellent crystal for the self-employed, or for those who struggle to balance care-giving and career.

In the workplace, Heliodor boosts drive and determination to succeed if others have worn away your enthusiasm. Carry or wear Heliodor to persuade others to back you financially or with resources.


The newest of these aeries belonged to Buck B., a forcibly retired television personality attracted to scenery.

Negatives” second sentence

An aerie refers to the nest of a bird and includes the following associations: it is at high elevation, the bird is a bird of prey (e.g. an eagle) and it is secluded. Next, we’re told (comically) that a few weeks after Buck B arrives, Walter Welter is ‘disgorged’ into the town. This is a verb especially reminiscent of birds of prey: When bald eagles approach scavengers like dogs, gulls or vultures at carrion sites, they are known to aggressively attack them and try to force them to disgorge their food. (Annie Proulx is a master of verbs. I believe she has read a lot of non-fiction. Look at her publishing credits and she’s written a lot of rural-themed non-fiction too, before she found widespread publishing success with fiction in middle age.)


Rural Vermont, suggests Proulx, is a dark force that affects most characters. In “Negatives,” for instance, the sadistic Walter Welter, recently relocated to Vermont, exploits the greasy, pitiful Albina Muth, photographing her nude in a series of increasingly humiliating poses that culminates in her falling through a rotting iron stove, where he gropes then rapes her. Even an “elderly curtain rod salesman” is “made such a satyr by rural retirement” that his live-in lover had to be “rushed twice to the emergency room.” The pathetic Snipe in “Heart Songs” is captivated by the “brushy, tangled land,” “and old pick up truck abandoned in a ditch” and a “secret wish to step off into some abyss of bad taste and moral sloth.” Snipe succeeds in his quest, seducing “fat Nell,” a local farmer’s wife whom Snipe mistakes for his daughter; he then writes a series of bad checks at a local mall.

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

The image of a dishevelled woman crawling into an oven is of course reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, the most enduring tale of its category, and the fairytale most symbolic of the forest. For writers, the forest can be anything at all: a cathedral, a utopian retreat, a place full of edible riches. For Annie Proulx — no surprise — the forest is a place of immorality and debauchery.


Something about the heavily forested New England landscape’s potential to encourage this sort of immortality and even debauchery was also felt by Puritans centuries ago. Puritans felt that the wild forest at the boundaries of their settlements was a place encouraging a form of moral deterioration that would lead to outright wickedness; they believed that “morality and social order seemed to stop at the edge of the clearing.”

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


Indeed, the satyre-like behaviour exhibited by Walter Welter and the “elderly curtain rod salesman” hearkens back to Nathanial Hawthorn’s “Young goodman Brown,” when the protagonist leaves the village of Salem and ventures into the forest at night, only to hear rumors of sexual misconduct. In “Heart Songs”, as in Hawthorne’s tale, the remote forest context encourages if not determines characters’ behaviour. The curtain rod salesman is ‘made’ to do deviant acts, and Welter and Snipe experience an accelerated process of moral decay.

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


The time span of a story is symbolically important, whether it take place over the course of years, a year, a season, day or hour. Annie Proulx tells us right away that this story doesn’t last a year.

But it was all over before the first snow and no one had to do a thing.

The reader is therefore prepared for something bad to happen. But what, and to who? Not to these guys — the inverse of Blow-in Saviours — wreaking havoc wherever they go, then toddling off on their rich, merry ways. The opening therefore serves as a frame for the ‘main narrative’, which is the series of events between Walter and Buck moving in and leaving.


Buck: He lives with a guy who brings trouble into his house. He has a poor taste in partners. His shortcoming is he can’t see (admit) what’s going on under his nose, until he suddenly does. Buck’s lack of power (despite his financial power) is symbolised by his limp.

Walter: Attracted to the dark underbelly of life and treats human beings of this world the same as he treats his objects. He justifies his actions by invoking the cause of high art.

Albina: The most vulnerable of the three main characters. She’s trying to escape from an abusive husband, who must be stalking her. She can’t go home, she can’t go to the mall. These days, this pattern of behaviour is known as ‘coercive control’. But like Buck, Albina can’t see Walter’s terribly dark side until it’s too late for her. She has low expectations of life and men, and as long as someone’s paying her attention (via taking her photo, for instance) then she will put up with a lot.


Buck: To live his own version of a rural life, surrounded by friends, engaged in hobbies.

Walter: To take photographs of down-and-out things, which stands in for how he’s attracted to darkness in general. He revels in terrible things.

Albina: To avoid her abusive husband, and to be seen as someone important, even for a moment.


Buck’s opponent is Walter, and by extension Albina, who he doesn’t want in the house.

Walter’s opponent is Buck, because Buck is starting to see through to his baser nature and Walter is trying (not very hard) to disguise it.

Albina’s opponent is Walter, who appears as one thing and turns out to be another abusive man in her life.


Buck: No plans but to live his dinner party, pottery life, in a rural area full of derelict families. Despite his big glass house, he plans to keep those derelicts on the other side of his walls. He tells Walter not to let Albina into (first) his car and (next) his house.

