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Another of Mike’s essays on the short stories of Rudyard Kipling joins those already published (in Southlight 23 on his story Preface, in Thresholds’ archive on The Eye of Allah) with the publication of The Burden – The Gardener, by Rudyard Kipling, in Issue 37, to be published in March 2019 by The Blue Nib literary journal. You’ll find a few references to the writer here on the blog too!

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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.

V.S.Pritchett describes the short story as springing from a ‘poetic impulse’, which might, of course, be no more than the vaguest of hints that prompts a writer to make a start. Elsewhere he suggested that fiction ‘reveals’ what life only hints at.

C.S.Lewis in his writing on story says something similar. He compares the story to a net in which the writer tries to catch a bird, but in which he can only hope that the reader will see only a ‘flash of wings.’

Hemingway writes of a story needing only a single statement of truth to validate itself – and implying perhaps that without one, it can’t!

The three snippets, as far as I know, were written in isolation, yet for me they resonate. However interesting the events we recall or imagine when writing a story, what will be needed, to give that story traction and value for the reader, will be something within that resonates with their sense of what reality is like. They will be alerted to, or reminded of something that is hinted at, true, or flying in the perceptual skies of their own lives.

The writer might not know exactly which is Hemingway’s ‘one true sentence’, or Pritchett’s revelation, or Lewis’s flash of wings, and neither might the reader, but the contention must be that if it is not there the story will be fatally lacking – though it might fool a generation of readers (and writers); and if it is there, it will be sensed, even if not identified.

Hemingway also wrote about ‘holes’ in stories. He was referring what the writer knew, or didn’t know about the story he was telling. What the writer knows, but does not share with the reader, Hemingway seems to be saying, adds to the story, but what the writer doesn’t know, he is most definitely saying, will be leave a hole in the story that the reader will feel, even if unconsciously.

What is revealed is not necessarily perceived, nor is that flash of wings necessarily glimpsed, and Hemingway’s one truth might not be appreciated – but those three writers, and, I suspect many others that I have not encountered, are telling us that the revelation, and the flash, and the truth, are fundamentally what make our stories worth reading, and worth writing.

BHDandMe have been asked to talk about the short story to an informal Readers Group in Shropshire, so once again I find myself covering the familiar ground of trying to find out exactly what it is I want to say about this fascinating literary form.

It’s ground I’m happy to cover again and again, as any ground that means so much to us is worth covering. After all, such ground will cover us one day.

I went to the notebook (pencil and paper, manual, not digital, or at least, not electronically so) to begin with, and came up with the following outline. It might interest you too, and if you’re bot, you might really think it’s ‘awesome’. Then again, if you are a bot, I guess you wouldn’t know any better.

Firstly, I’d want to tell you that I could probably list a hundred short stories, and each with a good reason to praise it (and enjoy it), and if you were to say ‘that’s not many’, I’d have to agree. But I’d want to go on and tell you that in among that hundred the same dozen or so would usually come high in the list, and among them, these few would often feature:

Weep Not My Wanton, by A.E.Coppard. The Seal, by L.A.G.Strong, Little Brother, by Mary Mann, and Sorting Office, by my contemporary, Vivien Jones. They’d feature on the list for this talk, partly because they are all short, short stories…such as one might read out aloud to a small audience, but each has something else compelling, and satisfying about it.

I’d want to make several statements about the form in general though, before I read anything. I’d want to assert that the short story has nothing to do with the novel, even though both are fictions told in words. I’d want to say that I think of novels as being like ‘cruises’, and short stories as being like ‘crossings’. I’d say that the short story takes you somewhere – to its ending, in fact – where you focus anew on either the passage you have just made, or the place you have just arrived, or the place you must inevitably go next (or a combination of any two, or of all three!).

And then I’d tell you the stories. Now how about that?

Working my way through Ladies in Lavender man, William J. Locke’s short story collection, Far Away Stories, I came to the two last tales: The Heart at Twenty is a simple story, and opens with a girl waiting on a French pier for, as it turns out, her long lost English lover. You might wonder. I certainly did!

