Anniversary #7!

It’s the seventh anniversary of Mirror With Clouds and as I have been doing the last few years, here are my top ten favorite short stories of 2018 with quotations from each of them. I have no method of rating them – they are just the ones I liked the best. And as happens with many of my top ten lists, the top two could be interchangeable on any given day depending on my mood – both of them are fantastic stories!

10. Lions, Harts, Leaping Does – J. F. Powers

He suffered the piercing white voice of the Apocalypse to echo in his soul: But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth. And St. Bernard, fiery-eyed in a white habit, thundered at him from the twelfth century:”Hell is paved with the bald pates of priests!”

9.  The Little Regiment – Stephen Crane

Ultimately the night deepened to the tone of black velvet. The outlines of the fireless camp were like the faint drawings upon ancient tapestry. The glint of a rifle, the shine of a button, might have been of threads of silver and gold sewn upon the fabric of the night. There was little presented to the vision, but to a sense more subtle there was discernible in the atmosphere something like a pulse; a mystic beating which would have told a stranger of the presence of a giant thing – the slumbering mass of regiments and batteries.

8.  Faith – William Trevor

Afterwards, Bartholomew told himself that what had occurred must surely be no more than a mood of petulance, an eruption from his half-stifled impatience with the embroidery and frills that dressed the simplicity of truth with invasive, sentimental stories that somehow made faith easier, the hymns he hated. For Bartholomew, the mystery that was the source of all spiritual belief, present through catastrophe and plague and evil, was a strength now too, and more than it had ever been. Yet there was disquiet, a stirring in his vocation he had brought upon himself and wished he had not…Bartholomew – not knowing what he should otherwise do – continued to visit the lonely and the sick, to repeat the Te Deum, the Creed, the Litany. He felt he should not and yet he did.

7.  The Virgin’s Gift – William Trevor

He begged that his melancholy might be lifted, that the confusion which had come in the night might be lightened with revelation. These were the days of the year when his spirits were most joyful, when each hour that passed brought closer the celebration of the Saviour’s birth. Why had this honoring of a season been so brutally upset?

6.  Graillis’s Legacy – William Trevor

His safe employment had been taken for granted; in time promotion would mean occupancy of a squat grey landmark in the town, the house above the bank, with railings and a grained hall door. She had married into that; books had never been an interest they shared, had never been, for her, a need.

The woman for whom they were had often been noticed by Graillis about the town, coming out of a shop, getting into her car, not the kind of woman he would ever have known.

5.  Death of a Right Fielder – Stuart Dybek

Finally we saw him; from a distance he resembled the towel we sometimes threw down for second base.

4.  The Reach – Stephen King

“We joined hands, children, and if there were times when we wondered what it was all for, or if there was ary such a thing as love at all, it was only because we had heard the wind and the waters on long winter nights, and we were afraid.

“No, I’ve never felt I needed to leave the island. My life was here. The Reach was wider in those days.”

3.  Resurrection of a Life – William Saroyan

I was this boy and he is dead now, but he will be prowling through the city when my body no longer makes a shadow upon the pavement, and if it is not this boy it will be another, myself again, another boy alive on earth, seeking the essential truth of the scene, seeking the static and precise beneath that which is in motion and which is imprecise.

2.  The School – Donald Barthelme

Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical-fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.

1.  My Son the Murderer – Bernard Malamud

At night I watch the news programs. I watch the war from day to day. It’s a big burning war on a small screen. It rains bombs and the flames go higher. Sometimes I lean over and touch the war with the flat of my hand. I wait for my hand to die.

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Stephen Crane: The Little Regiment (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 38)

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Ultimately the night deepened to the tone of black velvet. The outlines of the fireless camp were like the faint drawings upon ancient tapestry. The glint of a rifle, the shine of a button, might have been of threads of silver and gold sewn upon the fabric of the night. There was little presented to the vision, but to a sense more subtle there was discernible in the atmosphere something like a pulse; a mystic beating which would have told a stranger of the presence of a giant thing – the slumbering mass of regiments and batteries.

Stephen Crane’s “The Little Regiment” makes me wonder what I may have been missing all these years in which I’ve put off reading his novel The Red Badge of Courage. I’ve read other stories by Crane that I’ve enjoyed but for some reason have not picked up his most well-known work. I’ll say that needs to change – but I’ve said it before. It’s a novel I want to read, though.