Walter: To pretend he’s not developing some kind of obsession with Albina, then ‘reluctantly’ agree to take her picture. This will goad her into a sense of safety.

Albina: Mistaking Walter’s interest as benign, Albina plans to sit in his partner’s Mercedes to escape her abusive husband, then to persuade him to let her bath, and finally to take her picture.


The first part of the Battle takes place inside the poor house and inside the oven. This is between Walter and Albina. Walter gets what he wants, which makes Walter the winner.

The second part takes place between Walter and Buck, back at the house, after it is revealed Buck has seen the entire thing from his massive glass windows.


The Anagnorisis belongs to Buck, who has seen what we as reader just saw, but uncomfortably up close. This aligns Buck more closely to the reader than the other two characters.

Proulx does something interesting with the Anagnorisis, though, because people don’t tell the truth, not even to ourselves. Buck tells Walter to get out because it’s getting ‘too cold’. He doesn’t like the ‘stink’ in his car. He never lets on he saw what he saw. For all we know, he’ll pretend, even to himself, that he never saw that. He only acknowledges, for now, that he doesn’t want to be with Walter. Narratively, the Anagnorisis has happened, but perhaps only in part.

The reader, in contrast, knows exactly what Walter is like.

The reason Buck can suddenly see (literally, through binoculars) what Walter is like is because the land between his rich house and the poor house has been newly cleared. This is an example of delayed decoding, which Annie Proulx is famous for. Now we know why Proulx told us, as a part of all her beautiful scenery descriptions, why all those loggers had come into town. The following detail was planted for a plot purpose, not just to flesh out the scenery:

Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.


Annie Proulx has written an ambiguous ending with a comic flourish by ending with ‘He tried it’.

I deduce Walter did leave — he seemed happy to go — but he may not have left with the negatives. Buck may have successfully stopped him doing that. I hope so.

Character Study: Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano

Much has been said about the character of Tony Soprano. I’ve explored some of it on this blog;

What more could I possibly learn about character development from the example of Tony Soprano? For storytellers the lessons are as follows:


Out-and-out evil does exist in the world. There are people out there who’d like nothing better than to strangle a man with their bare hands.

To pretend otherwise—to symbolically annihilate evil people in fiction—borders on gaslighting. We need confirmation they exist, because now and again we encounter them in our real lives. Dotted throughout history, sometimes they even rule us.

Actually, I find ‘evil’ a word too freighted with religiosity, but I’ve yet to stumble upon a better descriptor for a character like Tony, without resorting to armchair psychoanalasis. (We might also call him a psychopath.)


The redemption story has been popular for a long time, especially in America. But the success of The Sopranos showed there was always room in popular fiction for the anti-redemption arc, running alongside. The story of Tony Soprano is the ultimate anti-redemption narrative and, as such, shucks off a lot of the redemption story’s problems. At first Tony looks like this family guy who’s going to turn his life around by going to see a therapist, but eventually the audience learns — as does his fictional therapist — that for Tony, therapy exists only to allow him to continue in his evil ways.

[I]f you were accustomed to traditional TV narratives, there were signs that this might be a straightforward one about a man reforming himself through therapy and the love of his family. After all, the first episode began with what could have been a saint’s conversionary vision of the beauty and vulnerability of the world., contained in a flock of baby ducks. It was plausible, too, given the slightly exaggerated cinematography and design of the first few episodes, not to mention the repartee between Paulie Walnuts, Silvio, and the other gangsters, that the show would ultimately turn out to be a comedy more than anything else. Chase often said, quite seriously, that he was never 100 percent sure that wasn’t true.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin


I’m using Brett Martin’s term. By ‘out’, he means ‘a legitimate reason for a character to behave badly’. It was always accepted wisdom that if you wanted your character to behave badly, you’d have to set up the backstory first. As Martin explains:

And then, in week five, Tony strangled a man to death. Right in front of us. In real time. While taking his daughter on a college tour. […] Within a few years of [this episode airing], the idea that a TV protagonist couldn’t kill somebody would seem as fusty and dated a convention as earlier generations not being able to share a bed or say the word ‘pregnant’. What remains shocking in “College” isn’t the death itself; it’s Tony’s unmitigated relish in doing the deed. There is no tortured internal debate—even after his snooping reveals that Petrulio, now masquerading as “Fred Peters,” has a new family and small daughter of his own—no qualms even about Meadow’s presence, other than the inconvenience it poses. Nor is there any suggestion that Tony stands to earn much in the way of credit or prestige by doing away with a rat; indeed, Christopher (whom we’ve already seen dismember a body for disposal in the back of Satriale’s) begs Tony to allow him to fly up and take care of the hit. It is simply a given in Tony’s world: a rat needs to be killed. At least in Chase’s original story, there are none of the “outs'” designed to allow viewers to rationalize and justify what they’re about to see—which is Tony grunting, spitting, exultant, crushing Petrulio’s windpipe with an improvised garrote of electrical wire, the wire cutting deep into his palms from the effort, Petrulio begging for his life between gasps. The scene lasts an unwavering minute and sixteen seconds.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

Martin goes on to describe how the showrunners did not like this storyline one little bit. Executive Chris Albrecht argued that the audience was going to hate Tony Soprano at episode five, after all the good work was done setting him up as a sympathetic bad guy.

