52 Stories #27-29: Three Locked-Room Mysteries!

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This week, I wanted to take a few minutes to discuss briefly 3 “locked-room” mysteries I read. In basic terms, a “locked-room” mystery is exactly what it sounds like: a crime (usually a murder, but sometimes a theft) takes place in a room that appears to be locked from the inside or otherwise inaccessible, and it’s up to the clever sleuth (or in some cases, observant travelling salesman?) to discover who is responsible and how the crime was committed.

I’ll confess that my commentary is going to be pretty light this time–not because I enjoyed the stories any less than others, but because, by this point, I think we’re familiar with the ins and outs of mystery stories. Also, there isn’t a great deal of subtext, so these were easy, quick, fun reads.

All three of today’s tales came from Otto Penzler’s Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, borrowed from my local library. This volume is HUGE, so if this type of story is your bag, you should definitely pick it up. (Penzler also edited a volume of stories about villains and rogues, which I’ll mention in a later post!) I appreciated the fact that this collection was actually organized by crime committed and/or weapon used, which is a neat approach.

Okay, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Let’s pop open the lock and dive in!

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#27: “The Murders at the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)

The Premise

The brilliant C. Auguste Dupin involves himself in the investigation of a grisly murder scene to repay a service performed by the man accused of the crime.

The Pay-off

I both enjoyed and endured this story. It was written nearly 50 years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first published “A Study in Scarlet,” and it’s undeniably how much ACD borrowed/stole from Poe’s 3 “Dupin” stories. While the set-up in this story was pure Sherlockian goodness, the ending left…well, a LOT to be desired. Nevertheless, without Dupin, we would likely not have a Holmes (or at least not one in any way recognizable). For that, I am very grateful.

The Takeaways

Here are some story observations for your consideration–and spoilers forthcoming, so go find the story for yourself if you have any interest in reading a proto-Sherlock mystery.

  • Poe spends several hundred words describing the power of deductive reasoning (or as Poe described it, “ratiocination,” the creative imagination and logical prowess that Dupin employs to work out the mystery). The miniature essay itself was heavy reading but instructive–I had to remind myself that this narration/prologue was the invention of Poe, instead of a nonfiction treatise by an actual investigative professional. That alone is noteworthy.
  • If you’re at all familiar with Doyle’s tropes, this story feels paint-by-numbers, to the point at which you begin to resent Doyle’s acclaim for what is transparently a ripped-off character. (Hold that ire a moment, reader.) The narrator is an anonymous “Watson” type who meets the Detective at the library, where they are seeking the same book and become friends. Technically, Dupin isn’t a detective but a former man of means whose family fell on hard times. He does a bit of “Sherlocking” early on, appearing to be able to read his friend’s thoughts before explaining in a perfectly logical way how he came to that conclusion. You almost don’t even need to read this first section of the narrative; just imagine a Holmes and Watson meet-cute and you’ve got it nailed.
  • The mystery presents itself: gruesome murders, shouting in foreign tongues, a locked room. Much of the story’s length is spent in newspaper accounts of incredible and grisly detail of the crime, or detailed recounting of the witness statements (must have been the late edition of the Exposition Times). Dupin involves himself in the case because he owes one of the suspects a favor. He’s not a detective; he’s just smart.
  • The path to the resolution is copied wholesale in Doyle’s stories: interviews, latching on to a random-seeming detail, an action by the “detective” that makes no sense in the moment but eventually becomes the spring to set off the trap for the guilty party.
  • Aaaaaaaand it’s an orangutan. That’s the killer: an orangutan. I nearly dropped the book at this point. The resolution is so silly, so stupid, you could almost wonder if this was meant to be a farce. However, this is where my opinion of the Dupin-Sherlock connection changed. In the end, it isn’t merely that Doyle ripped off Poe wholesale (though he very, very much did). Doyle took the parts of the Dupin stories that worked and improved them substantially. The brilliant hero *should* be a detective. The sidekick isn’t just a cipher, but an actual character whose history can play into the story. Don’t lead off with a treatise on the detective’s methods; show rather than tell. Flesh out the Detective’s story a bit more. Give just enough exposition to give the characters something to do and then let them dig. Doyle takes the formula and remixes it to create literary magic.

It’s undeniable that without Dupin, the world would have missed out on Sherlock Holmes. But it should be equally without question that, without the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the next generation’s “August Dupin” would have quickly faded from memory, rather than having the cultural staying power that he still enjoys.

In summary, good writers steal ideas; truly great writers steal and masterfully improve ideas.

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#28: “The Dream” by Agatha Christie

The Premise

The venerable Hercule Poirot is summoned to meet an eccentric tycoon, who tells of a recurring dream of suicide–a dream that comes true the next day.

The Pay-off

Until now, my familiarity with Hercule Poirot has been mostly the book-length mysteries (or the Masterpiece Theater teleplays, which I suspect may be based on shorter works). This bite-sized Poirot mystery works, but feels very quick and thin. In my experience, Poirot needs time to chew on a puzzle before working it out. This story was almost over before it began, and while the ending was satisfactory, it wasn’t resonant.

The Takeaways

A few scattered thoughts on this one (from memory, since I failed to take notes):

  • I have to admit, as I read this story, I kept thinking back to one of the Thin Man films (either the second or the third), in which Nick Charles is threatened by a man who has dreams of his enemies dying in horrible ways, but always has an alibi when one of them dies. (Sidenote: if you’ve never watched the Thin Man movies [the original being an adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel], I cannot recommend them strongly enough. Truly great stories, both as detective/mystery stories and as 1930’s comedies. Nick and Nora Charles are one of my all-time favorite screen couples, and it’s just a delight to watch them solve cases together.)
  • A point in the story’s favor is that Christie makes it easy for the reader to accept everything as presented at first. The whole situation feels a bit unusual, and the author noting that even Poirot is bemused by some of the theatricality helps the reader ease in and take things as they come.
  • I think what I like best about Poirot stories is that you can watch him slowly work out the answer to the mystery. He’s methodical, asking careful questions and keeping his cards close to his vest. That’s where the short story length starts to lose me as a reader. It happens so quickly, there doesn’t seem to be time for Poirot to figure the mystery out. On the other hand, the list of suspects is short, and the action and dialogue are pretty pared down, so it suits the format better.

