Posted in Short Stories

Junot Diaz: Monstro

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 31

And yet you know what? I still had hope. Had hope that despite the world, I had a chance with Mysty. Ridiculous hope, sure, but what do you expect?

Junot Diaz’ narrator in his short story “Monstro” is cocky, self-absorbed and likeable. I think the likeable part of him comes from his optimism. It’s not a rose-colored glasses, Pollyanna type of optimism. It’s a look the world in the face and keep going kind of optimism.

The backdrop of this story is a dystopian world of infectious diseases, climate issues, race issues, class issues, riots, technology gone mad, governments gone mad…well, you get the picture.

In the midst of all this, there’s an old-fashioned story of a boy (the narrator) chasing a girl. It’s as old-fashioned as optimism – as old-fashioned as hope.

This story was in the June 4, 2012 edition of The New Yorker. I read it when I selected the Two of Diamonds Wild Card for Week 31 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 Treasure of Abbott Thomas

They parted upon this, and if Mr. Gregory woke once or twice in the small hours and fancied he heard a fumbling about the lower part of his locked door, it was perhaps, no more than what a quiet man, suddenly plunged into a strange bed and the heart of a mystery, might reasonably expect. Certainly he thought, to the end of his days, that he had heard such a sound twice or three times between midnight and dawn.

M. R. James’ “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas” contains all of the fun elements of a story that reminds me of Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code or Walt Disney’s film National Treasure. I can’t go into all of the detailed clues our hero finds because it would ruin the story for those who haven’t read it before. I will say that it involves a stained glass window which James vividly describes and uses to great effect.

A difference might be that a supernatural guardian exists to ward off our heroes. In this case maybe the the story is more like Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Telling the story out of chronological order isn’t a surprise here but it also adds to the suspense – keeping the reader asking where the clues might lead.

It’s difficult to say that any M. R. James story isn’t entertaining but I found this one even more so. Go read it! It’ll be fun!

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: Count Magnus

It was about nine o’clock on a moonlight August night when he neared the place. He was sitting forward, and looking out of the window at the fields and thickets – there was little else to be seen – racing past him. Suddenly he came to a cross-road. At the corner two figures were standing motionless; both were in dark cloaks; the taller one wore a hat, the shorter a hood.

The quotation above from M. R. James’ “Count Magus” actually comes toward the end of the story. The timeline, in addition to the varying narrations within narrations, gives the story an odd feel but that no longer comes as a surprise to me – James seems to always make it work.

Mr. Wraxall, the “he” from the quotation, has written an account that begins three hundred years prior with a “Black Pilgrimage”. It ends with his pursuit by the dark figures mentioned above. This account has been discovered by the purchaser of Mr. Wraxall’s house at least several decades after the account.

All kinds of coffins, bodies with skulls as faces, dark nights, dark figures, meetings at cross-roads, serve up a horror story above all others even though I could probably say that about any M. R. James story.

Interestingly, the ending provides a surprise twist but it’s after the terror has taken place. While not that terrifying, it’s not something I want to spoil for future readers.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: Number 13

M. R. James’ story “Number 13” isn’t quite as scary as some of his other stories. There’s some screams that come from the title room of a hotel in Denmark but for the most part it’s just fun reading about the perplexity of the occupant of Number 12. He sometimes sees a Number 13 next to his room and sometimes it’s a Number 14. In case you wondered, when he sees Number 13, his room is smaller.

I don’t think any of the stories of James that I’ve read so far have been set in Denmark. Most if not all have been set in England. Comments pop up like “Such things rarely happen in Denmark…” that get a little humor out of the Danish twist. Maybe it’s more difficult to set scary stories in Denmark.

The occupant of Number 12 happens to be an historian (which by now is no surprise) who is interested in the early years of the Protestant Reformation. Through sheer genius, James gets some humor out the Protestant/Catholic conflict, too.

Posted in Short Stories

Ernest J. Gaines: The Sky Is Gray

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 30

Us go out, and the old lady come to the door to look at us. After us go a little piece I look back, and she still there watching us.

The sleet’s coming down heavy, heavy now, and I turn up my collar to keep my neck warm. My mama tell me turn it right back down.

‘You not a bum,’ she say. ‘You a man.’

It’s always interesting when a story is told with an accent, a dialect or exactly however a character might talk, but if it’s the right words and the right story, of which Ernest J. Gaines’ “The Sky is Gray” is both, it’s more than worth it. This story is competing with William Melvin Kelley’s “Cry For Me” as my favorite story of the year so far.

It’s told through the eyes of a young boy who needs a tooth pulled. He and his mother make their way from rural Louisiana to the nearest dentist in less than perfect weather. They experience racism, conflicts in ideas among those in the waiting room, and when its needed most, a small dose of kindness.