David Chase won the argument, as we now know — and the scene is gruelling. But here’s the concession he made: The executives insisted he insert a scene in which the audience gets to see why Petrulio deserves to be killed.

Chase inserted a scene in which it is revealed that Petrulio not only is dealing drugs in town, but is seen trying to hire a couple of junkies to kill Tony and Meadow. Predictably, the scene feels false and conventionally “TV”. It was the last such concession that Chase would make.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

The Sopranos can legitimately be criticised as a violent show which almost encourages its audience to revel in gore. And for an unthinking audience, sure, that’s all it is.

But the example of Petrulio’s murder in season one, episode five demonstrates the complexity of such criticism. In contrast, isn’t it a cheaper trick, and completely disingenuous, for to writer to backstories designed solely to persuade the audience that certain characters are legitimately murdered?

Is there any such thing as legitimate murder? Do writers really want audiences to empathise with gangsters? If so, at what point does the story subvert these allegiances? Ever?


If there are differences between stories for adults and stories for children, it runs along the lines of wish fulfilment. Wish fulfilment in stories for children is wholesome. It looks like this.

But adults are attracted to fantasies which confirm the duality in all of us. By adulthood, we’ve come head-to-head with our baser instincts.

Wish fulfilment has always been at the queasy heart of of the mobster genre, the longing for a life outside the bounds of convention, mingled with the conflicted desire to see the perpetrator punished for the same transgression. So it was for the fictional men of the straight world on The Sopranos, who were drawn to Tony’s flame with consistently disastrous results. […] Likewise for viewers, for whom a life of taking, killing, and sleeping with whomever and whatever one wants had an undesirable, if conflict-laden appeal.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

When creating our own stories, it’s worth asking the question early on: What particular wish-fulfilment does my story scratch in the audience?


A Quick Evolution of the Gangster Genre from Script

Electric Arrows by Annie Proulx


The term “cultural appropriation” or, more accurately “misappropriation”, is a phrase that’s been in use at least since the 1970s, but has only recently started to enter popular lexicon. In the 1990s there was a backlash against politically correct culture. Modern-day moaning about people concerned about cultural misappropriation reminds me very much of that era.

“Electric Arrows”, a short story by Annie Proulx, was published in the late 1990s. Proulx was ahead of the vanguard, keenly aware of cultural misappropriation when most folk were offering their takes on political correctness.

“Electric Arrows” is one of the few Annie Proulx has written in first person. Her narrator, Mason Clew, is learned and thoughtful enough to tell a story well enough, though she does mimic the back-and-forth, circuitous nature of an amateur storyteller. And just as well she does, repeating names and introductions, because this is one of her more ‘elliptical’ stories (a word often used to describe Proulx’s work), and readers certainly benefit from a second pass through.



The story opens with a photograph, which is used to juxtapose against a house as it used to be versus how it is now.

Ekphrasis is a graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art. Adjective: Ekphrastic

Looking into a mirror and describing yourself is ekphrastic.
Describing a photograph is ekphrastic.

There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character. I can tell it from the number of apprentice novels I read that begin with descriptions of photographs. You know the style: “My mother is squinting in the fierce sunlight and holding, for some reason, a dead pheasant. She is dressed in old-fashioned lace-up boots, and white gloves. She looks absolutely miserable. My father, however, is in his element, irrepressible as ever, and has on his head that gre]ay velvet trilby from Prague I remember so well from my childhood” The unpracticed novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilized in a scene that is hard. When I encounter a prolonged ekphrasis like the parody above, I worry, suspecting that the novelist is clinging to a handrail and is afraid to push out.

How Fiction Works, James Wood

A Brief History of Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis was an old Greek pastime, actually, and formed a genre in its own right.

The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present.  In many cases, however, the subject never actually existed, making the ekphrastic description a demonstration of both the creative imagination and the skill of the writer.

Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the Iliad stands at the beginning of the ekphrastic tradition.

Modern readers have no time for it. It slows the action down. But in “Electric Arrows”, Annie Proulx keeps it brief, it has a purpose within the wider story and it works because she weaves in a lot of detail around the viewing of the photograph. The photograph functions as a kind of literary mirror, and the word ekphrasis is useful because it describes photographs and mirrors by their shared function:

At bedrock level, Proulx’s stories are simply a mirror held up to a decaying rural world in which ancient farming families sell up and the apples rot on the orchard floor. The newcomers are city greenhorns, naive huntsmen avid for grouse, retired media kings in search of mountain views, high-minded colonists keen to snap up family photo albums and reproduce their contents in the National Geographic.


I won’t get into the usefulness of cameras in storytelling because I’ve written an entire post about that here.

Side Story

Some people make use of the term ‘subplot’, but I’m in the camp which avoids that word, because in any story, two plot threads must each be a full story in its own right.