The other story is The “Scourge”, a sentimental and melodramatic story of atonement and redemption. Sir Hildebrand Oates, the protagonist, is an upright, uptight martinet, who rules his roost – mostly his wife and children – with the least display of emotion or care that he can manage. A stickler for just about everything, not a glimmer of human feeling ever passes from him. He is proper, and I suppose, these days, we’d think him ‘right wing’. He doesn’t do charity, affection, or forgiveness, and imposes the sort of control that would now verge into the illegal.

When his wife dies, her will stuns him into reassessing how he has behaved, with its single, unexpected bequest: I will and bequeath to my husband, Sir Hildebrand Oates, Knight, the sum of fifteen shillings to buy himself a scourge to do penance for the arrogance, uncharitableness and cruelty with which he has treated myself and my beloved children for the last thirty years.

He is, of course, reduced to penury, for his wife’s fortune is what has kept the family afloat. Shocked, at first by her action, but then by the accusation itself, he withdraws to an unfashionable quarter of Venice, where he examines, in minute almost forensic detail, the minutiae of their past lives together, and writes a report, a judgement on himself.

Bit by bit, he meets lower-class people whom previously he would have dismissed without thinking , their children, the poor and the destitute, and living among them learns to be human. It is dreadfully sentimental, yet, has an undoubted power. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the most powerful story in the collection. Unrealistic, but unarguably a close look at the little ways in which we can, and perhaps ought, to behave towards each other.

As one might imagine in this sort of story – late nineteenth/early twentieth century – with all the sugary sweetness of a Hollywood movie, his estranged children track him down, find him dying, and read his manuscript, in which he finds, I am of the opinion that my wife had ample justification for the terms she employed…

            In true Hollywood (and Edwardian) style, he is, of course, rescued and allowed to live out his life redeemed and rehabilitated.

The story is not of the gritty Cinema Verite type, yet it carries the truth, and holds the mirror for us, that if we looked into our own lives we might be sorry for what we found there. Like Scrooge half a century before him, Sir Hildebrand offers us a chance to rehabilitate ourselves. You can’t knock that.

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.

I watched the Judi Dench/Maggie Smith film, Ladies in Lavender, a few months ago and noticed in the credits that it had been based on a story by William J. Locke.

I’d never heard of William J., but he’s there, in print-on-demand, on the internet, so I bought myself a copy. The story is one among a collection entitled Far-Away Stories, which was published in 1919. They were stories written ‘over a long stretch of years’ and among them is a suit of tales under the heading ‘Studies in Blindness’. There are four such studies, one, seeming to be a piece of WW1 anti-German propaganda passed off as truth, another a comic tale of a man who, blind. Comes to love the voice of his nurse, but, sight recovered, falls for her cousin who has the face he imagined. It’s a cleverly complicated story, and worth the time it takes to read.

It’s the other two that interest me here though, for they resonate with other stories I have read, from both earlier, and later writers. The first tale in the set is ‘An Olde-World Episode, and in it a blind woman falls in love with a badly disfigured man. He has lived since a child as an isolate, respected for his character, but shunned for his visage by society. They marry and live happily ever after…or at least until a London surgeon turns up pioneering the treatment of glaucoma! The man is faced with the possibility that his wife too will shun him if her treatment succeeds. I won’t spoil the tale, but it too is a cleverly complicated story.

It reminded me of two other stories. The first is O Henry’s classic Christmas tale, The Gift of the Magi, where a poor couple sacrifice their most precious possessions in order to buy a Christmas gift, each for the other, to complement the other’s, well, most precious possession. The symmetry is perfect, and gives a startling poignancy to a first reading (after which we moderns might find it a little cheesy). The symmetry in Locke’s tale is no less satisfying, and the theme was replayed, more famously I think, in V.S.Prichett’s Blind Love, title story of a 1969 collection, where it is the woman who is disfigured and the man blind.

Whilst I wouldn’t criticise Pritchett for re-playing an earlier idea – bringing a story into your own place and times is an exercise I’ve tried on several occasions, and with success – but I’d love to know whether he did or not!

The fourth story is The Conqueror, in which a blind man returns from America after having made his fortune, and takes up again with the woman whom he left behind, and who has feared that he will see how old she has grown. The ending of this story, as endings should, and which I will not reveal, adds that ‘inevitable but unexpected’ ingredient that all short stories aim for. This story reminded me of one of the Untilled Fields stories by George Moore, by the way, and of Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune by the late nineteenth century French writer, Paule Arene. The return from America, with or without that fortune has been a theme in European literature for a century and more! Blindness too has recurred as a story theme, with Ernest Bramah, in the nineteen twenties creating the blind detective, Max Carrados.

Threads of thought, imagination, and story weave themselves through the years, binding the storytellers, readers and listeners of many times and cultures into our common humanity.

Sad news last week of the demise of ‘Thresholds’ the longly named International Post Graduate Short Story Forum, where all aspects of the short story genre(s) could be promoted, discussed, dissected and debated. (One could have even written about the difference between discussing and debating if the need had arisen I suspect.)

Lorree Westron, Vicki Heath, David Ashton and others must have put in hours of work to bring this vast ship of knowledge and opinion to our screen, from amateurs like myself and from professionals like others! What a ride over the last eight years: a prompt to thought, revision, reaction, and interaction. (I’ll mix my metaphors, you make your own cocktails)

And, for us all, a place to read and write about the ‘baby sister’ of the novel (irony intended)

What I especially valued was the chance to look back over the genre to forgotten writers and to rub their shoulders with those of today’s practitioners.

But what to do with the essays now? There are lots of outlets for essays, but I can’t think of one that would be so inclusive, catholic (small c), and welcoming: one that would let you come in as yourself, and be yourself, without having to become part of someone’s club, class, team, or political identity. Thresholds seemed to me to be the perfect meeting ground, the open space into which all might venture and be ‘heard’, without being dragooned into anybody’s army, without being tarred by any brush but their own.

I can’t see another niche like that anywhere in our identity-ridden world.

So, for the time being I’ll have to use the blog, but suddenly my world seems a much lonelier, emptier, and more distant place.

The cover picture for this collection of 49 short stories, flash fictions and monologues was the last photograph I took with my Olympus digital camera. It was taken on Lindisfarne, and after I’d taken it I put the camera in the pocket of my waterproof jacket, because, as you can see from the picture, it was threatening rain. The rain came, heavily, and the jacket was waterproof! So was the pocket.

But the zipper wasn’t and let the rain in. When I came to retrieve camera it was sitting in about an inch of cold water. So much for my Olympus; but at least the SD card came out with the pictures intact, and I thought this one might resonate with the story Haven, one of the flash fictions inside. It might even have nudged (rather than inspired) me towards the story.

The title story, full title, Eight Frames for Rosie Wreay, is one of those compilation stories, in this case of eight parts, which unwind in reverse order the life of the eponymous heroine. There are also two sets of ten flash fictions, grouped as Final Accounts, and Men. Readers of the blog might have picked up on the fact that I don’t view the ‘flash fiction’ as a particular type of story, but rather a story that just happens to fit into whatever word count has been decided on. These flashes, I think, all worked within a 500 word limit! Two of them marked a change point for me, in the way I tackled stories, though it might not show from a reader’s perspective!

Ten longer stories follow, comic ghosts stories, stories of isolation and reconciliation: stories I’m passing on rather than inventing, but many years after they came to me.

The collection also includes a half dozen Kowalski stories, but these, not in the old grump’s own voice, but those of his exasperated spouse, Mildred. Completing the collection are three separate tales under the heading, Anomalies, because I don’t know where else to put ’em!

OS&RW was published in 2016, the third in an ongoing series of collected short stories.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

 

One of the pleasures of finding a writer of whom you’ve never heard is that you get to read them without prejudice, or at least without the prejudice of other’s opinions on them.

I had such good fortune at the weekend, picking up a copy of a short story collection, Among The Quiet Folks, by John Moore. Moore (1907-1967) was an English writer who achieved widespread publication and, well, fame, in his lifetime, but who has faded into obscurity in the forty years since his death. There are articles about him on the web though, by the Independent, Bloomsbury, and of course Wikipedia among others.

