These are my favorite stories from the 2012 edition of Best British Short Stories, with a brief attempt to explain why.
"Half-mown Lawn," by Dan Powell: Sometimes it is the simplicity and restraint of a story that affects me both emotionally and aesthetically. In Dan Powell's story of a woman whose husband has died recently of a heart attack while mowing the lawn, Powell creates just the right balance between the woman's effort to reconcile the past with the present, juxtaposing everyday needs (a shopping list) and breathless loss (a list of everyday things she will miss about her husband), keeping things the same (preventing her son from finishing the lawn) and adjusting to change (missing the smell of her husband in the bed sheets her daughter has thoughtfully washed). And then the ending, often the most important part of a short story. Sometimes in short stories, the emotional pain is so inexpressible that the only way it can be dealt with is in a gesture, even a foolish gesture, that becomes a metaphor for the emotional complexity of the story. When the woman lies down in the outline of her husband in the fresh mown grass, it seems both aesthetically and emotionally inevitable.
Sometimes a story exists for no other reason than to explore an idea in the cleverest way possible. I usually don't like such stories, but I couldn't resist" 'I'm the Guy Who Wrote the Wild Bunch'," by Julian Gough, a first-person account (supposedly stitched together from interviews with the screenwriter who worked with Sam Peckinpah when he first tried to film the iconic film The Wild Bunch in 1965). It just kept getting funnier and funnier as I started trying to anticipate what fantastic changes the studios would urge on the writer and Peckinpah as The Wild Bunch ultimately became that other iconic film of the sixties The Sound of Music. How in the hell could that happen? you ask. Well it begins when the producers ask them to write in a sexy woman to put on the posters and still follow Peckinpah's insistence that there be no love interest; they make her a nun, and since a singing nun was very popular at the time, they give her songs. With that, can Julie Andrews be far from the scene? Nothing but silly fun and satire of the movie business, but hey, you gotta have a little variety.
I have to admit that ever since I discovered Edgar Allan Poe as a child, I have been a sucker for stories that seem to exist somewhere between reality and dream that seem fraught with mystery and significance. "The Room Beyond" by Ramsey Campbell is such a story. The reader knows from the first sentence that, like the narrator in the first sentence of Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" he or she has left the so-called "real" world and entered a nether world: "As soon as Todd drove off the motorway it vanished from the mirror, and so did the sun across the moor." The second sentence inhabits this world with strange denizens: "On both sides of the street the slender terraced houses huddled together like old folk afraid of descending the precipitous slope." One of my favorite prototypes of this technique is Robert Browning's "Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came," which has been used in many short stories since.
Campbell uses various techniques to pull the main character, ominously named "Todd," into the ultimate mystery of death. Here are some examples:
The figures on a clock outside a jewelry store are "paralysed on their track, and one stood in a miniature doorway as if he were loath to venture beyond."
The receptionist at the hotel purses her lips so hard "that the surrounding skin turned grey along with them." The sight of her greyish scalp through the irregular part in her hair "put him in mind of a crack in weedy stone." Todd is in the town for a funeral, and the graveyard is just around the corner. She tells him he has little time to get dressed for dinner, saying "Better look alive." He says he will be done as "soon as I'm fit to kill."
The waiter is dressed more "somberly than Todd" and the dining room is as hushed as a church. The waiter is given to serious priestly pronouncements: "They say we ae all related, don't they?" and "We always have [choices] while we're alive."
The wind moves the floor-length curtains as someone is lurking there, making Todd recall that he once thought God lived behind the curtains above the altar in the church."
The dinner buffet has been set all for Todd; no one else is there. He begins to feel as a child—that everyone around him knew a secret he would not learn until he was older.
When he lies down in bed that night, the indentation in the mattress makes it easiest for him to lie on his back, "hands crossed on his breastbone. He hears sounds in the room next to him, but no one answers when he pounds on the door. He picks up the phone but it is "dead as a bone."
He opens the connecting door between his room and the next one and like a "child determined to learn a secret."
The ending is predictable with Todd going through another door to a room containing a long unlidded box and he hears a voice saying… well you know what the voice says.
Stories like this are risky business, for they attempt to capture those unknowable final moments before death. But as rigged as the story is, I found myself mesmerized as I often was by Poe stories when I was an adolescent.
Sometimes you read a story that catches your attention because it is located in an area with which you are familiar. I found "Sad, Dark Thing," by Michael Marshall Smith irresistible because it takes place in the rural area near Santa Cruz, California. All three of my children went to the University of California at Santa Cruz; I once bought some property in the area near Boulder Creek with some friends back in the day when folks planned to build communes and live communally. It didn't happen, thank God. But I know the area where this story takes place.
It's a story announced in the first couple of paragraphs as being motivated by, or derived from, a sense of "aimlessness," which the storyteller takes a bit of time to define as being without purpose or direction, something that is perhaps like being dead. "It is the aimless who find the wrong roads, and go down them, simply because they have nowhere else to go."
And this, of course is what happens to the man named Miller while out driving on a Saturday afternoon, aimlessly. This time he drives south-east of Scott's Valley and sees a narrow road overhung with tall trees, giving no indication of leading anywhere at all, so he turns down the road. Of course, when one goes down a mysterious road, mysterious things are bound to happen. He stops at an old farmhouse and encounters a man who charges him a dollar to "see something." The man points him toward a small hut and gives him a key, saying "It's in there"—"A sad, dark thing."
Inside the hut, Miller senses something "that said underneath the shadows it wrapped around itself like a pair of dark angel's wings, it knew despair, bitter madness and melancholy better than he did. He knew that beneath those shadows it was naked and not male."
Whatever it is, Miller buys it, puts in in his trunk and takes it home. "It was night, and it was dark, and they were both inside and that felt right." He recalls meeting and marrying his wife and having a child and then her leaving and taking the child with her.
The last section of the story, of course, must twist into a motivational knot the event that has taken place so far and somehow justify the creature and why he has taken it into his house. It is at this point that the story shifts fully into fantasy mode, and we sense Miller's despair and his need for the "sad, dark thing" to embrace it in the night.
I am still enjoying my rereading the stories in the Best British Short Stories series. A few comments on some favorites in the 2013 edition next week.