I actually don’t even like talking about subplots. Whenever someone asks me “how do I write subplots?”, it makes me incredibly squirmy. I don’t have a good simple answer, for the simple reason that subplots are not a good way to think about story.

In fact, I recommend you stop thinking about subplots altogether. Instead, just think about plot.

K.M. Weiland

  • The trick is to introduce the second plot early in the story. It begins here with ‘You can see how nothing has changed in the barn. A knotted length of baling twine, furry with dust, still stretches from the top of the ladder to a beam. The kite’s wooden skeleton, a fragile cross, is still up there.
  • Another trick is to give the ‘side story’ the seven basic story elements and no more. Especially in a short story, there’s no more time.
  • Finally, the side story must be somehow linked to the main plot — probably thematically.



Mason and Bootie are children and their father is hopeless.


They want their father’s friend Diamond to stop sexually abusing them.


Diamond, but also their father, who tells them Diamond ‘doesn’t mean nothing by it’ when they complain to him.


They tell their father, who does nothing. Worse, he tells them they should feel sorry for farmers, who are ‘up against it’.

After that, nothing can be done. ‘You get used to it’. But Bootie would hide in the closet whenever she heard Diamond’s truck.


The big struggle scene takes place off-stage, but the detail of the tobacco juice running out is a resonant detail and pretty much all we need of the moment of execution.


In middle age, Mason knows that he and his sister played out the grisly scene with molasses as a way of coming to terms with everything that had happened regarding Diamond.


How does the side story relate to the main story? I believe this is the key linking sentence:

There was something in my father that had to blow up whatever he did.

Diamond ‘blew up’ in a more literal sense when he got electrocuted.

The main story and side story also share symbolism, specifically the dark red trickle. First it comes out of the pie. In modern language we’d say Mason is triggered by anything bloody and oozing because of the way tobacco juice dribbled out of Diamond’s mouth after he was electrocuted.



The Clews used to be a big farming family with a hired man. Now, though they remain on the land, they are poor farmer descendants. This is our viewpoint family. The narrator is a Clew.

The pie they eat in the kitchen while looking at the photographs is cut into pieces so they can eat it. This is clearly symbolic after Aunt says, “Properties break apart.”

Reba — Mason’s wife. Reba and Mason are in middle-age. I had a bit of trouble working out Reba’s relationship to Mason — I thought she may have been his sister or cousin.

Aunt — Aunt is elderly. “Electric Arrows”opens with Aunt showing her niece pictures of the niece’s father. We know she’s poor because of the detail that she wears clothes two days in a row to save on detergent.

Mason — Narrator, and brother of Reba, sickly and weak, operates a small appliance repair business from the barn. Mason is the personification of the apple trees which grew crooked (or the other way round, I guess). The Baldwins, which are apple trees, are written about by Proulx as if the plantation of trees themselves are an old family on the land. For instance, ‘None of the Baldwins made it through a hard winter just before the war.’ What this means is that the Clews didn’t make it through a hard winter just before the war, because they had to compromise their livelihood and way of life by selling off parcels of land. The Clew farmhouse is described as having ‘crooked doorframes’. ‘Crooked’ is a word associated with apple trees.

Father — Off stage but an important part of the backstory of Chapter Two, because the father’s actions have lead his children to where they are today. He could have been more flexible and grown different apples or, as the middle-aged narrator can see, he could have made use of other skills such as stone fence building, but he was too capricious.

Father’s brother — Died young. Aunt says this one ‘had all the sense’. In storytelling terms, the dead father’s brother serves as an alternative for what could have been. Though he died as a child and could have turned into anything, we infer that Mason wonders what if the sensible brother had been the one to run the farm? Would our fortunes be completely different now? Humans are susceptible to this line of what-if thinking. The hypothetical parallel life story has been the main concept in various other stories, and in this one it’s presented as a small part.

Bootie — Mason’s sister.

Diamond Ward — Father’s friend and child abuser. Ironically, though he breaks people by abusing them, he can fix equipment. But the way Mason describes this ties back to his ability to fix and break at the same time: He ‘could fix whatever was broken again and again until nothing was left of the original machine but its function’. Proulx has a particular gift for finding the good and bad side of a single attribute. She did it also with the colour yellow in “Bedrock” and with blackberries in “Heart Songs“. Even electricity itself is presented as both good and bad for rural folk. ‘It was as if my father had personally given them this wonder. Yet you could tell they despised him, too, for making things easy’.


Mrs. Moon-Azure — introduced by her legs first as she gets out of the car. This is a very common cinematic trick — if you see a woman’s legs first and she’s getting out of a car, you can bet she’s not a sympathetic character. She’s either an opponent or a sex object. This particular woman’s legs are compared to celery stalks.

Moon-Azure — takes Mason for granted. Asks for a bit of help with a fallen tree, though Mason is savvy and experienced to know it’s half a day’s work, more like. ‘Nobody knows what kind of doctor he is.’ He is proud of building a stone fence, but it buckles with the first frost. His horse runs free and is killed on the highway, like a scene out of “A Country Killing” by the same author. Apparently, accidentally killing horses by failing to keep them in their trailers properly is one common way newcomers and drunks manage to wreak havoc in rural areas.