In the end, the puzzle is solved and the death is proven to be murder, not suicide. Some of the details seemed like a bit of stretch, but the main twist worked for me. I think I’d like to read more of Christie’s shorter Poirot tales before making a decision about whether or not I prefer the novel-length to the short-story format. It’s hard to judge them all by just reading one.

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#29: “The Poisoned Dow ’08” by Dorothy Sayers

The Premise

A travelling salesman revisits a former customer to discover his wares may have been involved in the man’s murder.

The Pay-off

This one…worked, I suppose. I think I had the most trouble connecting because the protagonist was a random door-to-door salesman. It was tricky to get a bead on his character, so when he provided perceptive commentary and insight, I was more confused than intrigued.

The Takeaways

A few comments on this one as well, bereft of detail but capturing the essence:

  • As I noted, the main character seems to be a one-off (and if I’m wrong, you Sayers fans should certainly correct me in the comments!), providing no connection points for the reader. While the level of “Sherlocking” this character does is kept to a minimum (and makes sense, given his particular expertise), it just seems out of place. The police inspectors give him entirely too much leeway in these conversations, making the whole thing feel a bit convenient and taking me out of the moment.
  • The resolution does seem a bit rushed and was tricky to visualize as I read. The final clue that the salesman says tipped him off still sailed right past me, even upon re-reading his explanation. The whole venture seems a bit rushed, as if Sayers had a good idea but was murky on the details and just wanted to push through to the end. While there’s something to be said for trimming unnecessary detail down to the bare bones of the plot, the atmosphere and location seemed like sketches rather than settings.
  • If I had my druthers, a much stronger ending might have been for the salesman to actually have been the killer, who uses his quick thinking and on-the-spot explanations to dispel the detective’s suspicions and put him on the wrong track. Obviously, that’s a bit off-brand for Sayers, from what I know of her work. Nevertheless, I would have found that a bit more interesting.

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That’s all I’ve got for you this week. Check back tomorrow for either a #FridayFeed post or perhaps some current-events commentary (depending on how feisty I feel).

Your Turn: What’s your favorite mystery short story? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #25-26: Two Stories I Liked More than I Honestly Expected To.

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Welcome back to #52Stories, in which I examine 52 short stories to discover what makes them resonate with readers. Today, I’ll be covering 2 stories that I put off reading for a long time–as in, I had the library books physically on my shelf for almost 2 months before finally reading them. As it turned out, I enjoyed both and look forward to discussing them with you!

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#25: “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel (1985)

(recommended by John Reid on the Geek Out Loud Facebook page)

The Pitch

A woman visits her best friend at the end of a fatal illness.

The Payoff

It took me a couple of tries to get through this one, to be honest. The first time, I don’t think I was in the right headspace to read this story, which addresses a serious subject much the way its protagonist tries to–with humor, distraction, and avoidance. Once I was able to make myself sit down and push through, I came away unexpectedly moved and a bit heavy-hearted. While it’s not a story I would recommend easily, it was intriguing and instructive.

The Takeaways

Spoilers from here onward, gang:

  • In this story, the protagonist (whose name is never mentioned?) is the “best friend” of a woman dying of a fatal illness (presumably cancer) in a California hospital. It  seems the women have drifted apart, especially in the early stages of the dying woman’s illness, but the protagonist has finally arrived to bear witness to the final stages of her friend’s life. The interactions between these women provide insight into their relationship–while there was familiarity and even love, it seems clear that they didn’t get into deep waters together. As such, facing the spectre of death, they deal with it by avoiding it–exchanging trivia, watching sitcoms, being generally flippant about the impending end. I think, in a sense, that’s how a lot of people face death–by ignoring it or cracking jokes as long as possible.
  • There is mention of the stages of grief, and the fact that there is no “resurrection” stage. This weighed heavy on me, because it belies a worldview that holds no hope past the grave. I don’t know anything about the author’s own beliefs, but for her characters, there is only the inevitability of the end, and their best efforts to ignore it are simply whistling past the graveyard.
  • The story itself is written in a series of vignettes and brief exchanges, snapshots over the course of a few days, glimpses of the thoughts and feelings of these two characters. There’s something to be said about this approach, especially when you’re telling a story that takes place over several similar days. This is a way to hit the “highlights” and keep things moving through the narrative, which I found to be an effective approach.
  • The protagonist leaves at one point, deciding she really can’t be around for the end, much to the anger and hurt of the dying woman. Later, the protagonist says that she might tell the story differently in the future, essentially “rewriting” her narrative to say she stayed faithfully, and no one would know the difference. I liked this insight into the character and her desire to rewrite her regrets.
  • Throughout the story, there’s a running anecdote about a monkey that learned sign-language.  The final few paragraphs concludes this running story with a gut-punch of an ending. Hempel sets this up nicely as a way to indirectly reflect the grief that her character dare not express even to herself. While this approach can be done ham-handedly, there’s a lightness of touch that Hempel employs here, which lends it much more of an impact.

In the final tally, I found this to be a well-written story that frustrated and saddened me in the ways the author intends–and thus was very effective.

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#26: “The Branch Way of Doing” by Wendell Berry

(Berry was recommended by @TeeCeePal on Twitter, but I couldn’t find the exact story collection she named. I hope this will do.)

The Pitch

The son of a rambler becomes the patriarch of a very particular kind of family.

The Payoff

I’d only read a little bit of Berry’s poetry before reading this story, but my, his writing sings. I can see why so many people rave about his work. This story isn’t so much driven by plot as it is a peek into a family history that feels warm and inviting and familiar. Frankly, I wish I could hear more about the lives of these characters, which is the best thing you could ask from a short story, right?

