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Tag: major character deaths

Flash fiction story: “A House with Mughal-Style Doors”

“A House with Mughal-Style Doors,” by Cathy Ulrich

Appeared in matchbook, February 2019

332 words

I love how you know from the first paragraph that the daughter is dead, and the story never actually tells us that. The mention of kitchen matches and the phrase “the white box with the red” instead of the brand name seem to imply that Deirdre’s mother didn’t smoke until now. The repetition of “After the party” strikes me as very effective. That last repeated line also works for me, although I find it a little less original than the rest of the piece.

I like the author’s note.

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Short story: “Bad Vibrations”

“Bad Vibrations,” by Tiffany Michelle Brown

Originally in the anthology Alternate Hilarities: One Star Reviews of the Afterlife (edited by Giovanni Valentino, Strange Musings Press, 2016); featured in Toasted Cake 211, February 10th, 2019

Not sure how many words

Talk about relatable. I guess this could only work as a short piece, since even at this length I was grappling with the dissonance of feeling amused and embarrassed while watching a mother grieve for her (adult) child/a lively young person come to terms with her death. On the other hand, if it were a longer piece, perhaps it could have achieved a dramedy feel, developing the mother’s character while keeping up the humor.

Flash fiction story: “Only in New York”

“Only in New York,” by Libby Heily

Daily Science Fiction, February 7th, 2019

438 words

Funny. I would have liked higher stakes (grief), but I guess that would make it less funny.

Short story: “A Different End”

“A Different End,” by Stephen Dixon

Appeared in Story issue #3 in 2016, online here

5,043 words

Wow, this is good. It’s told almost flatly, through long stretches of matter-of-fact dialogue, and yet it grips you. I see that by coincidence I’ve posted about two other pieces by Dixon before. He’s good.

There are a ton of typographical errors in this, unfortunately. Do people not proofread anymore?

Novelette: “The Princess”

“The Princess,” by D. H. Lawrence

According to Wikipedia, first published in the March, April, and May 1925 issues of the Calendar of Modern Letters (now defunct); collected in St. Mawr and Other Stories in 1925; found online here

15,896 words

I have a theory that horror, comedy, pornography, romance, drama, and tragedy are all various aspects of the same thing. Every story aims at a certain effect, sometimes more than one, and most stories take roughly the same route to get to it. I like stories like this, where the emotional effects are mixed and piled on heavily. The last line, for example, is hilarious because it’s slightly horrifying and also anticlimactic. There’s also a lot here that is serious. Mr. Urquhart’s “demon” theory of the psyche sounds like Lawrence’s own.

Why does Lawrence’s perverse little fantasy work for me while Vonnegut’s doesn’t? Where “Welcome to the Monkey House” is self-indulgently kinky and in denial about it, “The Princess” is self-destructively kinky, shattering its protagonist’s brittle purity with open eyes.

Flash fiction story: “Absolution”

“Absolution,” by Aaron Emmel

Appeared in Every Day Fiction, January 15th, 2019

1,004 words, but I’ll round down

I’m impressed with this. I wasn’t totally clear on how the air attack worked, especially on the first read, but I got the general idea: he believed he had to kill some to save the rest.

Who hasn’t replayed a conversation in their head to make it come out better, or rehearsed one ahead of time? I think the actual conversation went as badly as it did because the protagonist was too consumed by guilt to explain himself properly. On some level he wanted the other man to hate him, to attack him.

Semicolon watch: Two. One of them makes the sentence flow nicely; the other is after a dialogue tag and doesn’t feel right or correct to me. (Edited to add that I recently found a semicolon used the same way, after a dialogue tag, in The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. It may be an old-fashioned style.)

Short story: “Plastics”

“Plastics,” by Julianna Baggott

Appeared in Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity, Fall 2018

10.5 pages in the magazine, therefore about 5,555 words

Reminds me of “Waxy,” in premise and to some extent in tone.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that Teardrop was a turtle. I was picturing a horseshoe crab at first.

Short story: “Transfer”

“Transfer,” by Laura van den Berg

Appeared in Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity, Fall 2018; also an “online exclusive,” whatever that means, here

7.5 pages in the print magazine and 3,970 words, which means Conjunctions fits approximately 529 words to a page

This is fascinating, but it feels incomplete. It seems to me the main character doesn’t entangle herself deeply enough in the plot to be the main character. The story seemingly belongs to the director, the one who’s dealing so desperately badly with her grief. I want the narrator to snoop and interrogate even more than she does.

