In my opinion (and thank goodness it is not only my opinion) the best short stories are the most mysterious ones, or the ones written by writers who are obsessed by mystery. For some reason (perhaps many reasons), the short story (both by tradition and generic qualities) is particularly suited to evoke mystery (or to create mystery where many never felt mystery before). And in my opinion (again, thank goodness I am not the only one to think so), the best readers of short stories are those fascinated by mystery—not simple, solvable mystery, but, (forgive me for using such a redundant adjective) mysterious mysteries, which, by definition, are the human kind. (I talk about this issue in more detail in a couple of chapters of my book I Am Your Brother.) One of my favorite writers who is of this opinion is Flannery O'Connor. Here's one of the many things she says about mystery:
The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery. Fiction should be both canny and uncanny.
I could go on and on quoting Flannery O'Connor about mystery, but you can read her yourself in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. I will only cite one more O'Connor observation:
The particular problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible. He has only a short space to do it in and he can't do it by statement. He has to do it by showing, not by saying, and by showing the concrete—so that his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.
Eudora Welty once said: "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful." "The mystery of allurement." Yes, I believe that. And yes, when it comes to the stories I like best, the more I read them, the more mysterious they become. I love being caught in the beautiful mystery of them.
Umberto Eco uses a metaphor to describe what is required of us from such stories in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods: "There are two ways of walking through a wood," Eco says:
“The first is to try one or several routes (so as to get out of the wood as fast as possible, say, or to reach the house of grandmother, Tom Thumb, or Hansel and Gretel); the second is to walk so as to discover what the wood is like and find out why some paths are accessible and others are not. Similarly, there are two ways of going through a narrative text. Any such text is addressed, above all, to a model reader of the first level, who wants to know quite rightly how the story ends (whether Ahab will manage to capture the whale, or whether Leopold Bloom will meet Stephen Dedalus after coming across him a few times on the sixteenth of June 1904). But every text is addressed to a model reader of the second level, who wonders what sort of reader that story would like him or her to become and who wants to discover precisely how the model author goes about serving as a guide for the reader. In order to know how a story ends, it is usually enough to read it once.
However, in contrast, says Eco, “to become the model reader of the second level the text has to be read many times, and certain stories endlessly."
And it is because I like mystery that my favorite stories in the 2015 edition of O. Henry Prize Stories are: Christopher Merkner's "Cabins," Emily Ruskovich's "Owl," Thomas Pierce's "Ba Baboon," and Elizabeth McCracken's "Birdsong from the Radio."
In his comments on his story, Christopher Merkner says that the mystery that gave rise to "Cabins" struck him when a friend told him that he was getting a divorce. Merkner says he realized that the friend had already told fifteen other mutual acquaintances about the impending divorce and that what hooked him into the story was his intuition that the real divorce was between him and his friend's personal life, as well as the personal lives of the fifteen mutual friends who have told him nothing about the divorce. The problem, Merkner says, was his foolish assumption that had "some sort of intimate arrangement with the details of these people's personal lives." And as he worked through the story, he wondered how many lives he assumed he knew, but ultimately knew nothing about at all, "or just very tiny bits and pieces."
This mystery of the lives and minds of others is perhaps the central mystery the short story form most often hooks into, and perhaps why short stories are, by their very nature, made up of "very tiny bits and pieces."
This mystery of human identity—just who someone really is—is also at the center of Thomas Pirce's story "Ba Baboon." In his brief commentary at the end of the book, he tells about how his grandfather suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident and became a different person afterwards—personality changes that both frightened and fascinated him, concluding this way: "I think most of us like to assume we are who we ae and will be that way until we die. It can be an unsettling thought, the extent to which our identities are so malleable, the degree to which we are barely ourselves, even from one moment to the next."
Elizabeth McCracken says her story actually began as an assignment for the editor of Fairy Tale Review, who asked her to write a story for a collection of stories based on myths. She hunted about for a myth to use without much success until one day her children suggested, lightheartedly, that her New Year's resolution might be biting them less. McCrackin says, before she had children, this parental desire often expressed as "I could eat you up I love you so," was unfathomable to her, but now she understood it. It made her think of "Lamia," best known perhaps from Keats' poem, and she did some research and found one version in which Lamia was a woman who had gone mad from grief after the death of her children and turned into an animal, and then, McCracken says, "well, it all made sense to me."