The Takeaways

While the story isn’t humorous as such, there’s a bit of the folklorist-historian in its telling, recalling Garrison Keillor or Will Rogers. You get a clear and firm sense of middle America and its rich history and deep roots. Obviously, this is woven into the the very fiber of the tale; it’s part of a collection of poetry called Roots to the Earth that celebrates the American farmer and farming culture. What I’m getting at is that the story is rich and full, like strong coffee and dark soil, and just as inviting.

The title refers to the culture that Danny Branch establishes in his family, a culture that is endemic of mid-20th-century America: the individualism, frugality, neighborliness, and resourcefulness of the generation that lived through the Great Depression. The Branch’s represent a particular mindset that rejects the flashy and expensive for what is trusted, true, and traditional. In an age like ours that is screen-obsessed and noise-driven, this glimpse of a simpler time and place feels refreshing, if not a bit inspiring.

The only critique (and you really can’t call it that) I have of the story is that it seems to be two or three stories in one. The first section focuses on Danny Branch’s father, Burley Coulter, and his relationship with Danny and the other people in the community. The story then transitions to Danny as an adult and how he and his wife built their family culture and raised their children. The final section of the story (about Danny’s son and his “new” car) then feels a bit tacked on–as if it weren’t so much an illustration of the Branch way of doing as it is a somewhat-related anecdote. While all 3 parts are arguably justified and obviously interesting, I wonder if this instead could have been the seeds of a collection of stories about this family. (I, for one, would welcome such a revision.)

That’s all I want to say, so as to avoid giving much else away. I’m not sure why I was hesitant to read this one, but I’m glad I eventually did. Berry is a wordsmith with a well-deserved reputation, and “The Branch Way of Doing” is a sterling example of that.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #24: “A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Oh my goodness, I’m excited to talk to you about today’s #52Stories selection. This tale by Raymond Carver from his 1983 collection Cathedral was recommended by John Reid over at the GOLiverse Facebook page. What a great selection. Very grateful for this.

Let’s get into it!

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The Pitch

A family’s birthday plans are suddenly altered by an accident.

The Payoff

If you’ve never read this story, I don’t want to say too much here that would spoil it for you. Carver provides a glimpse into the souls of his main characters and draws you into their confusion and pain. This story about the fear and grief of a parent was deeply moving in a way I wasn’t expecting, and the bittersweet ending just crushed me in the best way. It’s absolutely worth your time. Go find it and read it.

The Takeaways

I’m putting up the great big SPOILER WARNING tag here, because I don’t want to spoil your reading of the story. So, please forego the discussion below if you have any intention of reading this one!

Here we go:

  • First, let’s talk about the setting, or rather, the lack thereof. I didn’t pick up on any specific identifiers of place or time period, but the vibe I got was suburbs outside a mid-sized city (somewhere like Indianapolis or Pittsburgh), anytime from the 50’s to the 80’s. There are a few details that might help you zero in on a more specific era, but they’re understated enough that the story feels more timeless.
  • Ann’s contemplation of the baker’s abruptness with her sets up the end of the story nicely without being heavy-handed. I forgot about this detail until I read the story a second time. It’s subtle and effective.
  • I had to keep track of the passage of days in my notes. While Carver does indicate when each day passes, the sections in the hospital feel like a blur, and in my first reading I lost track of how many days had passed. Scotty dies only 2 days after the accident, but it feels like much longer–the reader waits anxiously along with the parents for something to change.
  • I found myself getting frustrated with Dr. Francis and the hospital staff as the story progressed. Obviously, Francis was constantly underselling the seriousness of Scotty’s injury, and there was a point at which I started feeling like this was injurious to the parents. At the same time, I had to remind myself that doctors don’t always know what’s happening, and that doctors and nurses work such long hours and see these tumultuous events happening all the time such that they become inured to it. On the other hand, the narrative is so effective that the reader begins to resent that the hospital staff isn’t more impacted by the Weiss family’s tragedy.
  • The conversation between Ann and Franklin’s parents demonstrates that the Weiss’s are not the only ones in that building facing the pain of loss. It’s a good reminder from Carver that there are many families, each of whose stories are powerful in their own right. Grief can isolate us, making us feel as if we’re the only hurting people in the world, when the reality is there are hurts all around us (as the end of the story also demonstrates).
  • I loved the moment when Ann and Howard each admitted that they had been praying, as if they were afraid that it would sound silly to the other. Carver then comments that Ann realizes that Howard is in this with her, and it makes her grateful to be his wife. What a moving consideration of the isolating and yet uniting effects of grief.
  • The calls from the baker are frustrating and sad. The reader immediately realizes what’s going on, but there’s no way for Howard or even Ann to understand the calls in context. It becomes another layer of tragedy, when they start trying to assign meaning to these seemingly random and cruel prank calls, even wondering if the hit-and-run driver was taunting them. All they can see is the pit of worry and grief they are dwelling in, and it isn’t until after the worst happens that they are able to remember what happened before Monday morning.
  • Scotty’s death was brutal to read as a parent. I just can’t even imagine.
  • Carver takes time to describe in effective detail how each parent expresses their grief. Even though we have minimal description of their lives before this story, they still feel like fully-orbed characters.
  • Ann’s confession that she wants to kill the prank caller is a bold choice. Carver risks alienating the reader if the statement sounds too melodramatic, but the way she says this, graphically but not sensationally, feels authentic.
  • The climax of the story really is when Ann realizes the caller is the baker, and they go to confront him. They both realize that he couldn’t have known about Scotty’s death, but they need someone to blame, someone to receive their anger. However, once they lay out their anger toward the baker, the atmosphere changes, and I think it has everything to do with how the baker responds. This self-admittedly abrupt and unsympathetic man sees the anguish and confusion in these two people, and he chooses to be empathetic instead of defensive. He apologizes for his demeanor and poor communication, and asks them to sit at his table. This is both reconciliation and condolence.
  • The baker delivers the title of the story in a line that hit my heart and stayed there: “You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this.” He offers them coffee and cinnamon rolls, but more than that, he shows them that they have to push through the deep grief that threatens to overwhelm them.  His kitchen table becomes a refuge to Howard and Ann. He later offers them more to eat, saying, “There’s more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There’s all the rolls in the world in here.” The baker is able to open up as well, confessing his own hurt and loneliness and finding a sympathetic ear in this couple.
  • The final line of the story: “They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.” A beautiful and hopeful ending to an emotionally draining story.
  • All in all, this was a masterpiece. Carver is able to flesh out character and motivation with minimal exposition, demonstrating “show, don’t tell” to its fullest extent. There’s an authenticity to the dialogue and thoughts of these characters, which makes their heartache that much more affecting. The ending was unexpected. As soon as Scotty was hit by the car, I was hoping the “small, good thing” was that he would recover. In actuality, it was that kindness, compassion, and a shared table are powerful in helping to comfort broken hearts and encourage them to endure in the face of great loss.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #23: “The Go-Getter” by Peter B. Kyne