I’m curious about the choice to summarize the letter instead of quoting it. Filtering it through the narrator’s sensibility keeps our attention on her curiosity, her voyeurism.

Maybe the key to this story is the main character’s confession that she was the first to find the body. She’s trying to become closer to the director, or at least to trade one secret for another, but the director’s madness forms a barrier between them. Or it could be more reticence than madness.

When the main character tells the staff one of the director’s secrets, I wonder how much she’s motivated by “hoping that they might take pity on her” and how much by the very human need to share what she knows.

Semicolon watch: I noticed many semicolons here, every one of them connecting two independent clauses. The narrator is literate and reflective, so semicolons suit her.

Short story: “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby”

“Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby,” by Donald Barthelme

Appeared in the New Yorker, May 26th, 1973 (subscribers can read here); collected in Amateurs (Farrar, 1976), and in Forty Stories (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987), and in a collection of the same title (Penguin Books, 2011); read online here and here; also read on Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

1,634 words—I would have guessed much shorter

I enjoy Barthelme’s occasional rambling absurdity. “It didn’t rain, the event was well attended, and we didn’t run out of Scotch, or anything.” That “or anything” is good. The last line, with that mention of gratitude, is wonderful.

Note that all the characters seem to be adults, since one of them “runs a car-and-truck-rental business” and the others seem to drink Scotch and know a lot about event planning. They’re all men.

Satire? I dunno, maybe, maybe not. I notice the characters live in a country where the death penalty has been abolished.

Movie: Vertigo

Vertigo, written by Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor, and possibly Maxwell Anderson, based on a French novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak

Released by Paramount in 1958

128 minutes

I love the theme of fakeness, irreality, that pervades this movie.

  1. Scottie falls in love with a woman who’s haunted by a ghost, and perhaps he’s as in love with her hauntedness as with her.
  2. She dies. Now we have two ghosts, two irreal presences.
  3. Behind Scottie’s back, we learn that the woman he knew as Madeleine was an impersonator, and was faking the haunting as well, and faked her death.
  4. When Scottie meets his “real” lover, the prosaic Judy, he tries to make her over into the twice-fake woman he loved before. He doesn’t know she’s genuinely haunted this time, haunted by her role in a murder and by their past love affair.

The scene of Judy’s transformation into “Madeleine” is lit by a ghostly underwatery light emanating from the neon sign of the cheap hotel where Judy lives: reality transfigured into dream. When they kiss, Scottie finds himself back in the mission stable with its fake horse and carriage.

And Scottie is deeply in love with this illusion. Even when Judy admits everything, he rejects the “real” love she offers him: “It’s too late. There’s no bringing her back.” Judy “really” loves him, but he never “really” loved her—or perhaps he’s only able to love her at the very end, when, having no illusions left, they kiss once more. If so, it’s too late.


Today I saw this on Twitter:

The thing is, I think it can be both. Vertigo does seem to be confessional on Hitchcock’s part—he bullied, controlled, and costumed his lead actresses the way Scottie bullies, controls, and costumes Judy—and it also punishes Scottie for his masculine brutality.

Of course, Judy is punished too, and much more harshly; she dies for her (perhaps not even willing?) complicity in Gavin Elster’s plot. But note that starting with the scene where she writes a letter, she’s the star of the film, because she and the audience both know something Scottie doesn’t. We see Scottie’s monomaniacal cruelty through her eyes. Both, both, both.

I don’t mean to imply that Hitchcock attained any true self-awareness or felt remorse; a few years later he made Tippi Hedren submit to having live birds thrown at her, and (I just learned) sexually assaulted her to boot.

But he produced a magnificent critique of himself even without true self-awareness. I feel like this is the case with other artists too. Manhattan ends with the baby-voiced teenager calling the Woody Allen character on his bullshit and attempting to spread her wings. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men dwells obsessively on the ways misogyny makes men “hideous.” Maybe there’s no earnest attempt here at criticism of male entitlement—maybe what looks like criticism is merely self-loathing. But we can interpret them however we want. We can use them however we want. They can instruct us, despite their creators’ limitations.

Hitchcock, at least, is dead. His entitlement and cruelty are safely tucked away in characters like Gavin and Scottie.