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“The Little Regiment” centers around two brothers, Billie and Dan, in the same regiment during the American Civil War. Billie and Dan don’t like each other and Crane makes it obvious that this is not simply playful sibling rivalry.  I found it interesting that Crane would go this route with a Civil War story as so much is made of brothers (who perhaps don’t hate each other) being on separate sides of the war having to fight each other. Billie and Dan are on the same side.

The hardness these brothers already have for each other mirrors the hardness the soldiers have to muster in doing their jobs in battle. But it contrasts with Cranes eloquent and emotional descriptions of the war’s landscape and atmosphere. As beautiful as his writing is, there is no glorification of war – only the fear and futility of it. Behind the writing lies a silent “Why?”

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. In her introduction to the story, she indicates that “The Little Regiment” is not a story that has been often anthologized. I’m glad she includes it in this collection.

I read this story when I selected the Three of Spades for Week 38 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

The Open Boat by Stephen Crane

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Of Stephen Crane’s short stories (that I’ve read), I would consider “The Open Boat” to be the most like a Hemingway story.  The significant difference would be the length.  Crane’s story is twenty-five pages long.  If it had been a Hemingway story, it would probably be about three pages.  The iceberg theory (read about it here) that is applied to Hemingway would not really hold water (so to speak) with “The Open Boat”.

Four unnamed characters appear to be stranded in a life boat.  The cook, the captain, the oiler and the correspondent take turns rowing and sleeping as they dodge the waves and the wind and make their way to a distant lighthouse.  As they approach shore, they have more problems than they expect getting there.  The big question they continuously ask themselves is why “Fate” would allow them to see the shore, work hard to get there only to drown them in the process – a very Hemingway-like question.  But Hemingway wouldn’t have actually asked the question, he would have just let the reader come up with it on their own. With “The Open Boat”, the narrator explains much of the thought process that goes into the meaning of the story.

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I enjoyed the characters and found their ability to work together impressive.  While “The Open Boat” doesn’t end in quite as devastating a manner as Hemingway’s stories usually do, it’s ending does include a certain amount of sadness.

The Stephen Crane short stories that I’ve read this year come from my edition of The Red Badge of Courage and Other Stories.  I still haven’t read the title story.  It’s still “on my list”.

Crane’s “The Upturned Face”

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Stephen Crane’s short story “The Upturned Face” revolves around two soldiers burying a fallen comrade in the midst of battle.  I found interesting the fact that the dead soldier was named “Old Bill” and another soldier was named Timothy Lean.  The adjutant and two privates were not named even though they had as much of a role to play in the story as the other two.

While this story is not macabre in the typical sense of the word, the continuous focus on the  dead body almost puts it into that category.  The title referrs to how they buried “Old Bill” and the twinge of regret they have in burying him so quickly and without the care a proper burial would have required.  The reader might have to at least give them an “A” for effort.  They attempted to say a “service”.

The aspect of the story that will probably stick with me is the “plop” of the dirt going into the grave.  Crane managed to take such a simple word and put into it so much of the finality of life and at times the apparent meaninglessness of it.  The story is only about five pages.  While not exactly an uplifter, it doesn’t take long and I would say it’s worth the read.

The Portable Stephen Crane

“When I Knew Stephen Crane”

I have found it difficult to write about single essays.  I end up simply wanting to say “read this”.  However, at online-literature.com (which is where I found the pictures below), I found an enlightening essay written in 1900 (Stephen Crane died in 1900 at the age of 29) by Willa Cather about her previous interaction with Crane.  I believe she was writing for a newspaper in Lincoln, Nebraska, when he showed up in town waiting on money to be wired to him.  He stayed around town for a few weeks and she got to know him a little.

Willa Cather

Stephen Crane

He was disheveled and extremely skinny.  It seemed he had already written The Red Badge of Courage but had not yet really taken the literary world by storm.  At the time that Cather met him, he was 24.  She had the sense he knew he would not be living a long time.

For anyone interested in artists interacting with other artists, especially ones that are no longer living, this essay is a gem.  My favorite passage described what she thought was the purpose of their relationship:

Men will sometimes reveal themselves to children, or to people whom they think never to see again, more completely than they ever do to their confreres. From the wise we hold back alike our folly and our wisdom, and for the recipients of our deeper confidences we seldom select our equals. The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention, and we play only in the shallows. It selects its listeners willfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour. There are moments too, when the tides run high or very low, when self-revelation is necessary to every man, if it be only to his valet or his gardener. At such a moment, I was with Mr. Crane.

