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Friday, August 01, 2008

Of Subtext, Subtlety, and Coming In After The Fact
by Gary A. Braunbeck

There's a certain type of story, one that I have come to call the After-the-Fact story. I have not seen many After-the-Fact stories written in the horror genre; mostly, they've stayed in the neighborhood of "literary" fiction. So, why haven't we seen more of this type of story in horror?

After-the-Fact stories are tricky little bastards, because the main action of the story has already happened before the first sentence. After-the-Fact stories do not employ flashback, nor do they resort to the obvious mechanism of having a character offer a quick recap of what happened before the reader came into it; no, in these stories, you're presented with a situation that, nine times out of ten, is in no way connected to what actually happened; you have to piece together the events by what is said and done by the characters. They're a little like walking into a room just after someone's had an argument or gotten a piece of bad news; even though you know something's just happened, no one will tell you what it was, so you have to figure it out for yourself by observing the effect it's had on those around you: you have to pay attention to the detritus, because that's all you've got to go on.

A classic example is John Cheever's story "The Swimmer". On the surface, it's about nothing more than some rich guy in suburbia who's spending a Sunday afternoon running from neighbor's house to neighbor's house to use their swimming pools. "I'm swimming my way home," he tells his friends and neighbors, all of whom laugh and remark on what a card he is as they go about mixing their martinis and discussing events at the country club. Occasionally someone remarks, in passing, " ... he's looking better, don't you think ..." or ... I'm really surprised to see him out like this, after, well ..." Then the main character comes over to them and that line of conversation is dropped. This goes on for a while, each successive neighbor becoming more surprised and anxious at seeing him, offering more whispered comments when he's out of earshot -- " ... didn't realize he was back ..." etc. -- until it becomes obvious that something fairly awful has happened to this guy sometime before the story began, and though Cheever never once directly states what happened, everything you need to know is there.

The first time I read "The Swimmer", its sudden shocker of an ending seemed to come out of left field, so I went back and re-read the story, much more slowly than the first time, and realized that Cheever had, indeed, dropped a ton of clues; unfortunately, the majority of them were hidden in the detritus, given only through subtext.

Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe, the hero of such classic novels as The Big Sleep and The Little Sister) once gave the best example of what constitutes subtext that I've ever encountered (and I am liberally paraphrasing here):
A man and woman, both middle-aged, are waiting for an elevator. It arrives, and the man helps the woman get on. For the first several floors they are alone, watching the blinking lights. They do not speak and stand well apart from each other. The woman wears a very nice dress. The man wears a suit, tie, and hat. The elevator stops -- not their floor -- and a young woman gets on; she smiles at both the man and the woman, who smile at her in return. The man removes his hat. The ride continues in silence. The elevator stops, the girls gets off, the man puts his hat back on. A few floors later, the man and woman get off and walk together toward a door at the end of the corridor.

It was usually at this point that Chandler would ask the listener: "What's written on that door?"

So I'll put the question to you: what words are written on that door which our middle-aged couple are heading toward?

How the hell am I supposed to know? some of you may cry. No one in that freakin' elevator said word one to anyone else, and on the basis of all the nothing that happened during that boring, boring, boring ride, I'm supposed to guess what it says on that stupid door?

Yes, you are.Because an awful lot happened during that elevator ride:
  1. The man and woman never spoke to each other, even while they were alone;
  2. They also made it a point to stand well apart from each other even though the man helped her get on;
  3. When the young woman got on, the man, obviously out of respect and courtesy, removed his hat;
  4. Once the young woman disembarked, he put the hat back on; and,
  5. The man and woman got off on the same floor, and are heading toward that door together.


Still say nothing happened and that you have no clues to go on?

Detritus. Subtext. The unspoken information that is conveyed to a reader through a character's behavior, actions, speech, or lack thereof. In acting, it's referred to as "nuance". It's subtle, but its implications are quite direct if you care enough to pay attention.
That is, in my opinion, what the horror field has lost over the last few decades: a willingness on the part of both writers and readers to (respectively) employ and appreciate the quieter, more delicate, and less obvious details of character and scene that can make fiction so much richer and rewarding.

Last chance; take a guess what it says on that door.

Try: Marriage Counselor.

That was an After-the-Fact story; tricky little bastard, wasn't it?

There's usually very little action in these stories; nothing much seems to happen at the core -- it's on the periphery that you have to watch out for yourself.

A handful of other After-the-Fact stories you'd do well to search out and read include Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"; Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path"; Raymond Carver's "What Do You Do In San Francisco?", "Popular Mechanics", and "Why, Honey?" (these latter two being arguably horror stories); Carson McCullers's "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud"; Michael Chabon's "House Hunting"; John O'Hara's brilliant "Neighbors" (a horror story if ever there was one); and a personal favorite of mine, Russell Banks's "Captions" -- perhaps in its way the most extreme After-the-Fact story I've yet encountered --wherein Banks details the agonizing disintegration of a married couple's existence through captions taken from newspapers or written underneath pictures in photo albums.

You've undoubtedly noticed that the above list contains no horror writers. There is a reason for this: not many have attempted an After-the-Fact story. Maybe it's because the structure of this type of story seems to self-consciously "literary" to them; maybe it's because horror readers have become far too accustomed to having everything spoon-fed to them and don't think they should have to work a little while reading a story, and so horror writers just automatically assume that All Must Be Revealed as quickly and in as simplistic of terms as possible. I don't know, I'm guessing here. But I've been going through my books searching for at least six examples of a successful After-the-Fact story in the horror field, and here's what I came up with:

  • "Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly," by Dennis Etchison
  • "Petey" by T.E.D. Klein
  • "Red" by Richard Christian Matheson
  • "Snow Day" by Elizabeth Massie
  • "Taking Down the Tree" by Steve Rasnic Tem
  • "Gone" by Jack Ketchum
... and that was it (even with this small a list, Klein's, Matheson's, Ketchum's, and Tem's stories almost offered too many concrete hints to qualify).

I thought perhaps Peter Straub's "Bar Talk", "The Veteran", or "A Short Guide To the City" (all from his magnificent collection Houses Without Doors) could be used to beef up the list, but that would have been stacking the deck (pardon my mixed metaphors); Straub's work is the result of an exceptionally well-read literary background, so of course the sensibilities of his work are informed from countless sources, resulting in fiction that is challenging in its approach to structure and subtext -- no more so than in the "Interlude" fictions sprinkled throughout Houses.

So no Straub; it wouldn't be playing fair on my part. Same goes for Stewart O'Nan, whose wonderful collection In The Walled City contains not one, but two After-the-Fact stories, "Calling" and "Finding Amy". (I exclude O'Nan because, though he does sometimes dabble in the horror field, he is not primarily a horror writer.)

So I came up with six stories, four of which (though superb) just barely made it onto the list. I'm sure there are other After-the-Fact horror stories out there that I missed, but my guess is, not that many.

Horror may be trying to outgrow its popular definition, but it's still suffering from a case of arrested literary adolescence -- and I'm not one who apologizes for using the term "literary" when talking about horror. It can be among our most literary forms of storytelling; emphasis on can be; we still need to take chances, even if we fall flat on our faces in the attempt.

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