Posted in Short Stories

James Alan McPherson: On Trains

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 25

He did not stop his work; nor did he look at her, but answered her questions and made the bed with the proficiency and cool detachment of one used to confronting stupidity in the intelligent. It was bargained and paid for in the price of her ticket and his was a patient and polite endurance of her right to be stupid.

James Alan McPherson’s story “On Trains” takes us on a smooth ride with all the hustle and bustle of porters, passengers and bartenders until we hit a rough spot as a white southern lady gets on at Dearborn and then refuses to sleep in her bed while the porter (a black man) does his job of sitting outside her berth (and everyone else’s) in case anyone needs anything. As he points out, he has been doing this job for 43 years.

Just like the porter as quoted above, the writing has a “proficiency and cool detachment” that easily contrasts with the commotion caused by the one passenger. It’s interesting that all this is set on a train where people can’t just jump off whenever they want. Something has to be done. It’s also interesting that the passenger in question chooses her “values” over her comfort (and common sense).

This story is included in Black American Short Stories: A Century of the Best edited by John Henrik Clarke I read it when I selected the Five of Spades for Week 25 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: The Uncommon Prayer Book

‘…it’s a funny thing to me I don’t, with the feeling I have as there’s someone settin’ here – no, it’s the other side, just within the screen – and lookin’ at me all the time I’m dustin’ in the gallery and pews. But I never yet see nothin’ worse than myself, as the sayin’ goes, and I kindly hope I never may.’

In M. R. James’ “The Uncommon Prayer Book”, he leads the story off by having Mr. Davidson take a leisurely vacation walk in the country. He makes this walk so pleasant and peaceful and engaging that I wanted to go out and just start walking – although I’d have to drive to get to the country. It’s amazing how James takes this walk and just gradually walks Mr. Davidson to an old unused chapel and its caretaker.

In the chapel, the caretaker shows Mr. Davidson the copies of The Book of Common Prayer which she keeps covered up though everyday when she enters the empty chapel, they are uncovered and all open to the 109th Psalm – a vengeful, angry, cursing Psalm.

Mr. Davidson finds some historical significance to these specific prayer books as he stumbles into a more conventional mystery surrounding the theft of the prayer books. As Mr. Davidson and the police attempt to catch the thief, the story moves back to the supernatural as we realize the prayer books can take care of themselves.

So far its been difficult to pick a favorite of the stories in this volume but this one is up there towards the top.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: Two Doctors

‘…What was this about a meeting? I believe I must have been in a doze.’

To which I answered that I was thinking of fauns and centaurs in the dark lane, and not of a witches’ Sabbath; but it seemed he took it differently.

It’s M. R. James’ “Two Doctors” today. The initial narrator discovers some old documents that tell pieces of a story regarding the title characters. These affidavits detail discussions about the supernatural – discussions of acknowledgement and skepticism.

This story takes on more of a traditional mystery even if speaks of otherworldly beings and characters take long spooky walks at night. The ending seems to imply a more physical concrete resolution. But there’s still that little idea planted that it could be something else – which gives just enough of a fright to make it really good!

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance

…but there was a thick mist on the way back, and I was not in trim for wandering about unknown pastures, especially on an evening when bushes looked like men, and a cow lowing in the distance might have been the last trump.

The title of M. R. James story “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” is another one of those understated titles – almost to the point of humor. It’s told through the a series of letters from one brother to another regarding the disappearance of their clergyman Uncle Henry.

It’s always a fascination to me how well this letter writing structure can work even if the letters give so much more detail than one would normally expect in a letter. The letters in this story are one sided. We don’t get any replies. This sometimes adds to the comic aspect of the story the way a one-sided telephone conversation can be hilarious. The writing brother will reference something from a response from his brother even though we don’t actually see the response.

These letters are all dated over the days before and after Christmas of 1837. In the introduction to this collection of stories, it’s noted that James was a big fan of Charles Dickens. Outside of the use of ghosts at Christmas, though, this story seems much more original than simply a nod to Dickens. It includes an odd dream of a Punch and Judy puppet show ending with a wild description of an owl after waking.

Also, Uncle Henry is eventually “found”.

Posted in Short Stories

Zora Neale Hurston: Spunk

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 24

[There] they go, big as life an’ brassy as tacks.

I think “Spunk” is my favorite Zora story so far. Spunk Banks struts about town, big and bold, with Joe Kanty’s wife. Spunk doesn’t have a guilty bone in his body and everyone in town knows how big and bold he is. Joe Kanty on the other hand is angry but timidly tries to ignore what’s going on. When push comes to shove, mostly by talk of the other residents of their small Florida town, Joe attempts a confrontation.

I don’t want to ruin for future readers how things get resolved but it’s not how one might think. There are also some nice supernatural elements that bring the story to a different level. Whenever someone asks about good ghost stories, I need to remember Zora Neale Hurston’s “Spunk”.

This is included in her collection Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick. I read it when I selected the Five of Hearts for Week 24 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Short Stories

William Faulkner: Carcassonne

Here we are! The final story in William Faulkner’s Collected Stories! I’m not sure of the significance of the title “Carcassonne” which is a city in Southern France. The name of the city has “carcass” in it. That actually makes sense after reading this short story – the shortest one in the whole collection.

The narrator seems to be dead or dying somewhere in what seems like a desert. He has some semblance of a conversation with a skeleton which could belong to someone else or could maybe even be his own.

Tons of apocalyptic imagery gets crammed into these five pages. There are horses flying around with fiery riders springing away from the earth with the narrator on a buckskin pony:

…me on a buckskin pony with eyes like blue electricity and a mane like tangled fire, galloping up the hill and right off in the high heaven of the world…

Thundering noises and bright lights against a dark sky abound. I know that Faulkner selected the stories to be included in this anthology and determined their placement. I doubt that the placement of the final story -one that appears to have taken at least a nod from the final book of the New Testament – is coincidence.

Posted in Short Stories

William Faulkner: Divorce in Naples

…two weeks later we were watching him and George dancing again in their undershirts after supper on the after well deck while the victrola lifted its fatuous and reiterant ego against the waxing moon and the ship snored and hissed through the long seas off Hatteras.

In “Divorce in Naples”, William Faulkner portrays the homosexual relationship between two sailors more overtly than he has same-sex relationships elsewhere – at least in the stories and novels I’ve read so far.

The interesting aspect of this story is that the other men on the ship aren’t threatened by George and Carl’s relationship and it’s not a secret. There is a mild joke comparing them to husband and wife but nothing homophobic.

The surprising lack of stereotype and the timeframe in which it was written makes this story worth reading.

And this is the next to the last story in Faulkner’s Collected Stories. One more and I’ll be finished!

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: An Episode of Cathedral History

Gradually there formulated itself a suspicion – which grew into a conviction – that the alterations in the Cathedral had something to say in the matter.

In “An Episode of Cathedral History”, M. R. James tells stories with stories about a Cathedral that has some work done. Does this work awaken a monster already there in the tombs or does the work itself create the monster. Either way gives us a frightening story. It also gives us a funny story. The details of what gets moved and what gets changed about the Cathedral’s architecture could be tedious if it they don’t complete the comical scenes around the workers and the neighbors. The comedy does nothing to diminish the fright. And the fright does nothing to diminish the comedy. Quite ingenious if you ask me.

There’s comedy in a young boy hiding his pet dog in his bedroom against his mother’s wishes. There’s horror in the noises heard by the boy and his dog – and his mother. The boy tries to pass it off as cats even though he and the dog are terrified. And the noise is significantly louder than cats.

The title also tries to give a touch of boredom to something scary and hilarious.

Posted in Short Stories

Crystal Wilkinson: Peace of Mind

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 23

I am sitting here on vacation in my own damn house on a Saturday afternoon trying to have peace of mind.

In “Peace of Mind”, Crystal Wilkinson presents light, comedic telephone calls to effectively show the tension and hectic life that the narrator tries to escape.

Her friend, Peaches, her children at camp and her ex husband all intrude into her peace of mind until she eventually leaves the phone under a pillow. I’m guessing that the story is set prior to cell phones. I could imagine a cell phone providing more tension but maybe not as much comedy.

Part of the comedy is that with each phone call, the narrator gets more determined to obtain this peace of mind.

This story is included in Wilkinson’s collection Blackberries, Blackberries. I read it when I selected the of Queen of Diamonds for Week 23 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Short Stories

William Faulkner: Mistral

After reading William Faulkner’s short story “Mistral”, I had to look up the word. I had a feeling from the story that it was some form of a breeze or a wind – probably stronger than a breeze. The definition I found is “a strong, cold northwesterly wind that blows through the Rhône valley and southern France into the Mediterranean, mainly in winter.”

To me, this story takes on the style of Faulkner’s novels more than any of the other stories in this collection. To get the most of it, I feel I would have to read it again, perhaps several times. The thought of doing that isn’t that daunting.

Two American soldiers in Italy during World War II (I get that from brief Mussolini references) encounter what seems to be spectral like visions along with hearing stories about a woman engaged whose fiance is killed. They interact with a priest all the while doing what soldiers tend to do: drink (in this case Italian wine) and smoke. They also attend a funeral.

The drinking and the smoking seem to take on more ritualistic tones and these activities add a certain amount of bravery to the characters as opposed to making them look foolish. The evil that seems to be lurking everywhere (perhaps that’s what the title represents) is stared down by the soldiers with the casual indifference of having a drink and smoking a cigarette. The evil they look at isn’t necessarily the enemy in the war. It’s more difficult to pin down – like the mistral:

After a while I heard him just behind me, and we entered the wind. I could see past my shoulder his cigarette shredding away in fiery streamers upon the unimpeded rush of the mistral, that black chill wind full of dust like sparks of ice.

In spite of the difficulty in grasping this story, it’s a favorite.