Similar to John Caswell Smith’s “Fighter”, the mother doesn’t allow her son much in the way of being a boy but a small amount of tenderness and the recognition of kindness gives the reader the idea that the narrator might grow up with a true sense of who he is.

I think its this potential that makes the narration’s dialect so compelling. That sense of self is already starting.

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 Six of Spades for Week 30 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 Ash-Tree

It is known to most of us that a cat can cry; but few of us have heard, I hope, such a yell as came out of the trunk of the great ash.

I’ve established numerous times on this blog that I think a reader can see something coming a mile away and a great writer will make the reader still want to go there. In the course of all these M. R. James stories, I’ve also established that I think he is a great writer. In his story “The Ash-Tree”, we get a terrifying tale of witch trials and revenge from the grave. Then, two generations later, we see what’s going to happen (again). But it’s just as terrifying -and satisfying- as previously.

Perhaps it’s beneficial that after the repeated events, we get a fiery ending that is even more terrifying – and helpfully ties together the separate generations.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: Mezzotint

The three agreed that this would be a good plan; and, further, that if they spent the afternoon together they would be less likely to talk about the business to other people; for any rumour of such a transaction as was going on would bring the whole of the Phasmatological Society about their ears.

As best as I can tell, a mezzotint is like a painting only it’s engraved. In M. R. James’ story “Mezzotint”, the specific art work is of a manor in the English countryside.

A few art appreciators begin studying it and realize it changes upon subsequent looks and supernaturally reveals a kidnapping from about a hundred years prior. This story is more fun than scary and I couldn’t help but think we have something similar in today’s day and age called a security camera.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: Lost Hearts

Still as the night was, the mysterious population of the distant moonlit woods was not yet lulled to rest. From time to time strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded from across the mere. They might be the notes of owls or water-birds, yet they did not quite resemble either sound.

“Lost Hearts”. It sounds like a sad romance.

It’s not.

It’s an M. R. James story so the title is much more literal.

Twelve year old orphan Stephen Elliot is dropped off by horse and carriage at his elderly cousin’s home to live. The scene seems kind of sweet for about two paragraphs.

Then we discover that the elderly cousin is an expert in pagan religions and philosophy – and rituals. And we might call in to question why the cousin is way too interested in how old Stephen is.

I’m learning that M. R. James isn’t afraid to use humor in the midst of the scariest plot – and is able to use it well.

We come to understand some of the history of what has happened to other children when they have come to stay with the elderly gentleman via the housekeeper, Mrs. Bunch. While she is telling Stephen about the disappearance of two other children in past years in such an innocent and naive (and funny) manner, we realize everything is not as it seems to Mrs. Bunch.

This story eventually has a happy ending in that we realize Stephen does become an adult.

Posted in Short Stories

Claude McKay: Truant

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 29

His thought fell to a whisper within him. He could never feel himself more than a stranger within these walls. His body went through the mechanical process, but untamed, for his spirit was wandering far.

Harlem resident Barclay Oram in Claude McKay’s 1932 story “Truant” wanders away from his train dining car job as a waiter and eventually wanders away from his New York City life that includes his wife and daughter.

This is one of those short stories that in lesser hands would have to be an entire novel. Barclay’s present situation gets underscored by pretty much his whole life – from his birth in the West Indies, his college days in New York City to his role as a husband and father.

The fascinating part of this story lies in how McKay makes the reader feel about Barclay. We don’t get complete sympathy for Barclay but at the same time we don’t feel he’s a complete jerk. Perhaps McKay is allowing the reader to make up their own mind. If that’s the case, I don’t feel the need to move too far in either direction when it comes to Barclay. This muddy, fuzzy, gray area gives the story a beautiful ambiguity or a sad complexity that is more than satisfying.

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 Nine of Clubs for Week 29 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: Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book

All this time a growing feeling of discomfort had been creeping over him-nervous reaction, perhaps, after the delight of his discovery. Whatever it was, it resulted in a conviction that there was someone behind him, and that he was far more comfortable with his back to the wall.

Today, I’m starting the second collection of M. R. James’ ghost stories. It’s actually considered volume 1 but I read volume 2 first because it was available first at the library. “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” is the first story and it has many of the same situations as his other stories but each one, including this one, still manages to stand on its own.

Dennistoun finds an old scrapbook with a painting of King Solomon facing something demonic. The church caretaker in possession of this scrapbook is more than willing to let it go. And Dennistoun soon learns why.

Before reading James’ stories, I hadn’t put together that ghost stories and history go hand in hand. At least in James’ stories, those looking for history find ghosts. Or ghosts bring history to the present. Either way, it’s quite frightening.