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At the end of a short story the reader is likely to be left thinking about one – or more-  of three things. These are the situation at the end of the story, the circumstances that created the story, and what might be expected to follow the story. If story is a journey, we might say that at our arrival we discover where we are, where we’ve come from, or where we’re going next.

Alternatively, those endings could be categorised as the present, the past and the future. In some stories it is quite clear which, and which only, is the outcome. An obvious example is Ambrose Bierce’s The Coup de Grace, in which at the very end of the story the name is revealed of a superior officer who is approaching, and has witnessed a subordinate against whom he has a grudge ‘mercy killing’ the terribly wounded brother of the former, and best friend of the latter. We cannot help but speculate on how it will play out.

In a story like Hemingway’s A Canary For One, a revelation in the last, short sentence  casts all that has gone before into a shocking new light which sends us back through the story, to re-evaluate and re-interpret all that we have read. Is this a case of a story that invokes the past? Or is it one that drives us to a deeper understanding of the present?

In Rudyard Kipling’s ‘They’ much is left unrevealed. This pseudo-ghost story, is one in which the narrator encounters the spirits of dead children, and of one in particular whose coded message, communicated by a ‘little brushing kiss’, brings him to a long, drawn –out moment of reflection and decision, and invites us to consider a back story that we have not at all been told. Only the fact that the ‘mute code’ by which this ghostly visitor communicates is understood by both of them and was ‘devised long ago’ gives us a clue to that story, but it is sufficient for us to wonder at it, and to question what events before those of the story might have led to the story.

Yet this powerful moment is not at the end of the story. More than a page of writing follows, in which the narrator understands what has happened, discusses it with his hostess, the blind woman whose home is visited by these dead children, and comes to the decision about how he must respond to what has happened to him.

The story ends on ‘’She left me to sit a little longer by the screen, and I heard the sound of her feet die out along the gallery.’

This, surely, is another of those powerful ‘minor key’ endings that George Moore said ‘all great stories’ end on. We are held to the narrator’s side, abiding with him as he resolves to put into practice what he knows he must: ‘never (to) come here again.’ This is the profound heart of the story, the image that we leave it on; the image that the story has brought us to. Yet it is not the great emotional climax of the story. That must be the moment of the ‘little brushing kiss’, and the tumble to understanding of whose lips must be delivering it.

Many short stories have this structure, in which the climax of actions is followed, diminuendo, by the anticlimax of reflection, or, as in another case, description.

I’m thinking of A.E.Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton, a four page gem in which almost nothing happens, save that the family of an itinerant farm-labourer walks across an English landscape. There is a moment of high drama though, where the boy-child of the family, who has been remorselessly bullied throughout the story by his drunken father, for losing a sixpence, takes advantage of that father’s distraction, to pass the sixpence in question to his mother.

The moment arrives without foreshadow, a startling and heartbreaking revelation of the boy’s desperate bravery. Rebuked, beaten and bloodied, he nevertheless holds on to his secret until the chance comes to pass the coin to one who will not squander it on drink. It’s a rural tale, with all the bitter harshness of Arthur Morrison’s East End ‘Mean Streets’.

Yet the tale does not end there, but passes on, through the crisis, returning us to our almost Art Gallery view of the beautiful landscape that Coppard began the story with. Perhaps we remember his caveat to that opening description, in which he warns us that it is a surface illusion of calm and beauty. Again, as in the Kipling, we are asked to contemplate in tranquillity, but in the aftermath of a dramatic crisis.

The ending here might be described as a Post Crisis re-Contextualisation, but in the case of Coppard’s story the climax of events has served as an example of his first undermining of the idyllic picture he presented of Sack Down, not a refutation of it. The story is not really about the family, but about the England in which the stories of such families will be played out against such illusory landscapes. His is an ending that has us thinking about the here and now, in which, as the light fades, we ‘hear dimly men’s voices and the rattle of their gear.’

I’ve long thought of short stories as being, metaphorically, crossings, and of novels as being cruises. In the latter we have many beginnings and endings, and at those intermediate endings we think about the last port of call, the present one and the next. The short story has only one beginning and one ending, but it will enable us to consider one, two, or perhaps all three of those realities.

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Despite having written some masterpiece short stories, even the mature Rudyard Kipling could turn out some impenetrable ones. The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat I found particularly non-negotiable – though it made it through to the almost recent Hensher’s ‘Penguin’ collection of the allegedly best that ‘Britain’ has produced. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a few fat porkers in amongst the eighty or so ‘uncollected prose fictions’ – why not call them short stories? Even the included fragments, surely, are fragments of short stories? – very recently published by Cambridge.

