Short Story Day Thirty – Passion

30. Passion
Alice Munro

As we are in the ninth inning, the home stretch, of my month of short stories we come across Alice Munro. She is the master – the best of the best.

I have been voraciously reading Alice Munro for decades now… and she should be in my list of writers that I have read everything – but she writes so much (all short stories) that there is always more. Most of what she writes shows up first in the New Yorker – she is the quintessential New Yorker fictioner.

What she does is magical. Read her stories and pay attention to how she plays with time. There is usually several different time planes going on – complex, yet made clear by careful attention to detail. The story is often told by illuminating subtle changes in a character between fictional scenes that take place on different sides of a shift in the story. Often times this shift is never actually shown or described… merely inferred from what has scarred or uplifted (or both) the characters before and after. There are subtle connections across time and place – you have to look closely to figure them out – but they resonate deep in your mind as you read.

Today’s story, Passion, is pure Munro. A woman is looking back over a critical period of her life – how critical it was and in what way isn’t clear until the final sentence.

I didn’t do this on purpose – but it is very interesting to compare this story to yesterday’s – The Garden Party. Both are tales of class differences. But Passion – the Munro story – is the opposite… a mirror image, of Mansfield’s The Garden Party.

In this one, the protagonist is a poor girl that stumbles into contact with the wealthy. However, as occurs in yesterday’s tale – once in the other’s camp she is exposed to death, and is changed in complex and subtle ways. Both women (both about the same age) are smart, resourceful, and perceptive beyond their years and expectations and are relied upon to help keep things going smoothly. However, both learn that the world is a harder, more complicated, and dangerous place – with darkness, passion, and beauty all wrapped up and twined, twisted, and knotted together.

The wealthy Traverse family in today’s story is not as isolated or as heartless as the Sheridans in yesterday’s – but they are every bit as flawed and are quietly doomed.

Munro spells out this doom without embellishment or symbolism – she simply tells the story – with great skill. It’s perfect. It’s why she is the best.

She had thought that it was touch. Mouths, tongues, skin, bodies, banging bone on bone. Inflammation. Passion. But that wasn’t what she’d been working toward at all. She had seen deeper, deeper into him than she could ever have managed if they’d gone that way.

What she saw was final. As if she were at the edge of a flat dark body of water that stretched on and on. Cold, level water. Looking out at such dark, cold, level water, and knowing that it was all there was.

It wasn’t the drinking that was responsible. Drinking, needing to drink—that was just some sort of distraction, like everything else, from the thing that was waiting, no matter what, all the time.
—-Passion, by Alice Munro

Short Story Day Twenty-Nine – The Garden Party

29. The Garden Party
Katherine Mansfield

This is day Twenty-nine of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

Katherine Mansfield was a writer from New Zealand that spent a large portion of her short life in Europe. She lived in the years around World War I. Her upbringing was very upper class (reflected in today’s story) but left that life behind for a bohemian existence. She hung out with some of the other great writers of the time like D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. She contracted tuberculosis and after years of illness she died at 34.

Today’s story is one of her later stories… and it’s one of the classics. When you first look at it what you see is a tale of class – the silly rich folks with their fancy smancy party, complete with cream puffs and a band, while down the lane the poor folks are dying. All this is true, and if it was all it would be a pretty good tale.

There’s more though, lots more. It’s a coming of age tale, with a twist. The young girl, Laura that has her first exposure to death… even to life outside of her garden party world – is modelled on the myth of Persephone. She visits the world of death and returns.

And the dead man that Laura sees – he is beautiful, untouched – he looks like he is sleeping. One of the turning points in the author’s life is when her beloved brother was killed in a grenade training accident in World War I. She said he was, “Blown to bits.”

So, here in a simple little story, we have issues of class, of life and death, of coming of age and the loss of innocence, and even the horrors of war. This complex tapestry – the end makes sense. Laura decides to tell us what life is… and she answers the only way she can.

There lay a young man, fast asleep – sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy … happy … All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.

“Forgive my hat,” she said.
—-Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party

Short Story Day Twenty-Eight – Pretty Boy

28. Pretty Boy
Richard Ford

This is day Twenty-eight of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

The cover of Richard Ford's novel - The Sportswriter.

The cover of Richard Ford’s novel – The Sportswriter.

