Friday, March 13, 2015

13 short stories for Friday the 13th

I don't believe in the Friday the 13th superstition or that 13 is an unlucky number, but I thought I'd have some fun with today's date (especially because this weekend it's the Ides of March too!).

So here are a bunch of stories that are dark, disturbing, or otherwise strange, exploring fears and tragedies. The characters might be unlucky. They might also work to make themselves unlucky.


Title: The Changeling
Author: A.S. Byatt (Antonia Susan Duffy)
Where I Read It: Sugar and Other Stories

I recently fell in love with Byatt's writing.

In "The Changeling," the main character, Josephine, is an author. Years ago, she wrote a novel about a boy who had retreated among the pipes in his boarding school's boiler room and lived in isolation. Now, she's temporarily opened her home to a troubled boy who is much like the character she brought to life in her novel. He's even read her novel and identifies with the character he reminds her of.

This is a chilling story, but not for obvious reasons - you might think the boy is a ghost, come to haunt Josephine, but Josephine is the one to watch out for in "The Changeling." She's profoundly closed-off and needs a guarded, controlled environment to live and work, while at the same time portraying herself as a welcoming person with an open home. She has the opportunity to offer understanding in this story, maybe guidance, but she withholds it at a critical point, even as she's positioned herself as a mother figure to lost boys.

She is at war with herself and with irrational fear; when she writes she's waging battle and exercising control. She needs mastery over her characters and the fears that dominate their lives (her own fears). Now this boy shows up in the form of a character she's already contained to paper. How dare he assume an existence of his own?

Title: The Clairvoyant
Author: Karel Čapek
Translator: Norma Comrada
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

A story with a clever twist. A prosecutor for a murder case consults with "the clairvoyant," a man who can supposedly read people's characters through their handwriting. He shows this man a document with the alleged murderer's handwriting. What conclusions does the clairvoyant reach? Overzealous prosecutors can also commit murder, though with the sanction of the law.

Title: Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage
Author: Seanan McGuire
Where I Read It: Other Worlds Than These

Crystal Halloway has spent her childhood slipping through a passage to another world, where she's made friends, battled enemies, and become a legendary adventurer. But she's getting older now. Will she still be able to cross between worlds?

This is a painful story, and it gets at one reason people write stories - to reclaim what's lost when we're sundered from childhood. Even if it's only an echo of the imaginative riches we once had. (Can it be more than an echo? It doesn't all have to be lost, does it?)

Title: A Dark Night
Author: Edward P. Jones
Where I Read It: Breaking Into Print

"The story was like some incantation she had to utter - to herself and to others - as if to renew the importance of that night, as if time itself - like years of water falling on rocks - was wearing down the meaning and reality of the night; and only by telling the story again and again could she keep alive that meaning."
Older women gathered in an apartment are waiting for a reverend to come speak with them. He doesn't show up, but they talk in the meantime about faith and death.

Two of the women don't get along, for reasons that aren't clear and, in the context of the story, not important. They're secretly united by a common fear. There are fears that bring people together even when they dislike each other, and a need for reassurance in the middle of the night can outweigh pride. Daytime pettiness stops mattering in the dark.

An interesting contrast between the two women - one of them speaks of her faith in generalities, while the other shares a story about the mystery and wretchedness of a sudden death that claimed several family members all at once. Of the two, which one is in greater need of comfort from the other?

Title: Désirée's Baby
Author: Kate Chopin
Where I Read It: The Oxford Book of the American South

The story explores malignant obsessions with race, when a husband in the south comes to believe that his wife has a mixed race background. The story culminates in more than one tragedy. One thing it shows beautifully is how bigotry often (maybe always) goes hand-in-hand with fear and self-loathing, whether a bigoted person realizes this or not.

Title: Gryphon
Author: Charles Baxter
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

This is an interesting take on the odd substitute teacher tale, where the regular uninspired teacher gets replaced for a short while by someone who's eccentric, imaginative, and knowledgeable beyond the curriculum.

Here, the substitute teacher is a woman who plays at the limits of knowledge. She pushes the students (in late elementary school, from what I remember) to question what's true and struggle with the ground as it shifts beneath them. She seems wry and bitter, maybe damaged, like a mythical creature with broken wings.

The students are used to a style of teaching that builds up protections in their mind against uncertainty. Teaching is a tidying of the mind. But what if a teacher refuses to stay on the neat paths to knowledge? Granted, the substitute doesn't entirely ignore the lesson plans the regular teacher leaves behind. But she brings some frightening disorder into the classroom. She makes the kids confront the terrifying unknown. How much can they (or should they) handle?

Title: Jordan Wellington Lint
Author: C. Ware (Chris Ware)
Where I Read It: The Book of Other People

This is a graphic short story, a comic showing the development of a boy from birth to early adolescence. I liked the start especially, how the illustrations try to capture the world through a baby's eyes with all the puzzling shapes and distortions - the mother's arms and face like the whole world.