[I]ncluding humor at the expense of outsiders, “Electric Arrows” returns the focus of the book to the people whose land is being taken over. A large portion of the Clew family farm, including the original homestead, is now owned by the Moon-Azures, whose name, “blue moons,” suggests their oddity in the New England landscape. A wealthy couple from Maryland, the Moon-Azures “trace Clew genealogy as though they bought our ancestors with the land”. Convinced that she and her husband are better able to preserve local history than those whose ancestors made it [OPPONENT], Mrs. Moon-Azure even tries to buy a treasured collection of old family photographs from the narrator and the other remaining Clews [OPPONENT PLAN], who live in what used to be the hired man’s house and retain ownership of the barn [WEAKNESS]. One day [INCITING INCIDENT] the Clews are surprised [OFFSTAGE BIG STRUGGLE] to see in a newspaper a photograph of the picture their father etched in a granite outcropping on the farm during the narrator’s childhood — a primitive self-portrait of his father wearing his electric-lineman’s gear and holding fanciful bolts of electricity in one hand. According to the caption in the newspaper, however, the Moon-Azures have found a “[c]omplex” petroglyph of a thunder god, “rare among the eastern woodland tribes”, a humorous instance of outsiders misinterpreting things to fit their own romanticized versions of history.

The decline of the Clew family and their neighbors, however, is not the result of the arrival of well-to-do outsiders [PROXY OPPONENT], which is a symptom rather than a cause of the national trends that have resulted in the collapse of the local economy [OPPONENT]. Unable to compete with or understand trends in the market for farm products outside rural Vermont, the narrator’s father failed as an apple farmer and went to work for the rural electric cooperative. As a farmer, he grew the varieties of apples he liked, concentrating on Baldwins when “big growers were pushing the MacIntosh and Delicious,” creating a consumer demand for shiny red apples rather than the “cloudy maroon” Baldwins [FALL OF MAN SYMBOLISM].


The narrator, who was always “nervy and sick,” operates a small-scale electric-appliance business that his father started in the barn, where the remains of an old kite still hang on a beam. He and his sister still bear the emotional scars of childhood traumas. Their father’s friend and fellow lineman, Diamond Ward [OPPONENT], who used to slide “his old dirty paws” between the children’s legs, was electrocuted while trying to retrieve a kite from an electric line, and for the rest of their childhood the children reenacted his death with that kite, taking turns playing Diamond in a mixture of vengeance and guilt.

Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood



The narrator describes himself as ‘nervy and sick’ — in other words, he’s no match for his environment and the rural life he’s been born into.


His desire is in the shape of regret — what if his father had been different? He wants a better past for himself and for his sister.


The well-to-do outsiders are the personification of how the landscape has changed. As Karen Lane Rood says, the decline of the Clew family and their neighbours is not the result of the arrival of well-to-do outsiders — they are the symptom. Fate itself — or plum bad luck — has been the Clews’ downfall. That’s why I call the Moon-Azures a proxy opponent — they are human stand-ins for how the setting has changed politically — mostly economically.

Pederast Diamond Ward is the opponent of the side story/subplot, as mentioned above. This is the man who cause narrator and Reba damage. He may or may not be in a sexual relationship with their father.

Time is turned into a character, and also into an opponent:

Time has scraped away the picket fences, and you should hear the snowplow throw its dirty spoutings against the clapboards; it sounds like the plow is coming through the kitchen. The leftoer Pugleys, Clews and the Cuckhorns live in these worn-out houses.

But rather than ‘time’, it’s more like luck that’s done the Clews a bad turn. Proulx explores the concept of luck/fate more fully in “A Run Of Bad Luck” (an earlier story in the same collection). But here the Clews were victims of circumstance — the apple they worked to cultivate was unpopular and unwanted when they were trying to sell those apples, but it has since come back into fashion. They no longer have any to sell.


The plan comes from the opponents, the Moon-Azures, who want to appropriate the heritage of the Clews.

The Clews are passively resisting this, basically powerless, but refusing to hand over the photographs, at least.


Annie Proulx sets up the Battle as a mystery — the Moon-Azures have found something, but what? There is no onstage Battle — but we are given enough to imagine the gatherers and the press around this rock sketch which they mistake for an Indian artifact.


Although he is a damaged man, mentally and physically, by the end of this story Mason Clew has learnt to laugh. He finally gets a chance to turn his father into a grotesque, almost fictional character. He does this by looking at the crude sketch as if that’s a realistic portrayal of the man.


The story is cut off abruptly after the Anagnorisis phase. On the other hand, the final sentence may be enough to suggest how things will be from now on:

And how can Yogetsky understand?

Yogetsky exists in the story mostly to flesh out the cast, but he is in many ways very similar to Mason, yet he will never understand. (If Yogetsky can’t, who can?) The new state of affairs: Mason has come to terms with his history just a little more, but he’s still basically alone in his trauma.