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Happy Wednesday, friends! Today’s #52Stories selection is actually a novella published back in 1921 that was recommended to me by my old pal Cory Robinson on Facebook. Was I sufficiently motivated by this inspiring tale? Let’s find out!

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The Pitch

A highly-motivated war veteran pursues a job in a rival corporation and faces unusual challenges to win his would-be CEO’s approval.

The Payoff

This novella is what you might classify as “fict-spirational” or, more plainly, didactic writing: a story that is meant to teach a specific lesson. The Go-Getter was around 60 pages long, in the edition I read, with another 25+ pages of commentary by the author on the various lessons the reader should take away. It was a quick read, rather plain and obvious in parts, but pleasant enough. I’m not sorry I read it, but it didn’t make much of an impact.

The Takeaways

So, what can we learn from Peter Kyne’s early-twentieth-century fable? Let’s find out:

  • The basic plot of the story can be boiled down to this: Cappy Ricks, the CEO of a multi-national lumber corporation, is discussing with his 2 trusted lieutenants his concerns about the head of their division in Shanghai, when a bright young man asks to see him. This salesman, Bill Peck, is a veteran of the Great War with physical disabilities resulting from combat, but his can-do attitude and refusal to take no for an answer impress Ricks, who decides to give him a job. He instructs his division head to give Peck the “skunk lumber” accounts, as a challenge to see if Peck is all talk or if he can follow-through. Once Peck bests those challenges, Ricks gives him one final challenge to test his mettle. The climax of the book is Peck’s frantic and somewhat humorous efforts to complete this impossible task–but at this point in the story, the ending is all but guaranteed.
  • It doesn’t take a graduate degree in English to pick up on the types and stock figures with which Kyne populates this story: the untrustworthy steward, the faithful follower with no confidence or initiative, the bitter middle manager, and of course our protagonist, the go-getter, Mr. Self-Motivated and Results-Oriented. The twenty-page recap of the lessons learned seems pretty unnecessary, but I wonder if part of my cynicism is that there have been an avalanche of business and productivity books written in the last 100 years, such that so much of this feels like old hat? Is this my chronological snobbery at work?
  • I guess the real question is, does it motivate the reader? And the answer is…sure? Maybe I’m not in the right reader for this type of motivational literature, though it’s funny that I have of late found myself drawn to books about self-improvement, productivity, and business/marketing skills. This one felt a bit hokey to me, but I don’t know if that’s a fair assessment. I think my problem is that this story was very paint-by-numbers, and from the moment Bill Peck walks in the door, you know he’ll end up with the Shanghai manager job. The ordeal of the Blue Vase was an entertaining, if circuitous, way of getting there, but it was no surprise at all when Ricks explains himself to Peck.
  • Maybe that’s the problem. The story was too obvious for its length. The Blue Vase adventure felt like a foregone conclusion. If there were a way to cut down on some of the unnecessary dialogue, or perhaps introduce different challenges for Peck to overcome, it wouldn’t have felt so rote. Also, Peck was too perfect of a protagonist to be a role model.

In the final summation, I think The Go-Getter is clearly a book of its era that suffers by comparison to other short stories as well as other inspirational business texts. Perhaps it should get more credit for being an early example of the genre, but that doesn’t save a straight-forward and predictable story from being much more than window dressing for the author’s moral lessons. It wasn’t a bad book, so I wouldn’t dissuade you from reading it. I’d just caution not to expect too much from it.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #22: “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Today’s #52Stories selection is a religious allegory/fable by arguably the greatest fantasy author of the 20th century, the architect of Middle Earth himself, J.R.R. Tolkien. (Thank you to Matthew Marks on the Goliverse Facebook page for the recommendation!)

So, does Tolkien’s genius extend to his short fiction? Let’s take a walk together and find out!

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The Pitch

A would-be painter struggles to finish his masterpiece before taking the long journey that awaits all flesh.

The Payoff

This one turned out differently than I expected! In a few theology books I’d read in the past, I came across summaries of this story, but those summaries (at least how I recall them) were quite different from how the story itself actually resolves. It seems that Tolkien, who was famously negative towards allegory, couldn’t help himself when writing this parable–and readers familiar with that other famous Inkling’s writing will see similarities. It’s a pleasant journey with a decidedly theological flavor, and definitely worth the trip.

The Takeaways

So what was it about “Leaf by Niggle” that I found so charming? Err, um, just–okay FINE, hang on a moment while I put down my writing… I really need to get back to that soon, but if you MUST know, let the Seurat-style spoilers (i.e. in “pointilist” prose) commence!