Emily Ruskovich says her story began with a single image: "a woman lying in the grass at night, shot down by a group of boys who had mistaken her for an owl." In an interview with Hannah Tinti, she says it began with another story she had started to write with a peripheral character for whom she tried to suggest a backstory with this sentence: "He had lived in the trailer ever since his mother was shot by a group of boys, who mistook her for an owl." She notes in her end-of-book commentary that two other images clustered about this central image—coffee grounds spread on a dirt floor and giant-headed inbred cats—both from her family. She says she felt these three images all connected in some way and that she set out to write the story to discover how. In her interview with Tinti, Ruskovich says a friend of her who saw an early draft told her that the boys in the story reminded her of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan—another connection that fascinated Ruskovich, especially for the way it evokes how we can be haunted by our childhood loves to the point we almost don't believe they are real, but yet we find ourselves waiting until they return.
When Frank Kermode in his Norton lectures twenty years ago asked, "Why Are Narratives Obscure?" he cited Kafka's parable "Before the Law" in The Trial. It’s about a man who comes to beg admission to the Law but is kept out by a doorkeeper. So he sits there year after year in inconclusive conversation with the doorkeeper outside the door unable to get in. When he is old and near death, he sees an immortal radiance streaming from the door. He asks the doorkeeper why he alone has come to this door and receives this reply: "This door was intended only for you. Now I am going to shut it." A terrible parable, you would have to agree. "To perceive the radiance of the shrine," say Kermode, "is not to gain access to it; the Law, or the Kingdom to those within, such as the doorkeeper, may be powerful and beautiful, but to those outside they are absolutely inexplicable. This is a mystery." While the insiders protect the Law without understanding it, the outsiders like us see an uninterpretable radiance and die." A terrible parable indeed.
Kermode is concerned, of course, with the radiant obscurity of parables, a word that in the Gospel of Mark is used as a synonym for "mystery." It is the radiance Welty refers to when she says the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own. It is wrapped in an atmosphere. This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initial obscures its plain, real shape." To Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz, to outsiders to the mystery, the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."
Why is there is apt to be more mystery in short stories than in novels? I will simply list three that seem possible to me.
First there is the historical and prehistorical source of the short story in myth and oral tale that, by its very nature, was concerned with mystery, for everything was mystery and story was the only explanatory model available. A genre never completely departs from its origins.
Second, there is short story's dependence more on pattern than plot for its structure. As a result of this dependence, the action of a short story is more apt to be organized around an implicit principle or idea rather than a series of events occurring causally in time. The puzzle effect is inevitable. It is no accident that America's first theorist of the short story also invented the detective mystery story.
Third, there is the mystery of motivation in short stories. It is not easy to determine why Bartleby prefers not to, what Roderick Usher is so afraid of, why Wakefield goes to the next street over and hides out for all those years. Part of the problem may be the short story's close relationship to the romance form, which, allegorical in its nature, develops characters that, even as they seem to be like real people in the real world, are driven by the discourse demands of the narrative and thus act as if they are obsessed, propelled by some central force rather than merely logically, causally, or randomly.
Watch how Emily Ruskovich's "Owl" creates the voice of the husband who is mystified by his wife, who seems both adult and child at once, looking for that lost childhood that seems just out of reach. And admire how Ruskovich, without forcing the allusion, gradually merges her her story into that never neverland of Peter Pan and Wendy.
Read Christopher Merkner's "Cabins" and enjoy how the narrator of the story moves back and forth between reality (whatever that is) and fantasy as he deals with the utter mystery of those he thinks he knows.
Put yourself in that tiny pantry with the two main characters of Thomas Pierce's "Ba Baboon" as they frantically search for the magic word that will pacify the dogs that growl at the door.
Identify with the distraught mother of Elizabeth McCracken's "Birdsong from the Radio," as she is driven to regain that which is lost in the only way possible to totally integrate the other—by devouring them. As Kristen Iskandrian, who picked this story as her favorite, says, the voice of the story seems to come "from the belly of a timeless and placeless place, from the nowhere/everywhere where fable gets forged."
As Flannery O'Connor says, "The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery."