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Short story: “The Eyes”

“The Eyes,” by Edith Wharton

8,081 words

Collected in Tales of Men and Ghosts (on Project Gutenberg), 1910; online here; looks like there’s an inexpensive audio version here

One of those horror stories where the horror is all unstated. The biggest hint about the nature of that horror is Culwin’s apparent willingness to believe, even now, that he was being kind to Nowell and Noyes (“making people happy”!). The other big hint is at the end, when he sees his own face in the mirror. Up until that moment, Culwin failed to grasp the meaning of his own “ghost” story. The revelation is carefully foreshadowed:

“[T]here came over me a sense of [the eyes'] tacit complicity, of a deep hidden understanding between us that was worse than the first shock of their strangeness. Not that I understood them; but that they made it so clear that some day I should …”

If Culwin is gay, as seems plausible, then his first self-betrayal lies in making a sham attempt at heterosexuality, his second in a failure to treat the man he admires with respect. He even uses the former to excuse the latter (“I’d done it for his cousin’s sake, not his”), as though, in his self-loathing, he thinks he can cancel out a homosexual love affair by invoking a heterosexual one.

This essay tries to paint Culwin as basically admirable, but I don’t think that interpretation holds up. Frenham’s reaction is too extreme to be simple fear of losing his relationship with his mentor; it’s the reaction of someone who’s lost faith in his hero. Besides, Frenham is too minor a character for his personal feelings to set off the climax of the story, even considering his parallels to Noyes; rather, his breakdown is significant because of what it reveals about Culwin.

I don’t know whether Culwin has mistreated Frenham, and I’m not sure I care. (The narrator seems to think not.) What’s at stake here is Culwin’s soul.

I want to read some double meaning into “No well” and “No yes!”

Another interesting essay here.

A great sentence that might be a story in itself

“‘God has given me blood to drink,’ she said to the nurse, and the nurse said, ‘Don’t rinse your mouth or it won’t clot.'”

—“The Tooth,” by Shirley Jackson

Oh I get it now

On planting character motivations in advance

“When a character does something (say, suddenly draws a gun out of his pants waist) that action must be supported by actions that have come before; the mentality that causes it needs to be developed before the action happens. Long before. If Yarik is drawing his gun because he feels responsibility for his brother’s life, then I must make that felt before I need him to feel it. That way the action is immediately understood without my having to explain it after, or prep it right before. Allude to the emotional or intellectual reason for an action just before it happens and the reader will feel the author constructing the moment instead of experiencing the moment as real. For me, for this moment, that meant figuring out not only that Yarik felt a sense of responsibility for his brother, but also finding moments before this scene where that could be revealed. I had to sow the emotion in early so that by the time it reached a point where it would drive his action it had already taken root in the soil of the story.”

—Josh Weil, in this essay

This is pretty good

“Been getting a lot of asks for writing advice this tour. My response is always: read a lot; write a lot; enjoy both; allow both to be bad.”

—Jeffrey Cranor (@happierman) July 23, 2014

On doing ambiguity well and badly

“[A]ll too often, ambiguity in fiction is not the writer’s attempt to leave space for the reader—it’s the result of the writer’s own indecision. Sometimes one of my students will bring a story to workshop that leaves the others scratching their heads. Did the woman and man get back together, or not? Was the cat that showed up at the end the same as the cat at the beginning? ‘I didn’t want to explain too much,’ the student will often say in the story’s defense. ‘I wanted it to be ambiguous.’

“When asked, these students generally admit that they don’t know, themselves, whether the couple gets back together, or what the deal with the cat is. So they hedge their bets, refusing to give enough evidence one way or another, crossing their fingers that the reader will figure it out and decide for them. Usually, that uncertainty carries over into the story. The reader senses that crucial pieces are missing and ends up confused.”

—Celeste Ng in this essay

I wanted to quote this whole piece. It’s both interesting and frustrating. Like me, Ng is excited about Brad Leithauser’s box and keyhole theory, but whereas I’m more interested in playing with the two models, she’s more interested in applying the keyhole model critically.