  • Note: Okay, so what follows ended up being essentially a summary of the full story with commentary. It’s longer than I had planned. I don’t normally like to summarize these stories in their entirety, but I just found this one so interesting and pleasant that I can’t help myself. So, again, if you haven’t read the story, the following will spoil everything for you. Please seek it out and read it on your own, and then come back. 
  • First paragraph: “There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go; indeed, the whole idea was distasteful to him, but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, be he did not hurry with his preparations.”  From the outset, the reader can see the obvious metaphor Tolkien establishes. The “journey” is referring to death–but much more than that, to the world-to-come. Niggle, like so many of us, knows it awaits him but does his best to busy himself with other things rather than prepare for the inevitable.
  • In the summaries I’d read before, Niggle was presented as someone who selflessly put aside his own desires to pour out for others. Yet, as it’s actually written, Niggle is like so many of us: frustrated by interruptions of his own plans, irritated by the thoughtlessness of others, yet softhearted enough to at least feel bad that he doesn’t do more to help. In this, I really appreciate how Tolkien doesn’t describe his main character as an alabaster saint. Niggle does indeed help others, but does so with grumbling, sighing, and some muttered curses. His heart, while somewhat tender, is not completely bent toward loving others. There is still some soul-work to do.
  • Niggle’s neighbor, Mr. Parish, is the greatest source of his distraction and frustration. Parish is a constant source of need, often requiring Niggle’s assistance due to his infirmities. He critiques Niggle’s failure to maintain his garden well, but yet ignores or secretly mocks Niggle’s paintings, which are the joy of his life. The fact that the neighbor is named “Parish” is noteworthy here, as a “parish” is also the word for a district that is under the care of a specific church and priest. I’m sure there are many in ministry who at times find their own “Parish” to be a source of criticism and neediness, with little thanks or praise. (Not me, certainly, but others, I’m sure…)
  • As his days run out, Niggle realizes that his great masterpiece is not going to be finished as he likes. His best laid plans have gone awry, and in the end, he embarks on a rain-soaked bicycle ride to get a doctor for Parish’s wife, knowing it may well cost him the last of his productivity. It does; Niggle “recovers” in time for the House Inspector to arrive and inform him he failed to help his neighbors properly with their house, and for the Driver to pick him up for his long journey.
    • Two notes here: I’m not sure if the House Inspector is meant to be metaphorical in the context of the story, but I’m inclined to think he is–a representative of the Law who weighs Niggle’s life and finds him wanting.
    • Also of note is that the Driver comments how little luggage Niggle has prepared for his expected-if-unplanned journey. All Niggle finds he has in the bag he grabbed are his paint box and sketchbook, representative of the thing he loved most. But he has failed to store up treasures for the life to come, and this will come back to haunt him.
  • Here’s where the story takes a sharp turn from what I was expecting: I had heard the story related that Niggle then arrives at his “destination” to find the perfect, beautiful Tree that he’d always been trying to paint but never could because he kept stopping to help others–in other words, his “masterpiece” is the life of service he lived.  But that’s not how it goes at all! (Could I have misread them so badly?) Instead, Niggle is taken to what he describes as a prison or work camp, where he is forced to labor for what seems like hundreds of years. In the context of the allegory, Niggle ends up in Purgatory!
  • In this purgatory, Niggle is left to his thoughts as he is force to do “work” that echoes the works he failed to do properly or speedily in life: digging holes (gardening) and building (repairing his and Parish’s house). This period of confinement results in regret over his failings as a neighbor. His heart softens to Parish’s natural infirmities and limitations. His past selfishness becomes a point of sorrow and repentance.
  • As Niggle’s “case” is reviewed by unseen Voices (which reminded me of conversation between the “angels” Joseph and Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life), it is noted that Niggle’s heart was in the right place but hadn’t functioned as it ought, and that his “head wasn’t screwed on properly.” Yet, despite being a “little man,” his sacrifice at the end stood in his favor, as does his current disposition toward Parish. Niggle graduates to the next level of purgatory. No longer confined to a prison, he is given stewardship of a house and property with a view of The Tree and The Mountains that had so filled his dreams and imaginings in life. This is Niggle’s do-over, in a sense–but he won’t be alone. Parish has made the journey and joined him. Now, Niggle and Parish become friends, and learn how to be good companions and neighbors as they share this place and build their adjacent cottages. Finally, the time comes for Niggle to move “further up and further in,” heading to the mountains (following a shepherd, it should be noted), while Parish waits at their pleasant plot of land (which comes to be called “Niggle’s Parish”) for his wife to join him.
  • The final scenes of the story provide a dual-ending. There’s a conversation on Earth between a school master and town councilor about Niggle’s estate being sold off and the pitiful legacy he left. (This section seemed a clever twist on the “Christmas Future” scenes of A Christmas Carol.) The greedy councilor is dismissive of Niggle’s “foolishness” but the teacher is taken by a fragment of Niggle’s painting, which he keeps and later displays in an art gallery: “Leaf, by Niggle.” Meanwhile, in the Other Place, “Niggle’s Parish” becomes a convalescent home for souls making the journey to the mountains, and it is noted that this caused the home’s namesakes to laugh until the mountains rang with their joy.

In the final tally, Tolkien’s religious parable is really about a man who struggles to value the things that matter most in this life and whose heart must be reshaped before receiving his final rest. Tolkien’s Catholicism shapes this narrative, as he takes Niggle through a few stages of “purging” before he is ready to ascend the Mountain of the Lord.

Even for Christians who don’t hold to this doctrine, the story is still a good reminder that, no matter what other plans or pursuits we have in this life, there are some things that matter most and have eternal impact. Our days on earth are limited, so if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, we should be about our Master’s business while there is yet daylight.

I was surprised by this story (and by its overtly Catholic nature) and enjoyed reading it very much. After reflecting on it, I find myself thinking about what I value most and how I can spend my days pursuing things with lasting impact. That alone makes this a worthwhile read.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #21: “The Picture in the House” by H.P. Lovecraft

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today’s #52Stories selection is my first real experience with the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, as I consider his 1921 story, “The Picture in the House.” The Lovecraft name has become synonymous with supernatural horror, and I was curious finally to explore his work for myself.

So, what did I think? Gird up your loins, dauntless reader, and proceed!

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The Pitch

A traveler takes refuge from a storm in what appears to be an abandoned house, only to find there is one inhabitant…and he’s hungry.

The Pay-off

I made the mistake of choosing a Lovecraft story that was conveniently located in a collection I had picked up to use for another story in this series, so I went ahead and read that one rather than searching out what might be considered his better/best work. At least, that’s what I hope, because if this story is considered one of Lovecraft’s better works, I’m fine with not reading anything else of his. Does that tell you what you need to know?

The Takeaways

Fair warning, adventurer—there be spoilers ahead. Take heed, lest ye

You know what, I’m just going to stop, because giving you spoilers might actually be doing you a favor by saving you the trouble of reading this.

Steel yourselves, brave the fell wind, and hark:

  • You can certainly credit Lovecraft with having a distinct style—even if that style is “15-year-old goth kid with a thesaurus and an axe to grind.” The sentences were belabored and flowery to the point of being silly. Reading his prose almost became a game of “How could I rewrite this sentence in as few words as possible?” I understand that he’s trying to set the mood, but his verbosity quickly became ridiculous. Suffice it to say, this was a jarring shift in style after reading Hemingway’s sparse text.
  • First line: “Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places.” Yet, he continues, New England holds the greatest horrors, “…for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.” Yikes.
  • Lovecraft’s narrator (and likely Lovecraft himself) holds a deep and bitter prejudice against the Puritans who settled New England, describing their “gloomy and fanatical belief that exiled them from their kind” and their “appalling slavery to the dismal phantoms of their own minds.” Having actually read Puritan writings and theology, one wonders if Lovecraft has actually read the Puritans, or is merely working from academia’s stereotypes of these early American immigrants (who were fleeing religious persecution, not “exiled” as if they were banished from polite society, thank you). Indeed, the narration was so arrogant about New Englanders  past and present that I hesitated to feel bad for the evil that would imminently befall him.
  • The short version of the plot: In November, 1896, the narrator (a genealogist) is travelling by bicycle through New England, when he breaks into what looks like an abandoned house to wait out a storm. He discovers an ancient book about exploration in Africa, that falls open to a woodcut picture of a cannibal tribe’s “butcher shop,” if you will. As he stares at the picture, he hears a creak in the floor above, and a creepy old man comes down to greet him. Rather than demanding he leave, the old man welcomes the stranger and comments on the open book and its pictures. The old man begins describing how the pictures stir up murderous, hungry impulses in him, when suddenly a drop of blood falls from the blood-stained ceiling above and lands on the page. Then (and this is a bit unclear) there is a clap of thunder, and the narrator is struck by the old man and presumably killed. Or so I thought. Per the Wikipedia entry, a bolt of lightning destroys the house and brings oblivion to the narrator, preventing him from a dark fate–which is the plain reading of the text, but I thought that was too easy and that HPL was being more artistic? Silly me.
  • If the narrator is killed, in either case, how is he able to write this story? Or am I not supposed to ask?
  • But yeah, that’s really all there is to it. A traveler almost (?) falls victim to a cannibalistic recluse in the New England countryside. Also, Puritans are creepy and bad. Thanks, H.P.!
  • Okay, I admit, this is probably an unfair summary/review. HPL sets the mood and tone of the story with his descriptions and language, and I admit, there’s a growing dread as the tale unfolds. I just wish he had set aside the unnecessary potshots at Christianity, because it took me out of the story and made me more guarded and critical of the narrator. (A brief Google/wiki search clears this up: HPL rejected his culturally-Christian roots in childhood and from then on held to a persistent and antagonistic atheism/agnosticism throughout his whole life. Yet all that time, he wrote quite often about powerful, malevolent gods/demi-gods who destroy, corrupt, and drive mad the helpless characters in his stories. There’s QUITE a bit to analyze there, eh?)

All this to say, I was…not a fan of this story. While the references and allusions to Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones” mythology that I’ve come across in other media have been intriguing (including one of my favorite stories so far in #52Stories!), this entry was a dreary mess. I might give him another shot, but if it’s more of the same, I won’t be digging any further into the Lovecraft bibliography.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #20: “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway

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Today’s selection is Hemingway’s 1933 classic story, “A Clean, Well-lighted Place.” I got the idea to read this one from FX Turk via the Gut Check Podcast. Thanks for the inspiration, fellas.

So what’s this story about? More than just “alcohol,” lemme tell ya.

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The Pitch

An old man drinks alone at a table, while 2 waiters watch and comment.

The Payoff

That really is the entire story, in that one line of description–but it’s so much more than that. This sparse story carried an emotional heft I wasn’t ready for. It resonated deeply with a past season of my life, and I found myself unexpectedly moved. Definitely seek this one out and read it. (I would further recommend finding a printed version, rather than one of the many PDFs floating around the internet. Due to Hemingway’s complete disdain for dialogue attribution, any formatting errors in digital copies end up confusing the reader as to who is speaking at certain points.)

The Takeaways

I have a few thoughts about this story, so sit back and pour yourself a beverage (with or without a saucer to catch the spillage):

  • First: Hemingway’s economy of language. I was fully engaged in a scene he describes in only the barest of terms. I could hear the music, I could feel the breeze, I could smell the city. With the briefest strokes, he paints a complete picture.
  • At its heart, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is about how people (men, specifically) battle loneliness. The married waiter wants to rush home to sleep beside his wife. The soldier outside is pursuing the company of (presumably) a prostitute. But both the old man who drinks and the older waiter who watches lack such companionship. In a way, they are each other’s company, as they silently occupy the same space. This is why the waiter is hesitant to rush the old man out the door. The old man, despite being rich and having some family nearby, had attempted and failed to kill himself when the loneliness became too much. Now, he just drinks alone in the cafe until closing time.
  • As the old man goes and the old waiter closes shop, the waiter then tries to find somewhere else to go. Here is where the title comes into focus: he, like the old man, sought a clean, well-lighted place–someplace he could sit by himself but in the presence of others, so that he didn’t have to confront the loneliness and silence of his empty apartment. It was the emptiness, the all-encompassing nada, that he was avoiding. The waiter recites a version of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary, as the words are overcome and replaced with nada, nada, nada. It’s this nada that lonely men avoid by seeking out cozy spots to drink (or read, or write). There was a season of my life in which, despite having family and friends nearby, I myself ate many meals and spent many evenings in clean, well-lit places, reading, scribbling notes for stories unwritten, hiding away from my own nada.
  • [Now that I think of it, it makes all the more sense that for many years my favorite piece of art was Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, which depicts the epitome of a “clean, well-lighted place.”]
  • “After all, [the waiter] said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.” These final words were a bit heartbreaking, because he’s right. There may be many who have trouble sleeping because they feel isolated.

“A Clean, Well-lighted Place” was short but surprisingly moving, and I grokked it on a fundamental level. One of my favorites thusfar.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #19: “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” by Chris Crutcher.

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today’s entry in #52Stories is “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” by Chris Crutcher, recommended by my buddy James on Facebook. This 1989 short story was published in a collection called “Athletic Shorts” and would go on to be the basis for a film adaptation (called Angus), which I believe is James’ favorite movie.

So what did I think? Let’s get to it!

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The Pitch

An unlikely candidate is crowned “Winter Ball King” and is determined to make the most of his big moment: a dance with his lifelong crush.

The Payoff

I have mixed feelings about this one. There are elements of the writing that I really liked, and others that took me out of the moment. Some of the story elements seemed unnecessary, but on the whole they don’t really detract from the narrative. The tone of the story is very early 90’s and clearly geared at middle/high-school-aged kids, so it feels a bit heavier on the “Bart Simpson” snark than I would prefer. (I guess that means I’m an “old man yelling at clouds” now?)

The Takeaways

So what worked? What didn’t? Does this story “get its moment”? Let the spoilers commence!

  • Right off the bat, I was a bit thrown off by the “voice” of the narrator. Angus is a high-school senior in 1989, but his word usage and cultural referents are sometimes a bit older. You could argue he’s very close to his grandfather and spends most of his time with his parents, so it’s not out of the question that he would consistently refer to older cultural icons like Robert Redford or use words like “tomfoolery” unironically. But in the end, it really does sound like a middle-aged man writing the dialogue of an 18 year old. The fact that the songs that factor into the climax of the story would be considered “dad-rock” by even late 80’s standards only emphasizes the age disparity between author and narrator.
  • On top of the weird cultural discussion, there’s the sarcasm. I get it, he’s portrayed as a “tough kid” with a good heart. But even how he mentally describes his parents is pretty mean. I don’t know if Crutcher is consciously or subconsciously channeling Holden Caulfield here, but the thing is, I despise Holden Caulfield.
  • You can definitely tell the story was written 30 years ago, because man, some of the terminology would NOT fly in our current PC culture.
  • Don’t let all this criticism fool you, reader. I did genuinely like Angus as a character. Crutcher presents a flawed but very sympathetic protagonist, who becomes a kind of everyman for those of us who didn’t make prom king or get our “moment.”
  • “All I want is my moment.” This is the driving theme of the story: the pursuit of a perfect moment that will make for a lifelong memory. Angus really needs a “win,” and he’s self-aware enough to know that he won’t get many.
  • There are some really nice set-ups and callbacks in the narration and dialogue: Angus saying he has no illusions that Melissa Lefevre (his dream girl) will be so taken with him she’ll want to leave with him; the discussion of how Angus’ football skill comes from his ability to shadow his opponent and watch his hips to know where to go; his fear of his sweat being off-putting to Melissa. Crutcher creates some delightful symmetry throughout the story with these elements.
  • Angus’ unusual homelife could have been used as a major plot device (and would have, if the story were written more recently), but Crutcher manages to keep it secondary to the dance plotline. The fact that Angus has 2 sets of gay parents, and his relationship with all of them collectively, does inform much of his character in the story (and gets quite a bit of attention in the middle section of the story), but it doesn’t feel like this is the capital-P Point of the narrative.
  • Crutcher employs high-school-movie tropes (the big dance, the football-star bully, the untouchable dream-girl, the nobody who’s thrown into the spotlight by the machinations of others), but he does so in a way that still feels natural–the tropes become touchstones, connecting this story to all the other stories we love in this sub-genre.

In the end, I enjoyed this story, despite its flaws. Crutcher demonstrates he’s a solid writer from a technical standpoint, and he made me cheer for Angus as he “got his moment.” If you’re so inclined, you should check this one out. Not a classic, but not a bad time, either.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

 

52 Stories #18: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

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Next up on “#52Stories Sprint Week” is Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 story, “Harrison Bergeron,” recommended by friend-of-the-blog Matthew Tuck! Thanks for suggesting this one, buddy!

What did I think about Vonnegut’s story? Let’s get into it!

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The Pitch

In a society where fairness is enforced, the exceptional are considered a threat to order and happiness.

The Payoff

Oh man, this one was fun. What a great concept. Vonnegut’s subversive wit shines here as he gives a glimpse of a society gone mad with equity. The focus of the story isn’t so much on plot as on fleshing out the brilliant concept–how a government might enforce “equality” by driving everyone toward a common middle. It’s a bit ironic that Vonnegut, who was personally sympathetic to the ideas of socialism as a way of benefiting the common man, describes a kind of ideologically and characteristically socialist state. At any rate, this story is a hoot. Definitely find it and check it out.

The Takeaways

Let’s not waste any time. On to the hail of spoiler-filled bullets, which by government mandate will not be any longer or more wordy than any other post’s bullets:

  • First line: “The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal.” From the outset, Vonnegut’s sardonic voice sets up the reader for what’s in store.
  • [AH! I’m having a hard time organizing my thoughts. I want to talk about everything at once! I apologize for repetition and stream-of-consciousness points. Blame it on these infernal headphones.]
  • The story describes an equality-by-government-fiat, held in place by multiple constitutional amendments and by the iron will of the Handicapper-General of the United States, Diana Moon Glampers. Over the course of the story (which is not only short but fast-paced in its humor and movement), Vonnegut describes the pursuit of “equality” as the intentional flattening of excellence or personal exceptionalism. Success, brilliance, and genius are privileges (if you’ll forgive the modern label) for which the gifted should feel shame (e.g. a ballerina apologizing for having a beautiful voice and going on to speak with an exaggerated squawk) and be willing to be penalized. The goal in this society is to be as close to average as possible, so as not to offend others who are less gifted than you. I don’t know about you, but this seems a bit…relevant, almost 60 years later.
  • George and Hazel Bergeron are sitting in their living room, distracted and dazed by television. This seems like a pretty clear commentary on media-obsessed culture, but that could just be a surface level reading since it’s such low-hanging fruit. Their passivity in the light of the screen is demonstrated when they barely register the exciting and tragic events that unfold before their eyes. Nevertheless, Vonnegut takes that trope up a notch by noting Hazel’s sudden bursts of tears–as if awareness and understanding are trying to fight through the fog. Very likely, her tears at the beginning are in part for their son, who was stolen away by the government for being too gifted.
  • The satire of the “handicaps” (a word always used to describe the arbitrary encumbrances placed on people, never actual disabilities) takes on an absurd degree. George’s noise-headphones to prevent extended deep thought, the masks and weights worn by the dancers, the burdens placed on Harrison by the state, all demonstrate how far well-intentioned people will go in the name of equality. This takes a more ridiculous turn when men with actual speech impediments are shown to be the newscasters of this society. Hazel’s response to a frustrated news anchor who can barely get words out perfectly encapsulates this thinking: “That’s all right–he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.” This is “everyone-gets-a-ribbon” thinking at its fullest.
  • By contrast, George refers to the age when people competed with each other all the time as “the dark ages.” People are afraid of being better than anyone else, of succeeding if others fail.
  • The namesake of the story is George and Hazel’s son, Harrison. Though he’s said to be only 14 years old, he’s described as an Adonis. The reader seems to be encouraged to visualize him as older, more powerful and self-possessed, a seven-foot-tall superman who breaks free of his bonds and declares himself to be the Emperor on live television before he and a beautiful ballerina he proclaims will be his queen are shot and killed, live on air, by a shotgun-wielding Handicapper-General.
  • To be honest, the only real critique I have for this story is that when Harrison himself shows up, he’s just a little too much. He’s described as an almost epic figure, which makes his original stated age ridiculous. His aggrandized statements are completely silly (although that, to be fair, is age-appropriate), and the description of the dance became too fanciful for my taste. I was all-in for the biting social satire, but the gravity-defying ballet dancing took me out of the moment.
  • In the end, Harrison is dead, the TV broadcast is interrupted, and George and Hazel miss the whole thing. George was distracted and Hazel was dazed, and they exchange a tragic bit of dialogue. George asks why Hazel has tears in her eyes, and she says she doesn’t know–perhaps there was something sad on the television before the program stopped. “Forget sad things.” “I always do.” “That’s my girl.”
  • One wonders if a society full of Hazel’s and George’s is destined to be ruled by a bureaucracy that demands an average populace. If a people can be lulled into complacency, and discouraged from striving for excellence, they would be pretty docile in the right pair of strong hands.

This one was a delight to read. And as an added bonus, I hear there is a short film adaptation that was made recently. I’m planning on seeking that out. I’ll let you know what I find!

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

 

52 Stories #17: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

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Happy #52Stories “Sprint Week”! (One day late, sorry–yesterday was a “day off” spent running household errands!)

We’re kicking things off with a classic from 1948–Shirley Jackson’s lighthearted and whimsical tale of ritual small-town murder.

What did I think? Let’s find out! (Does everyone have their names in the box? Good.)

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The Pitch

Townsfolk gather to find out who “wins” the yearly drawing.

The Payoff

Stories like this are tricky, because the twist is so well-known that it’s hard to approach it with fresh eyes. Even not having read the story until now (surprising, since it’s often included in high-school curricula), I was still well aware of the broad strokes of the plot, such as it is. It took a second reading to pick up on some of the subtleties and allusions Jackson works into the piece. Nevertheless, it’s a quick story that’s worth your time, so if you haven’t read this story, and somehow don’t know about the ending, definitely seek it out and enjoy.

The Takeaways

If there are any sweet souls unfamiliar with the story, I’ll go ahead and give a SPOILER WARNING from this point forward. Go read the story and then come back.

On to the barrage of bullets, like so many scattered stones!

  • Opening line: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full summer day.” Definitely sounds different the *second* time you read the story.
  • Jackson makes a few brief allusions to the history of the Lottery–the transition of pieces of bark to strips of paper, the practice of chants or salutes, the battered old box handed down from generation to generation. There are references that those foolish young folks who want to end the Lottery would likely prefer going back to “living in caves.” In just a few sentences here and there, Jackson gives the reader a sense that this village (the location of which is merely described as south of “the northern village”) has been doing this for a long time, and that the progress of the Lottery mirrors the advancement or progress of “civilization,” such as it is in this context.
  • If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, you likely would pick up on the similarities to the judgment against Achan: the community is gathered, the clan is chosen, and then the guilty party is singled out, taken away, and stoned by the community. I don’t know enough about the author to discern if this story is meant to be on some level a critique of what seems like arbitrary or cruel mob violence framed as divine judgment in the Biblical version.
  • “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The first time I read the story, I skimmed right over this line, but on second look, I realized that this is the “why” that seems shockingly absent in the rest of the story. The Lottery isn’t just a random practice of communal violence–it’s a ritual to secure a good harvest. Though the story is set in the twentieth-century American heartland, it could have easily been any other culture in millennia past. Perhaps this is a statement about the nature of human superstition being the same across time and space.
  • There is a certain sad irony that Tessie Hutchinson, late to the party, “forgetting what day it was” (perhaps as an indication of her hesitation to participate), ends up being the “winner.” Or the fact that Old Man Werner, who has defied the odds for 77 long years, is the most adamant supporter of the Lottery, and bemoans how folks have “changed” and are sometimes less enthusiastic than he’d like. One wonders how he would have reacted if he was the one to draw the black mark.
  • I first wondered if this story, published just 3 years after the end of the second World War, is meant to be a subtle examination of anti-Communist anxieties and the growing concern about a changing world. However, I think my earlier thought on the universality of human superstition and fear is more on the mark (no pun intended). Jackson isn’t writing about a mob trying to ferret out a subversive or dangerous element. It’s a story about tradition: a tradition that too many are afraid to question, even if year after year, on a bright and sunny summer day, they must put to death one of their own.  Sometimes, the darkness of men’s hearts is monster enough.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!