I also found one that made me laugh out loud, and which seemed to have the hallmarks of what I have found so likeable in many of the later works that were collected.

On Signatures (By——-*) – and that asterisk draws us to the ‘note’ that kicks-off the story – is cited as having been published first in November 1887, with an Attribution in ‘Scrapbook 4’. All that editor Prof.Thomas Pinney can say about it is that it is ‘unrecorded and unreprinted.’ Written in the first person (even that asterisked note is in an ‘our’ voice, introducing the narrator: ‘Our correspondent…), the tale is in the form of a rant, sent, presumably, to the Civil and Military Gazette, in which it was published. The rant, is about the illegibility of the signatures that ‘greets me at the end of most of the letters which I daily receive..’

Kipling has his proxy single out several for our examination, and tells us a little about each of the people he speculates they might belong to. Not merely ‘hieroglyphs’, they resemble ‘three snakes’ tails and a set of triangles’, or ‘a felled fir-tree with a shower of chips about the stump.’ Others include ‘a big black fuzzy caterpillar on a boundless prairie’, and one is signed ‘Bd.Conar Cold Pork’, which the narrator interprets as a Lieutenant Colonel, of an unidentifiable regiment, referred to thereafter as the ‘Cold Porks’.

Kipling is playing on, and with words, and I got the joke, chuckling aloud at several places. Thumbnail sketches of the senders fill out, and perhaps inform, the perceived illustrations. Our narrator’s point though, that the signatures can’t be read, rings true, and especially so to someone of my generation, whose working life was spent mostly in the world of hand-signed, if not hand-written letters. My own signature has attracted attention, of the sarcastic variety, but rarely, to my knowledge, such inventive descriptions. The extent to which any of these particulars might resonate with individuals among his readership, we can only speculate on, but the general resonance is there for those of us who can remember signatures that we recognised, but couldn’t actually read.

Kipling rounds the story off, with the arrival of a letter to which a cut-out example of his narrator’s own signature has been affixed. It has passed through several offices’ from ‘Cherrapunji’ to ‘Aden’ – nine locations are listed – before arriving, and the letter within describes it as ‘the section of a fly’s thorax under the microscope’.

Technically a ‘flash fiction’ – if like me you take the definition of such to be a story that has the flash of only one turned page – the story is built not only around a commonplace frustration of communications before the e-mail,  but also on that very human foible of motes and beams in the way we see ourselves and others. It also has, in that ending, what becomes, to my way of thinking, the very Kiplingesque technique of undermining his own narrators, and by doing so, telling us something it’s worth us finding out about ourselves.

I was talking to my friends, BHDandMe recently, and they were in two minds about something. The writer, Frank O’Connor came into view, metaphorically speaking, and something he wrote while having a several page carp about Kipling took our attention.

Now O’Connor’s carp was about the short story The Gardener, one of more than two rather exceptional stories in the collection Debits and Credits of 1926 – latish in Kipling’s canon. In that piece O’Connor makes what seems to me to be an astonishing statement, which is this: ‘I have found myself rewriting the story as it might have been written by Chekhov or Maupassant…’

While BHDandMe admired the hutzpah of such an assertion (t)he(y) was also shocked by the temerity of making it. Perhaps if t(he)y had written a story as powerful as, say Guests of the Nation, it might have been different. But BHD, I know for a fact, has re-written several stories by authors from the past (though none, to my knowledge, by authors from the future!).

His motives in doing this were perhaps similar to those of O’Connor’s – to find out a little bit more about the original story (‘to see what would happen’ O’Connor says). But BHD was also interested in finding out if the ‘feel’ of the story, its emotional impact on him as a reader, could be recreated or at least echoed by a story written from his own perspective in time and place. Me, it should be pointed out, would never dream of pulling such a stunt with a poem (or an essay, come to that). O’Connor’s analysis of his version of the story, by the way, seems to have, as Me was told once when writing about a poem of his, ‘missed the fucking point.’ –(Glad you pointed that out, BHDandMe).

BHD’s attempts, with stories by, among others, Alphonse Daudet, (Les Etoiles & La Chevre de Monsieur Seguin), L’Abbe Bourdelot (Monsieur Oufle) and Paul Arene (Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune), have been transpositions rather than replicas, and have met with mixed success, as stories and as explorations. Henri & Monsieur Oufle, a riff on the good Abbe’s farce involving a ‘bear suit’, translated to a modern-day Pizza restaurant, worked well enough to be picked out for performance at Liars League’s Hong Kong Branch, and can be found online. Les Etoiles became Shooting Stars, moving from a Luberon shepherd’s bothy in the nineteenth century, to a 1970s film-set in the English Lake District.