But I won’t continue explaining the essay, I’ll simply say “read this”!

“The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane

A Swede, an Easterner and a cowboy walk into a hotel in Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel”.  Card games, accusations of cheating and fighting ensues.  Patrick Scully, the owner of the hotel, attempts a certain level of civility in a Wild West version of “the customer’s always right” – but it doesn’t last long.

The scene moves to a saloon where more fighting occurs.  A small amount of philosophizing happens among the Swede and a gambler.  Later, the Easterner and the cowboy find themselves sitting around a campfire discussing the events of the evening and how a small incident snowballed into something worse.  This time, it’s the Wild West version of the Butterfly Effect.

I’ve heard that Stephen Crane was a precursor to Ernest Hemingway and some of the same themes of Hemingway’s stories can be found in this story; however, this story doesn’t really compare to most of Hemingway’s.  If one is a huge fan of Stephen Crane, I would recommend this story (but a huge fan probably would have already read it).  If one is just starting out with his work, I would recommend “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” which I’ve posted about here, or perhaps his more famous work The Red Badge of Courage which I still have not read.

Incidentally, this is the second story I’ve read in a row that takes place in Nebraska (Fort Romper to be exact).  I wasn’t sure whether Nebraska counts as “West”, but it’s west of where I live and the style of this story had a western feel.

“The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”

My first draw from my deck of cards was the three of hearts which corresponds to Stephen Crane’s short story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”.  See my page Deal Me In Short Story Project: 2013 for further details.

This is the first time I’ve read anything by Stephen Crane.  He’s known primarily for his Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage.  My Senior (High School) English teacher called my class a “literary desert” because nobody had ever read this novel.  Guess who still hasn’t?

“The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” could be called a showdown between the Wild West and Civilized Domesticity.  Or maybe it could be called a showdown between man’s primal animal nature and Civilized Domesticity.  Yellow Sky, Texas is a little short on Civilized Domesticity – at least when Scratchy Wilson  gets drunk.

A group of men hanging out at the wonderfully-named Weary Gentlemen saloon tell a newcomer about Wilson’s whiskey binges right as news arrives that Wilson has started on another one.  The whiskey turns Wilson into a gun-slinging hoodlum looking for a fight.  The newcomer is rather nonchalantly told that he might want to grab the floor if Wilson wanders near the bar.  Even though the door would be barred, bullets could still come through.  All of these antics seem to be business-as-usual for the folks of Yellow Sky.

At about this time, Yellow Sky’s marshal, Jack Potter, is arriving by train (with a very ornate dining car that gets described several times) from “San Anton” with his new bride.  Nobody in Yellow Sky is aware that he is married and he is a little concerned that the townspeople will be angry.  I feel a little naive, but at this point of the story I was thinking that they would be angry because they weren’t invited to the wedding.  I don’t think that was the case.  Potter happens to be Scratchy Wilson’s antagonist during the drunken rages.

I enjoyed the scene where Wilson wanders to Potter’s adobe house and waits for Potter to show up.  When he doesn’t, Wilson is a little disappointed at the “immovable” house – it doesn’t make for a very interesting opponent.  When Potter shows up with his bride, Wilson is ready for him – but more disappointment ensues as Potter tells Wilson he currently has no guns on him.  Then comes the biggest disappointment of all:  Potter introduces his bride to Scratchy Wilson.

Crane doesn’t develop Potter’s bride in much detail other than that she is “plain”.  I don’t think this is why Wilson is disappointed, though.  Potter’s bride seems to represent everything that is the opposite of the West as Wilson and the other men of Yellow Sky knew it.  The conflict between Potter and Wilson represented a code that the men lived by.  At times, the code seemed to be a game – but real bullets were involved.  Potter’s fear of bringing his bride to Yellow Sky resulted from the fact that he wasn’t just bringing a wife home, but he was bringing an end to this primal code that was a part of the West he inhabited.

I think the name of the saloon, Weary Gentlemen, had more to do with men weary of being gentlemen than simply gentlemen being tired and needing a place to rest.  I have to admit that I felt a little sympathy for Scratchy Wilson when Potter introduced his bride to him.  I have a feeling Stephen Crane did, too.