The Unclouded Day” is similar in its message to “Electric Arrows”:

Many of the stories turn on these oppositions [between farmers and newcomers], mostly to ironic effect. In “Electric Arrows” the dispossessed remnant of a farming clan look on sourly as a pair of interlopers go blundering through the snares and pitfalls of rural life and eventually turn up what they imagine to be an Indian stone carving. Reading the newspaper, one of the farmers realises that the “complex petroglyph” was executed by his own father half a century before. In “The Unclouded Day” a yuppie’s inept pot-shot at a grouse coincides with the onset of thunder – he happily assumes that the three birds killed by a simultaneous lightning bolt are a reward for weeks of fruitless practice.


“Electric Arrows” also reminds me of The Bone People by Keri Hulme.

Alice Munro’s “Runaway” is also similar in many ways, with a rich academic type living right next door to a couple in a trailer. Their lives intersect, with the rich character thinking they’re doing the poor one a good turn, but failing, because in the end so much has contributed to where they each are today.

So What To Do With Old Photos?

Knowingly pasting a photograph of yourself with an old boyfriend into an album you will leave to your husband and children just doesn’t feel right. And that one of you smoking in your youth? Let’s just pop that one in the bin. And get rid of any that make me look fat, cross, badly dressed or tipsy. Is this the kind of editing to do? Try to erase anything that doesn’t suit who I’d like to be today? Even though all that came before has created who I am now?

Sarah Watt, Worse Things Happen At Sea

I tell you what you should do with your fictional brainstorming, though. If you get any notice of your impending demise, might pay to sort that stuff out before someone finds your ‘box of crazy’ and uploads to Imgur.

A Run of Bad Luck by Annie Proulx Storytelling

a run of bad luck

“A Run of Bad Luck” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published in 1987, collected in Heart Songs, 1999.

  • I find this story interesting for its themes around the problematic concept of luck, and the role of decision-making in making one’s own ‘luck’.
  • The opening paragraphs describing the mother in the kitchen is an excellent example of how kitchen work provides opportunities for highly symbolic body language beats. ‘She sawed the loaf of bread into thick slices and stacked them on a plate, set out a pound of butter already hacked and scored by knife blades.’
  • Proulx treats the house like a stage, introducing first the mother in the kitchen, next the husband enters, followed by the sons all coming in for something to eat. Larry McMurtry did the same in the opening of Lonesome Dove.
  • ‘hung up the wool jackets that held the shapes of their shoulders, the bend of their arms’
  • When the point of view switches to Haylett’s after the kitchen scene, sticklers for ‘head hopping’ might complain, but this is a good example of a writer gently leading us towards a bigger change in point of view. The ‘camera’ focuses on Haylett even before the double line break. (The double line break is for the change in time — next morning — as much as for the change in point of view.)
  • Proulx doesn’t care if a verb is transitive or intransitive. She uses it as she sees fit: ‘Something outside, the garbage can cover, hurled along, stuttering metal.’ Hurl is a transitive verb — it takes an object — but she’s using it as an intransitive verb. This has the effect of making the environment sound like it is alive.



Mae — mother of four sons. Not a big part of the story, though the narration opens on Mae in the kitchen and her one-sided conversation with the dog, which allows a bit of backstory about the family. “tall and stooped with smooth, wood-colored skin that made Haylett say “Indian” to her.’ This is an old-fashioned family with simple needs — Mae and Haylett are impressed by such things as an electric kettle. Before we know that Ray is sleeping with Julia, Mae tells us that she likes Julia and encourages her son to get back with her if he can. Amando has obviously given up on the relationship though. The detail of the electric kettle, picked by Julia and Amando, and how Mae kept the green paper with silver bells on it suggests that maybe Mae is incapable of looking beneath surface niceties. By focusing on that gift she’s not delving into the real interpersonal issues playing out all around her.

Haylett — father of four sons, husband of Mae and dismissive of her. As a form of meditation (we deduce), he has the practice of writing the daily weather in a notebook. The point of view switches to Haylett’s after the kitchen scene. He likes to get up real early in the morning and start the fire, ‘He liked turning the dark chill away’.

Clover — son of Haylett. Clover is superstitious and believes that by talking about something in advance (e.g. hunting) you can ruin your luck. Clover might say something like, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” He asks his mother for brown bread because “brown bread brings me good luck”. He also gives a reasonable scientific reason for this — it doesn’t flash white like a deer’s tail, making him a little less likely to become target. Clover has asked Amando to give him his collection of antlers when he died.

Phil — son of Haylett. Does not have the same relationship to ‘counting chickens’ as Clover. Clover and Phil exist as viewpoint characters while Ray and Amando are ‘main characters‘ in the sense that the drama of the story concerns them.

Ray — son of Haylett, though we don’t see him. The reveal is that he is having an affair with his brother’s wife, Julia. We are not told much about him but know he drinks a lot.