In none of these though, did BHD ever imagine he was writing ‘as it might have been’ by a Chekhov, Maupassant, or even a Daudet, Arene, or Bordelot. He was just doing his best as a BHD!

The practice is instructive though, as well as being fun. When there’s something you ‘get’ out of a story that you can, or can’t get out of a rewrite it clarifies something – not necessarily the same thing – about the original writer and your response to him or her, and about yourself, and your own writing.

Well, here’s another BHD story, popping up on the web:

And others here…

The hardest thing to write, I sometimes think, is a story with a happy ending, which is a good reason to have a go. Here’s one I wrote earlier, brilliantly performed by Mushtaq, at Liars League Hong Kong’s September 2018 bash….

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

I recently watched the 1968 film, The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster. It’s based on a John Cheever story of the same name, published only a few years before. I’d read this about a decade ago, and much of the detail in the film was totally absent from my memory, not surprisingly, as it turned out, when I got another squint at the text.. The premise, and plot, is simple. Set in a vaguely dated America – filmed in Westport, Connecticut – the hero, without much introduction, and already dressed for the project, suddenly decides to ‘swim home’, by using all the pools in the gardens of his wealthy neighbours.

In both original and adaptation, that’s what, simply, he does, and as he passes through the lives and parties of those neighbours, little shafts of light, metaphorically, fall on his backstory, so that by the time he arrives home, weakened to the point almost of collapse by his journey, we are not quite surprised to find that the home stands locked and empty, the ironwork of its garage doors (in the told tale) and its gates (in the shown one) rusted.

As always, similarities and differences between the told original and the shown adaptation fascinate me. Why have such changes been made? Why have they not? Sometimes it is to do with the differing agendas of the producers of that adaptation. The First Blood adaptation, and its follow-on franchise is a good example of that. But here, with Cheever’s story, filmed in the same few years as it was written, the differences seem to be more to do with the nature of the medium into which the story was being re-cast.

The movies, as the name might imply, are about moving pictures. The short story, written down (or even remembered) is about words and what they mean to us. Movies favour action, and actions, whereas short stories favour meanings and significances.

In Cheever’s story the descriptions of the actual crossing of the pools is almost perfunctory. In one paragraph near the beginning he crosses five in as many lines. In the film the camera follows him stroke for stroke, in close up, in long shot, medium shot, trick shot, and sometimes, repeated shot! A sequence in a horse ring shows him and another character – not present in the short story – leaping the jumps over and over again. In the written tale, the ring is by passed ‘overgrown’ with the jumps ‘dismantled’.

The film is a wordy showing of the story. The original, an almost wordless telling of it, at least as far as dialogue is concerned. At several pools people do exchange words with him, but the conversations are fragmentary and hardly ever developed, passing into reported or recalled speech, dissipating into further narrative. In the film, conversation dominates, often beginning with the written story’s openings, but taking them further. Much of the narrative is retained, but re-cast in the mouth of the protagonist himself, either addressed to other characters, or as if in monologue.

Several new characters are introduced, and existing ones are examined a little more fully. Notably the twenty year old girl -in bikini, of course- who accompanies him on a section of the journey, until his interest in her becomes frightening, is a pure introduction. And so is the lonely boy with the flute, at the drained swimming pool of the Welchers.

A told story takes as many words to tell as it takes to tell, but a shown one has to run for long enough to justify the ticket price of the bum on the seat. That alone might explain the additions, and perhaps the bikini. And the told story, in this case, seemed almost like a thumbnail sketch, a hurried tale, skipping over the landscape, and barely dipping into the pools, with the conversations as truncated as the descriptions. The film, by comparison seemed slow, with its endless repetitive images of Lancaster swimming, leaping, walking down tunnels of trees. Filled out with montage shots of woodland, water, leaves, flora and fauna, none of which, to echo Hemingway’s concerns, ‘belong to the story’, the film struggles to fill its minute count.

The hurried narrative of Cheever’s tale is packed, not only with barely described actions, but with questions posed to the reader. Why does Ned Merrill do this? Why do that? What does he think? What has he forgotten? And beneath it all hangs the question of just what is his backstory, and his future? The film is a little more forthcoming, providing a hot-dog trolley that he has made, now being used by his neighbour who bought it at a sale. In both versions we get the growing inkling that not all is as it appears, that he is not what he seems to be; that his popularity is based on a past that has gone, and has worn thin to the point of antagonism for some of those he encounters.

There’s an essay on Cheever’s story in The reference Guide to Short Fiction, published by St,James’ Press, in which comparisons are made with the mythic Odyssey and later versions of it. Film struggles to do internal reasoning, the posing of questions, and speculation as to their answers. The short story can excel at it. Here’s the root difference between the two, even when the story they are both trying to convey is essentially the same. The film, being more explicit in this, loses some of the density of the short story, but even the short story, respected as it is, left me wishing there were a more tangible context for the dislocations I sensed.

BHDandMe was (were?) at Keswick’s TBTL (Theatre By The Lake) a couple of afternoons ago (one of the privileges of being an old tosser) on a trip to see Sense and Sensibility.

I’m a bit of a Jane Austen virgin. I might have read Pride and Prejudice (but I’m not sure I have – if so it was sooo long ago). I have, of course, seen umpteen TV versions of it, which no doubt capture the events, but don’t, I imagine, do anything for the language…and even the facial expressions of people today are mirror images of the faces of their own time, not of the period in which the story was set, and written.

So I came to the adaptation of S&S without a clue what, or who it was about – and yes, TBTL has won me over to reading the book. If the adaptation can be this good, the original must be, well, even better.

And the adaptation was, is good. If you get a chance to go and see it, take it.

The cast was uniformly convincing. I never doubted they were who they pretending to be even for a moment. And what a clever story..though, having encountered several hundred (possibly thousand) stories over the last few years I kinda guessed one of the ‘surprises’ that the plot springs on us. It is a clever plot though, and the play brought that out. I liked the way there was a sort of graded version of ‘love’ on display…the sort that hits you like a hurricane, the sort that grows on you (like roses….?) and the sort that you miss by a long whisker and regret forever. I suspect most of us have tried two out of the three, and possibly the full set (age, now!)

My wife, who has been a professional textile designer, wasn’t too keen on the shiny fabrics – but hey….take a look at the TBTL website here, then go take a look at the play there!

On the subject of plays BHDandMe (well, Me really, with writing buddy Marilyn Messenger) have a small play on in The Studio at TBTL on Saturday, October 20th. It might be worth going along to take a look at that too (but Jane Austen it ain’t). It’s called Telling, and is paired (or rather trio-ed) with two other short dramas. Marilyn and BHD did a collection of short stories together a while back:

 

Here’s a thing…I didn’t realise this was going to pop up…but Reflex Fiction have kindly published BHD’s short story (call it a flash fiction if you will), Caught In Timehere

Or should that be, Reading as Writers? While not the opposite ends of a telescope there’s little doubt that writing can help you to become a better reader and reading, to be a better writer.

Mike Smith is running a six week course, starting on September 11th (7.00pm-9.00pm) at Darren Harper’s Carlisle Philosophical and Literary Society (Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle, UK), called Reading As A Writer. Using extracts from published texts, we’ll look at ‘close reading’ and what we mean by it, and examine how single words, sentences, paragraph breaks and chapters in longer works do their jobs, and what those jobs might be. We’ll also consider how the passage of time in fiction tries to re-create in words the experience of time passing in real life – and how different storytelling forms differ in their handling of time.

Course Fees:

£54 full

£43 over 60

£27 students/benefits

Booking via info@philandlit.org

 

BHD recently had a story accepted for an online magazine. They’ve taken a few of his over the last couple of years (.Cent was the magazine by the way, and when you go looking for it, remember that prefatory .!) This one, just before submission, was given a last-minute trim, or rather, a last minute change. It was only one word, but it was close to the last word, and it was changed from ‘said’ to ‘thought’.

The line, in its final version, went: ‘Me too, I thought’. The actual ending continues ‘and I knew the game was on again.’

The difference is profound.

The story is a first person reminiscence of a conversation, about literature, and sex. That conclusive line, a spoken line in the original version, a thought one in the published, is supposed to reveal something about the narrator that has not been revealed in the rest of the story. In fact, the story is the context for that revelation. But if spoken it is revealed not only to the reader, but to the other character in the conversation. By making it a thought the reader is invited to speculate about whether or not that other character has an inkling of the thought, and if they do, what is their reaction to it.

Other options have subsequently occurred to me. What, for example, might be the difference if the story ended: ‘Me too, I might have said.’

The key is in that ‘might’. Does it imply that ‘Me too’ wasn’t said, but could have been – which implies also that it was still thought. And what if it had ended, ‘Me too, I may have said.’? Doesn’t that add the further possibility that it had been said, but that the narrator has become vague in his admission, perhaps reluctant even?

Four options, and I’m still not sure which would be the best one, but the fact that there are four – and probably more – reminds me how important every single word is, and perhaps more so the closer it is to the end! It reminds me too, that the nuances of writing are dependant for their success not only on the finesse of the writer, but also on the discrimination of the reader.

You can read more BHD stories in Other Stories and Rosie Wreay.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD