Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Every Angel Is Terrifying and Tiger in the Snow

Collection: Tails of Wonder and Imagination: Cat Stories
Editor: Ellen Datlow

Title: Every Angel Is Terrifying
Author: John Kessel

Kessel wrote this story as a sequel to Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find. The title, "Every Angel Is Terrifying," is taken from the "First Duino Elegy" by Rilke.

The main character is the murderer from O'Connor's story, and he moves through this one like a fallen angel bringing devastation to his little corner of the world. He recoils from what's beautiful, maybe because it overwhelms him, and he can't trust it; it could be that he wants to destroy it before it destroys him.

Kessel makes excellent use of details; there's always something jarring and out of place, much like the fugitive himself who remains uneasy in his new life. Here he considers the room he's renting from a lovely landlady, Mrs. Graves (I don't think Kessel could have picked a name that foreshadows this lady's fate more obviously):
The room she rented him was twelve feet by twelve feet, with a single bed, a cherry veneer dresser, a wooden table and chair, a narrow closet, lace curtains on the window, and an old pineapple quilt on the bed. The air smelled sweet. On the wall opposite the bed was a picture in a dime store frame, of an empty rowboat floating in an angry gray ocean, the sky overcast, only a single shaft of sunlight in the distance from a sunset that was not in the picture.
At one point Mrs. Graves tells him, "Sometimes I wish I could live in the world of goodness. But this world is good enough."

For the fugitive it never is. He ensures it isn't, by choices he's made in the past and by the course he charts in the current story. Even if the rest of the world doesn't see him for what he is, he knows himself, doesn't he? No matter what resolutions he's made since the O'Connor story, he can't sustain faith in himself or understand the faith that others might place in him. Faith can be delusions or platitudes; how can it be trusted? It's relatively easy to destroy this kind of faith, isn't it? Especially when no one really sees him as he moves among them.

From what I remember, he comes across both as an adult in control, making his terrible choices, and as a helpless child knocked around by powerful external forces - for instance, by old murder victims avenging themselves on him. His eyes seek out omens that he thinks might tell him his fate; he's waiting to be led and transformed by something outside of him. Does he want someone to come along and lead him by the hand (or maybe just put an end to him once and for all)? Will he accept a human hand held out to him? Maybe he is waiting for a light or a truth that is more definitive than humanly possible - a light that will either fall on him in sure blessing or expose him harshly and damn him once and for all.

There's a sense of disorientation in the story, where as a reader you sometimes doubt what's real and what isn't; the fugitive is very much apart from everything around him, and he can't handle uncertainty. I liked the general atmosphere of the story and how, similar to O'Connor's story, even mundane details can raise goosebumps.

(And if you're wondering why "Every Angel is Terrifying" showed up in a book of cat stories, all I'll say is that there is a cat, spilling over from O'Connor's story.)

Title: Tiger in the Snow
Author: Daniel Wynn Barber

This turned out to be a wrenching story. It closes in around you as you read; you slowly realize what's happening, and at that point you can't look away - you need to stare it in the face.

The story begins with Justin, a young boy (two years shy of Junior High), visiting his best friend Steve's house. Usually they have so much fun together but this time he isn't invited to sleep over for the night. He'll have to walk home through the snow.

What he fears isn't walking home on a snowy night, but the thought of a tiger lying in wait for him - a white Siberian tiger that blends in with both the snow and the shadows. He knows it's a ridiculous fear (his father once told him so) but he can't shake it off especially when his quiet neighborhood seems so different in the snow.

But tonight the usually comfortable features seemed alien and warped out of reality under the snow, and finding himself in this strange white landscape, Justin suddenly felt the tiger-fear return. It bobbed up and down within him until he could almost feel the tiger's nearness, so close that the hot jungle breath seemed to huff against his cheek.

The conversation at the end of the story is terrible and gentle. ("Yes... I thought it was you. You've been following me all my life, haven't you?")


[Edited: 1/2015]

Other recommended stories from this collection include: Coyote Peyote by Carole Nelson Douglas, Puss-Cat by Reggie Oliver, The White Cat by Joyce Carol Oates, Gordon the Self-Made Cat by Peter S. Beagle, and Guardians by George R.R. Martin.