Amando — son of Haylett, good hunter, owner of many antlers. This son is presented as the sympathetic son owing to the way he treats his mother (with respect) and for his principles, refusing to tolerate his younger brother’s making mock of everyone and everything.The other sons, accepting modelling by their father, are demanding of her and don’t look her in the eye. Amando is also spoken about in the kitchen before he is introduced. When he does come on-stage: ‘They watched him pull the knitted cap off his sand-colored hair, tight round curls like a drawing; like a drawing too, his heavy lids and amber irises so pale they seemed the color of bog water The narrow handsome face was marked with fine lines’. (Proulx rarely describes characters who are handsome or beautiful. Beauty doesn’t seem to interest her. Even when characters are good-looking, they are rendered more interesting with the introduction of age.) Amando’s relationship to luck: “All this year I’ve had bad luck with everything I touch.” He cites his teeth, the heater in his truck and now the job which will end up costing them money.

Julia — Amando’s (ex-)wife, off-the-page. Lives in a trailer. The plot reveal is that Julia has left Amando because she’s started a relationship with his brother, Ray.

Mero — “Don’t forget to leave Mero’s check for your mother so she can make the skidder payment and work out the wages.” Is Mero the same Mero from “The Half-skinned Steer“? In that story, an 83-year-old man drives from Massachussets to Wyoming, where he grew up. Before he set out, did he have some work done by this family? I could be on completely the wrong track here. In any case, the two stories are thematically linked. That may be the extent of it in Proulx’s mind.


“A Run of Bad Luck”…examines the life of a family on the eve and early morning of the first day of deer-hunting season. Despite their father’s advice to the contrary, two of the four brothers, Amando and Ray, have botched a road repair because they were in a hurry, and now the country has handed Amando a bill for redoing the job that equals the family’s whole profit from the original work. Amando, whose wife, Julia, has decided to divorce him, concludes that the reason for all his misfortunes is bad luck.

Later his father, Haylett, and two other brothers, Clover and Phil, discover what Amando has known already: Ray is having an affair with Amando’s wife, who still retains Amando’s collection of deer antlers. Amando, who has shot a deer each year since he was twelve, once told Clover that he wanted to be buried with those antlers, and Clover had imagined them buried on top of Amando “pressing him down into the yielding soil until hunter and trophies all descended to the core of the earth” — a fitting image for a cuckold.

As Clover and Phil sit in the truck with their father after discovering Ray’s affair with Julia, Clover refers to Amando’s bad luck, but his father says luck is not involved: “It’s the way his life is turning out, and he don’t know it yet”. Sparked by his father’s expression of fatalism, “Clover saw that Haylett, in begetting Amando, had created this snow-filled morning in a silent truck. A sense of the mysterious force of generation rushed in on him. Throughout the story, however, there are suggestions that Amando’s own decisions have also played a role in his destiny. Whatever social and economic forces shape and limit his life, it is his failure to adhere to the old ways of proper road building that has prompted the bill from the county. Yet, Amando is also one of many Proulx characters who is losing touch with old ways without connecting with the new, stuck between two cultures and benefitting from neither.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood


Although Amando is central to the ‘drama’ (I don’t mean in a storytelling sense) it’s not Amando who has the anagnorisis. This is the story of an entire family.


I believe the toxic kind of patriarchal masculinity presented by Annie Proulx in the kitchen scene, with a son requiring brown bread and with the men being waited on by the mother despite her having a paid job is presented as the shortcoming of this family. The antlers are an obvious symbol of ‘successful’ masculinity. Amando is the clear ‘winner’ of the masculinity contest between the men in this family, being a natural at hunting and owner of many antlers.


When Clover asks for these antlers ‘when he dies’ he’s wanting in on this form of prestige. But it’s not just Clover who wants masculine prestige — Ray emasculates Amando in the most humiliating way possible. I doubt Ray wants Julia in particular — he wants to cuckold his brother. By doing that, he wants to shake up the brotherly hierarchy, placing himself at the top, in a sick kind of way.


The brothers are in a constant, mostly subtle, dominance game. I believe it’s no accident that there’s a dog in this story, in the shadows, feeling guilty whenever there’s shouting. This is how dogs behave in packs. This is a human dog pack.


The men plan to go hunting in bad weather. This is pretty much the most manly thing they can do. Mae encourages them to just stay in bed if the weather looks so bad — they can’t do that, of course. They are men. Mae represents all that is feminine. Staying home would be a girlish thing to do.

The plan to ‘hunt’ is a proxy for their plan to play dominance games between themselves. Sure, they do want the meat. They’ve been eating nothing but pork for three weeks and would like a change in diet. But the symbolism of hunting as raw masculinity and power is clear.


When Haylett’s truck gets stuck in snow this is a proxy big struggle scene. The big struggle is between man and nature. The narrative drive is increased with the ticking clock technique of Amando about to drive down this very road and (as far as we know), make a horrible discovery.

The Battle scene, as we’re coming out of it, as underscored with a brief, disturbing flash back of the bee-sting incident in which a little boy dies.