The students Ng describes are treating their fiction like a box of toys they can arrange and rearrange at their godlike whim. If the box model is a valid one for writers to use (and I think it is), why doesn’t this approach work?

As someone who has been one of those students in the past, and probably will be again, I’m tempted to say the problem is with the readers. That’s not really right, though. I think the problem is the writers’ inattention to their audience.

Fiction written with the box model in mind should not be arbitrary. It should be like a magic trick. The audience knows it’s a trick; they’re even familiar with the materials being used (hat, coin, handkerchief). But they’re willing to believe that something strange and marvelous is going on, that a quarter can pass through cloth and hide in a child’s ear. The arbitrary manipulations of the trick aren’t just there for their own sake, they exist to create a “magic” whose logic is dreamlike in its persuasiveness.

Short story: “While the Women Are Sleeping”

“While the Women Are Sleeping,” by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

7,660 words

Appeared in the New Yorker on November 2nd, 2009 (online here); read on Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

So I have a new tag, concealing and revealing the Medusa, to tag stories where there’s a lot of tension generated by getting the reader to believe in something that can never be fully revealed on the page. The horror is too horrifying, the Eden is too Edenic, whatever. I was getting ready to apply that tag when I realized no, it doesn’t fit. This story does reveal its Medusa, and like all naked Medusas, it’s slightly disappointing. Murder! Murder is a letdown, somehow. Domestic violence, violence against an attractive woman, is a letdown. We’ve seen it all before. The sense that madmen walk among us, that murderers let their secrets slip out while their victims are sleeping, isn’t especially new either.

I still adore this story though.

On human baseness

“As dreadful as things looked, I was still alive. And, perhaps, the last thing to die in a man is his baseness. His ability to respond to peroxide blondes and the need to write.”

—the narrator of Pushkin Hills, by Sergei Dovlatov, translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov, as quoted here

Short story: “The Nightmare Lights of Mars”

“The Nightmare Lights of Mars,” by Brian Trent

4,198 words

Featured in episode 415 of Escape Pod, September 27th, 2013

There are a lot of things to like about this story, but it just doesn’t hold together. (Forgive the bullet points; my thoughts don’t hold together well either.)

  • The ending is awesome.
  • It also comes out of nowhere. Why are the bugs so smart?
  • The opening is very big and dramatic, the main character almost dies, and then it has almost nothing to do with the rest of the story. I think it’s supposed to show how lonely Clarissa is, how badly she needs her paintings, but it felt overdone to me.
  • Clarissa’s wife is a selfish, abusive jerk with no redeeming qualities. I don’t see how their relationship adds anything to the story. It feels like a device to make Clarissa more sympathetic.
  • The paintings are a nice bit of characterization.
  • But they have no significant connection to the plot and they don’t really fit thematically either.
  • The first exchange between Clarissa and Vijay goes on longer than it needs to. At this point, we don’t yet know she has hard evidence, which makes for a bit of false suspense. Why would she withhold that information? Why would she let Vijay disbelieve her to the point that she gets angry and frustrated? This could be character development, but it feels like conflict by numbers.
  • Also, I didn’t catch on at that point that Vijay was in denial. So his reaction to seeing the bugs struck me as way over the top.
  • It doesn’t help that I never got a visceral feel for how terrible the giant bug discovery was. I felt kind of detached about the whole thing.
  • I had the same reaction to Clarissa’s mental state at the very end. Afterwards, I realized it was the effect of the gold light, but until I got that context, I actually found the keening and sobbing and self-injury sort of funny. (I know, I’m sick.)
  • It’s nice to see a portrayal of a same-gender couple (and an Indian guy) without it being a big deal.
  • The description of the ants is pretty cool.

Anyway, I think this story would be better if it kept the pure-horror feel of the ending all the way through, and if it were unified by some kind of theme. Like Clarissa’s sense that she keeps getting lured into bad situations, or something.

On Olympian detachment

“What intrigued me most about Pushkin was his Olympian detachment. His willingness to accept and express any point of view…. Like the moon, illuminating the way for prey and predator both.”

—the narrator of Pushkin Hills, by Sergei Dovlatov, translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov, as quoted here

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