It then continues through a childhood where abuse and tragedy occurring off-screen or on the borders of the drawings chip through the child's mind. A discussion in another room can resonate like thunder. A wedding can take place in the corner of a child's eye as he picks away at the skin on one of his fingers, channeling the wild pain he feels towards that one small wound on the outside.

Title: October in the Chair
Author: Neil Gaiman
Where I Read It: Fragile Things

The story opens with an idea I like very much - the months of the year are gathered round a campfire. Each has a different personality, and this time October takes a turn telling a story.

It's an eerie twist on a childhood friendship story. A miserable boy, bullied by his popular older brothers, runs away from home. He packs the way a young child would, with only scant supplies. As night falls, he finds himself in the company of another boy called "Dearly," and they hang out together. Nearby, there's a chilling farmhouse "half tumbled-down and unpleasant-looking," and who knows what's in it? Would you want to find out?

The story alternates between a strange warmth and a profound chill. Like autumn.

Title: Other People
Author: Neil Gaiman
Where I Read It: Fragile Things

Gaiman's stories are made for this kind of list. "Other People" reminded me of a conversation I had years ago about what the afterlife might be like, and I wondered if the first thing that happens is that you watch your life from start to end, only this time with a complete understanding of everything you've done.

That isn't exactly what happens in "Other People," but still, it reminded me. The story depicts a man getting punished in hell by a demon. First there's physical torture, then the psychological torture of reviewing life with self-knowledge (no hiding behind deception and denial). And then there's a final twist that makes this story extra shivery.

Title: The Prophetess
Author: Njabulo S. Ndebele
Where I Read It: The Anchor Book of Modern African Stories

The story explores the power of superstitions and beliefs.

A boy gets sent to a woman considered a prophetess; she might give him some water she's blessed, and which he can use to help treat his sick mother. His encounter with the prophetess is at once shrouded in mystery and full of sharp, mundane details, like obvious signs of the woman's poor health. (Is she truly powerful, or sick, or both?)

On a bus ride, passengers argue about the reputation of the prophetess, with some denouncing her as a fraud while others either believe in her or are too afraid to speak against her, on the chance that she truly is powerful. On his way home, the boy comes across a group of older kids, including an older boy trying to prove that he really did score with a desirable girl; the other kids believing him is at least as important to him as his sexual exploits. Even if he didn't have sex with her, he could be known as someone who did; in ways that are important to him, it will have become a fact, and he might be able to enjoy the benefits of this belief and act as if it's true.

What people act as if they believe, even when they're not sure it's true or know it's false, gives them a measure of security and sense of control. When enough people believe or at least act as if something is true, to what extent does it become true?

Title: Rock Springs
Author: Richard Ford
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

A man who is a petty criminal is on the run. He has a daughter and a girlfriend. He has a dog. He has enough of the elements of a typical stable life to tease him with the hope of more. In the mean time, he and his daughter, girlfriend, and dog are in a stolen car; he needs to figure out how to change cars and shake off the police.

His girlfriend can leave, if she wants. Take a bus and not look back. But he's stuck in his own life. He can't run away from himself or his kid, or wait for his problems to go away. When did it all begin anyway, this life? Every decision he makes requires careful calculation; at the same time, his life feels out of control. He can't plan for anything long-term. The story beautifully shows the human heart in the thief, and the careful plotting in the midst of chaos.

Title: Videotape
Author: Don DeLillo
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

The story centers on a piece of footage taken by a girl from the backseat of a car with a video camera. The girl was playing around, pointing her camera out the back window at the driver behind her, who waves at her. It's an unremarkable piece of footage, until this driver gets shot, right on camera.

Had the girl's camera pointed in another direction, maybe she would have gotten footage of the killer too. (Police have called the murder suspect the Texas Highway Killer.) But the story doesn't concern itself with the investigation of the serial murderer. It's all about the videotape - how chance and coincidence play out, and how people watch the footage with morbid fascination; the ordinary moments on the tape become riveting because they're a man's last moments, and they could have been anyone's last moments.

Title: You're Ugly, Too
Author: Lorrie Moore
Where I Read It: The Granta Book of the American Short Story

I didn't even really like this story, but it doesn't matter. It's a prickly, at times funny, unlikeable story full of caricaturish people, and it stuck with me.

The author makes the main character a mess - a neurotic academic whose jokes and interior monologues keep her at a distance from everyone. Not that this is a great loss, considering the other characters in the story, including a man at a Halloween party who dresses up as a misshapen middle-aged woman (I don't remember the details, but it struck me that everyone at the party was dressed up as something they'd like to avoid).

No one is at ease in their own skin. The main character scoffs at the possible roles people have set out for her to step into - passive perpetually cheerful girlfriend, passive perpetually cheerful female professor. What options does someone with her personality have? Whether Moore intended it or not, I think "You're Ugly, Too" also plays around with and mocks all those 30-something-single-woman-Bridget-Jones-type stories; it has some morbid fun with the idea of the spinster who's in need of polishing and coupledom.

[Edited April 2015]