Some writers think in terms of a four-part Battle scene and this story — short though it is — provides an example of that:

  1. The run-up to the climactic moment (last-minute maneuvering to put the pieces in their final positions) [Notice how right before the discovery of Ray’s pick-up Clover is talking about who’s got Amando’s antlers. This is Proulx putting the final piece into place.]
  2. The main character’s moment of truth (the inner journey point toward which the whole story has been moving) [Though we can’t think in terms of ‘main character’ for this particular story, the ‘moment of truth’ = the revelation that one son is sleeping with another son’s wife.]
  3. The climactic moment itself (in which the hero directly affects the outcome) [Again, we can’t think in terms of ‘hero’ in this instance, but this would be the frantic actions of trying to get the truck out of the snow.]
  4. The immediate results of the climactic moment (the villain might be vanquished, but the roof is still collapsing). [The immediate results are that the brothers and father fail in their mission to persuade Amando nothing is wrong.]

— Writer’s Digest


The Anagnorisis is not that Julia is sleeping with Ray. That is a plot related revelation for the reader. The Anagnorisis for Haylett and for the younger two brothers (at least, I assume they’re younger), is that ‘What’s happening now was already happening this morning and I couldn’t see it’, from Clover’s point of view, but also applied to Phil and Haylett.

Clover saw that Haylett, in begetting Amando, had created this snow-filled morning in a silent truck. A sense of the mysterious force of generation rushed in on him.

What does that mean, exactly? My interpretation: Clover, presented as the least mature of the brothers all the way until now, has suddenly grown up a little when he is able to empathise with his father right at this minute, imagining how the old man must be affected, given that he is part of this big family problem because he created these men (if for no other reason besides).

There’s another trick writers use for Anagnorisiss, utilised often by Annie Proulx: the Anagnorisis phase is accompanied by a description of light and bright colour:

The trees behind them filled with light, and then the rear window flared yellow.

This sentence has a dual purpose, though — the reader is meant to wonder if Amando has killed his brother with his shotgun. Unless the light is connected to the world/plot of the story, it will feel too obvious in a ‘And then he saw the light!’ kind of way.


Karen Lane Rood avoids coming down either way on whether Amando did kill his brother/wife. You might be able to argue it both ways, but I don’t think he did.

The rear window flaring yellow was probably imagined by the men in the truck, all on edge. The sun is coming up at this time, filtered through trees. Or the yellow could be the writer’s metaphor to accompany the Anagnorisis, as I mention above. They don’t hear the gun, though they try to. And if Amando already knew of the affair, wouldn’t he have shot the pair already, if he was of that nature? Proulx mentions a ‘piston knocking’ which is a stand-in for the gun, but actually refers to the mechanics of the truck. Note: Once again, in this phase of the story, Proulx has linked trucks with death by comparing the sound of a truck to the sound of a gun.

Extrapolated Ending: Clover will forever associate trucks with tragedy.


Luck can mean various things, depending on context. It’s a volatile word. Some languages — like Japanese — have a concept of ‘luck’ but you wouldn’t say, “Oh, aren’t you lucky!” to a child after receiving a much-wanted birthday gift. That particular idiomatic phrase doesn’t exist. (Japanese speakers are often telling each other to ‘work hard’, ‘try your best’, which sits in direct opposition, I feel.)

Scientists don’t do much with the concept of luck, but then how to explain the fortune of being born in a body which fits your environment, allowing you to thrive? What’s that if not good luck? Well, there’s a scientific word for that, and if more people knew it, it might save some arguments:

The word dates from the 1660s, comes from Greek and originally meant “pertaining to conjecture.” Today it’s used in the adjectival form, mostly in a phrase like ‘stochastic variable/outcome/process/model’. It’s an essential concept in anything quantum, too, because no one can explain why some photons pass straight through the window while others bounce back to give us a partial reflection. Stochastic processes are at work. And if the entire world is made out of atoms, quarks and whatnot, then I believe the entire world is built on a stochastic process.

In layman’s terms, you might well call it a kind of ‘luck’.

Like the characters in Proulx’s story, I have found the concept of ‘luck’ problematic in conversation.

Clover refers to Amando’s bad luck, but his father says luck is not involved: “It’s the way his life is turning out, and he don’t know it yet”.

I know people with fundamentalist Christian backgrounds who insist, vehemently, that ‘There’s no such thing as luck.’ The implication, from what I can understand, is that God manages everything exactly how he wishes, giving humans autonomy to make their own bad decisions. Ergo, if bad things happen to you, it’s not luck — it’s bad decisions on your part. This worldview partly explains the strong link between Christian fundamentalism and right-wing, TEA party politics — worship God, God will look after you. Make good decisions and you, personally, will lead a good, upright, cherished and bountiful life. But this thinking is not limited to those with a religious mindset. Others will claim there’s no such thing as luck because everything is down to hard work and personal sacrifice.

I find this line of thinking hugely problematic in a world with so much inequality. It’s an attitude exploited by politicians who are entirely lacking in human compassion themselves, out to build their own family fortunes at the expense of everyone standing in their way. If there’s no such thing as luck, then people with terrible lives are there because they’ve made their own bad decisions, right?

On the other hand, I can’t dismiss the role of hard work and sensible decisions entirely out of hand. Luck and hard work are all part of a big, messy network in which decisions are never made in a vacuum. How far to take this last line? How fatalistic are the stories of Annie Proulx? This is a fascinating topic with realworld implications in everything, from how we vote to how we live our lives.