He was known as a writer of rural England, which for me, demands comparison with writers like Bates, Pritchard, and Mann. Among The Quiet Folks was first published in America in the year of his death, and seems to be a ‘catch-all’ collection, drawing on short stories published, and written over several decades of his writing life. It’s not given in the Wicki bibliography, but one of the stories within, is the title story of a 1953 collection. Other stories draw their ideas from WWI, and at least one story is set at a time when ‘even’ factory workers get ‘twelve pounds a week’ and have television… which must put it in the early sixties for a guess!

My uninfluenced first impressions were that the stories were good, but that his attitudes were quite reactionary, especially in respect of war, psychology, and, curiously enough, organics. Consistently though, reading about him, I was told not to think he was ‘nostalgic’, which hadn’t crossed my mind. He does have that survival of the reddest in tooth and claw, which isn’t the sort of ‘fittest’, I think, that Darwin actually meant, but which tars writers of rural England from time to time (and rural Britain, come to that).

Reddest and clawiest is the story Elehog, about an orphaned baby hedgehog that ‘reminded one somewhat of a miniature elephant’.  Brought up by the narrator, this innocent is spoiled, but not taught to look out for itself, with fatal consequences, which the same narrator (ignoring, or overlooking the lack of a hedgehoggy education) then uses as a metaphor for ‘the gentle creatures who practise the philosophy of live and let live’. Set towards the end of the collection, I wonder if this reflects the author’s view of the post-war Britain I grew up in? The very last story, Vive la Difference’ is a faux risqué tale about a prudish woman chopping off the relevant protuberances on two pieces of topiary, representing nudes, male and female, in her neighbour’s garden. Of all the stories, it seemed to me the most dated, a pale reflection of the swinging sixties, in which I presume it was written.

There is one story that I found strikingly good. This was that title story from the 1953 collection: Tiger, Tiger. Echoing Blake’s title, but not his spelling, it’s an epic, archetypal story, set in Andalusia, where a young boy, stolen by a gypsy almost at birth, is sent on a mission by a dying man. As an eight year old child, Emilio must cross the city to Baldomero’s wine-shop and buy the ageing and sick Jose a bottle of ‘his second best rioja’. He has never before left the security of the gypsy woman’s back yard, but feels bound to the old man, who has told him many stories of the Malayan jungle.

Emilio’s adventures – being robbed, beaten, put to work as a pimp by the girls in a brothel – lead to him eventually stealing a bottle, and surviving a political riot. The bottle turns out to be brandy, not Rioja, and revives the old storyteller. What makes this story more than just its events, is the way the boy’s adventures parallel, and are seen by him to parallel, the dangers of the jungle in the old man’s stories. The men, and women, in the story, he sees, are animals in a jungle of their own.

The sentiments expressed is similar to that of other stories, but the handling of them lifts the tale above the mere assertion of the author’s beliefs. Another story makes assertion of the narrator’s beliefs so strongly that I wonder if the author is gently satirizing him – and even on a second reading I’m not convinced he is! This is Non compost mentis, where the narrator rants about his late aunt’s obsession with compost, and ridicules her organic principles. Written at a time when the organic movement was seen as cranky, it’s hard to judge how we are meant to take it, but the story is funny enough either way. As is Mr Catesby Brings it Off, in which a country vet flirts with a client’s much younger partner, who has been passed off as his daughter, but finds himself being manoeuvred by the old man into marrying her (so that he can leave his estate to his actual daughter!). It’s a clever, convoluted little tale.

Stark, sparse and chillingly believable, though, is The Proof, where a woman under interrogation in a witch trial, is watched for the arrival of her ‘familiar’. She is innocent, but her cat has not been fed for hours, and hears her voice….

Many writers fall into obscurity after their deaths. Some are discovered decades later, and win fame (usually again), but I would be surprised if this happened to Moore, and, to be honest, disappointed. His stories are well written and quite readable, but so are many others not worth a third reading. It’s what he has to say, it seemed to me, that leaves this writer in obscurity. The Alan Sutton collection was reprinted in 1984, and 1986. Perhaps that was the attempt at his revival. That was a low point for short stories, I suspect, when even the concept of ‘story’ was being fashionably dismissed and stories were becoming, for the ‘ordinary’ – whatever that means – reader, as boring as poetry had become a little earlier. Now that the short story is booming again, Moore might catch our interest for a while, but the limits of his vision make me wonder if he will, or should, hold it.