M. R. James: “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad”

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 12

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It’s Week 12 of my Deal Me In 2019 short story project and I selected the Two of Spades, my first wild card of the year. I read M. R. James ghost story “‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad'” and it’s the first story I’ve read this year that could be a serious contender for my favorite!

The story is included in James’ collection Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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I’ve enjoyed numerous ghost stories over the years but it’s usually not the story genre that pops up on my favorite lists so this comes as a pleasant surprise. James’ story has all the things that give readers shivers and chills. It’s got a Professor finding a wooden whistle at night in the yard of a Templar church. It’s got the same Professor blowing the whistle unknowingly beckoning an ominous wind storm breaking open the window of his hotel room. When the Professor wakes up during the night and sees someone sit up in the “empty” second bed covered with sheets, it’s just plain classic scary.

I think, though, that what makes this story more fascinating to me is James’ description of the change in the Professor’s way of thinking. During the story’s progression, the Professor makes it clear to friends and colleagues that he believes in nothing supernatural. As a scientist, he thinks only what’s explainable is real. His encounter with something he can’t explain makes a lasting impression:

There is really nothing more to tell, but, as you may imagine, the Professor’s views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be. His nerves, too, have suffered: he cannot even now see a surplice hanging on a door quite unmoved, and the spectacle of a scarecrow in a field late on a winter afternoon has cost him more than one sleepless night.

Moving from the certain to the uncertain might be, in itself, a frightening process.

 

 

Richard Ford: Under the Radar

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 11

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On the drive over to the Nicholsons’ for dinner – their first in some time – Marjorie Reeves told her husband, Steven Reeves, that she had had an affair with George Nicholson (their host) a year ago, but that it was all over with now and she hoped he – Steven – would not be mad about it and could go on with life.

I don’t feel like I’m giving much away by quoting the first paragraph of Richard Ford’s short story “Under the Radar” because it’s the first paragraph. The rest of the story builds around Marjorie’s revelation to her husband. There’s a little background about the two of them and about Steven’s job.

The fact that Steven pulls the car over to the side of the road, its dark except for the car’s headlights and they are in the woods gives the story a noir feel. I’m not sure that’s Ford’s intention but the atmosphere lends itself well to the tension the couple feels – a tension that becomes more palpable as the story proceeds.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the raccoon.

oxford short stories

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I read it when I selected the Ace of Hearts for Week 11 of my Deal Me In 2019 Short Story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

 

Edna O’Brien: Irish Revel (A St. Patrick’s Day Short Story Extra #2)

Walking again she wondered if and what she would tell her mother and her brothers about it, and if all parties were as bad. She was at the top of the hill now, and could see her own house, like a little white box at the end of the world, waiting to receive her.

In Edna O’Brien’s short story “Irish Revel”, Mary gets invited to a party in town – her first one. She lives on a farm in the hills above the town and doesn’t get to socialize much.

There’s some minor conflict between Mary and a few town girls who refer to Mary as “shy, mountainy people”. The absence of a particular young man causes disappointment for Mary.

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Overall, the story is what the title says: a lot of revelry at a small-town Irish party. The various male attendees add their own quirkiness to the scene, men like O’Toole, Brogan and Long John Salmon. The party is the story, itself. There is some social awkwardness on Mary’s part and one wouldn’t necessarily say the party ends well.

One also might say that Mary is the only responsible person at the party which makes her leave early so she can help her parents. She doesn’t have much regret in leaving. While she has her own set of insecurities, she seems the strongest of the characters by the end of the party and the story.

This story is also in The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories edited by William Trevor.

William Trevor: Death in Jerusalem (A St. Patrick’s Day Short Story Extra #1)

As in the Via Dolorosa it had been difficult to rid the imagination of the surroundings that now were present, of the exotic Greek Orthodox trappings, the foreign-looking priests, the oriental smell. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh, he’d kept thinking, for somehow the church seemed more the church of the kings than of Joseph and Mary and their child. Afterwards they returned to Jerusalem, to the Tomb of the Virgin and the Garden of Gethsemane. ‘It could have been anywhere,’ he heard the quiet, bespectacled sceptic remarking in Gethsemane. ‘They’re only guessing.’

People of faith populate so many of William Trevor’s short stories, In most cases, though, the faith is in crisis, it’s tempered with significant doubt. By many standards, it could be considered weak.

In “Death in Jerusalem”, Francis lives at home with his mother and runs the family hardware store. He doesn’t do “great” things like his brother, Paul, a priest who successfully raises money for a boys’ home in America. Paul appears to be successful at anything he does.

Paul convinces Francis to take a trip to the Holy Land where Paul continues to have to make things “look good” for Francis’ fragile faith.

Something else is also interesting about many of Trevor’s characters including Francis. Even if their faith is fragile, they never completely let go in spite of doubts and disappointments. It begs the question: whose faith is stronger? Francis or Paul? Is a faith that is hanging by a thread stronger than a faith that requires no “hanging on” at all?

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This story is included in The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories edited by none other than William Trevor. I read this yesterday for St. Patrick’s Day though it’s not getting posted until today.

While William Trevor remains a huge favorite of mine, as I look through this anthology, I’m finding a wealth of great stories by numerous great authors. I couldn’t just read one. Stay tuned for another “St. Patrick’s Day” story.

 

James Baldwin: The Rockpile

James Baldwin’s short story “The Rockpile” was the story I wanted to read for my birthday last month; however, it took longer than I expected to get a copy of Baldwin’s collection Going to Meet the Man. I finally got it and I figure better late than never.

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“The Rockpile” involves the same characters from Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On the Mountain. In that novel, character’s are given their own sections for their story or point of view that tie together in the present time. In this short story, we also get varying points of view but because it’s not a novel, the narration jumps between characters and an author of Baldwin’s caliber makes these jumps work.

The sense of family dysfunction comes through loud and clear as each member old enough has some sort of resentment, some need for forgiveness, some need for redemption:

And she found in his face not fury alone, which would not have surprised her; but hatred so deep as to become insupportable in its lack of personality. His eyes were struck alive, unmoving, blind with malevolence – she felt, like the pull of the earth at her feet, his longing to witness her perdition.

Whether anyone actually finds what they need isn’t known to the reader – at least not in this story.

Nelson Algren: A Bottle of Milk for Mother

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 10

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Then they were all laughing openly at him. He heard their derision, and a red rain danced one moment before his eyes; when the red rain was past, Kozak was sitting back easily, regarding him with the expression of a man who has just been swung at and missed and plans to use the provocation without undue baste.

Lately, I’ve been binge-watching (or at least semi-binge watching) episodes of NYPD Blue.  I’ve been impressed with how well a story can be told with a well-written police interrogation. Much to my surprise, a police interrogation comprises most of Nelson Algren’s story “A Bottle of Milk for Mother”.

I admit the title of this story didn’t do much to get me excited about reading it. I’m not sure whether a title can be considered an understatement but in this case it’s simply the initial intention that Lefty Bicek gives the police as to why he was involved in an altercation.

The story also gives an excellent example of how effectively a story can be told using dialect – Chicago and Polish in the case of this story:

Don’t look at me like I ain’t nowheres,” he asked. And his voice was struck flat by fear.

I highly recommend this story – especially to anyone who might think the title doesn’t sound like much.

oxford short stories

I read “A Bottle of Milk for Mother” when I selected the Nine of Clubs for Week 10 of my Deal Me In 2019 short story project. It’s included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

James Still: The Nest

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 9

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James Still’s story “The Nest” reminds me of a Jack London story where it’s humanity vs. nature; in this case, though, “humanity” is a six year-old girl, Nezzie, being sent to her aunt’s while her father, stepmother and little brother go see her sick grandfather. Nature in this story is…well…nature.

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The stepmother is stereotypical in that she looks at Nezzie as more of a nuisance. But in spite of a mean stepmother, a reader needs to suspend the disbelief that parents could actually send a six year-old through the woods in such terrible weather. If one can do that, one might appreciate the story.

As the story begins, Nezzie is already in the woods remembering much of the circumstances that have brought her here, including memories of her real mother who “went away”. Still skillfully contrasts the weather and the woods with Nezzie’s memories of her nice warm home and the anticipation of the warm reception of her aunt.

We don’t know exactly how everything turns out, but we get a stark possibility with this sentence:

She waked to morning and her sight reached dimly across the snow. An ax hewed somewhere, the sound coming to her ears without meaning. She lifted an arm and glimpsed the gray of her hand and the bloodless fingers…

This story is included in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by  Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Eight of Hearts for Week 9 of my Deal Me In 2019 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.