One day, a while back… I remember I was at a crossroads, but I don’t remember what that was. Some sort of ridiculous existential panic. In adjusting my way of looking at the world, I decided to change what I was reading. That’s the sort of pitiful thing that I do. So I sat down with a fistful of recommended novels lists, and after a bit of seeking and thinking, I came up with The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford. I’m ashamed to admit that one reason was a strange, and probably perverse, fascination with the book’s cover.

So I bought the book and its much-ballyhooed sequel – Independence Day, and read them (the third novel in the Frank Bascome trilogy, The Lay of the Land, had not been published yet) in one gulp. I wasn’t sure what to think of the books…. They were very, very well-written – but I simply couldn’t get myself to care enough about Frank Bascome. I felt sorry for him – for the loss of his child – but his drowning in angst by simply living out the life of a New Jersey family man, sans family, wasn’t interesting enough. There didn’t seem to be enough there there.

Then, after a couple years, I stumbled across Richard Ford’s short stories… which were another deal altogether. More specifically, I read the collection Rock Springs. I found there was some meat on these bones. The stories in Rock Springs put Richard Ford in the category of Dirty Realism (this term was coined by Bill Buford of Granta – he said, “Dirty realism is the fiction of a new generation of American authors. They write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. Understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute a new voice in fiction.”) – along with Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Frederick Barthleme, Cormac McCarthy… and others. These are all writers I love and I was glad to find another one to read.

I read more about Richard Ford’s life – which I at first assumed was an Eastern, academic upbringing – to find he was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and lived a lot of places, including New Orleans (I think a person has to spend at least some time in New Orleans or he can’t fully understand humanity).


Hmmmm…. That’s odd. While I was putting this together, I discoved that the story is in two parts and I had only read the first.

Here’s the second – Pretty Boy Part Two

Give me a few minutes to finish it up and I’ll get back to you.


Ok, that was interesting. I think I liked the story better with the second half missing. There is a bit of action in the second half – but the characters are wooden and, in the end, it signifies nothing, or at least nothing much.

As a matter of fact, I wish I hadn’t read that second part. I think I’ll forget about it.

And so, he granted himself the year for his new money to take him someplace good. He told the two nice studious girls he’d been seeing since college that he was going away and maybe wouldn’t be back so soon. They each expressed regret. One drove him to the airport and kissed him goodbye. His family made no complaint.

In Paris, it was autumn, and he found a tiny, clean flat through a friend who knew a woman who did such things. It was light but noisy, so he was often out. He attended a beginners’ conversation class at the American Library, visited the American bookshop near where he rented in Rue Cassette. He read (for some reason) Thorstein Veblen and Karl Popper, but seemed to meet no one French. He declined dinner with the young business types from his class. He tried to speak, but found that if he spoke French to French men, they would answer him in English, which they wanted to practice.

—–Richard Ford, Pretty Boy

Short Story Day Twenty-Seven – From Hell’s Heart I Stab at Thee

27. From Hell’s Heart I Stab at Thee
Armando Vitalis

This is day Twenty-seven of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

A teacher once told me it was possible to make a living selling books that you had paid to have printed. This was decades before ebooks and online publishing. He said you could go around with cases of books and give talks or readings at book clubs, schools, and such and sell enough to get you through the day and on to the next stop. It would be a hardscrabble hand-to-mouth life… but it could be done.

I knew he was right, because I had met someone like that.

Nacogdoches, Texas, is a big town… or a small city in the deep piney woods of East Texas. I was there to deliver a talk on the effects of acid rain on the calcium cycle in red spruce forests at Stephen F. Austin University. My talk was over by noon and I had a hotel room for that night paid for by the University, and I was going to use it – so I had an afternoon to kill in Downtown Nacogdoches. There wasn’t much to do, but I wandered into some place off the square that sold antiques and notions – called The Runaway Mule.

There was a guy that seemed to be the owner, setting up folding chairs in a fan shape around a little worn wooden lectern. Nothing to do, I decided to help, and we chatted while we worked. I asked him about the name of his store.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “In 1912 a singing group called ‘The Six Mascots’ were singing in the opry house here. Someone rushed in and yelled that there was a runaway mule outside. The crowd left, figurin’ that the mule would be a better show that those singers. When they filed back in the head singer, Julius, was so pissed he let ’em have it. He was yellin’ stuff like, ‘Nacogdoches is full o’ roaches,’ and ‘the jackass is the flower of Tex-ass.’ Well, the crowd thought it was hilarious and the singers decided then and there to be comedians. That guy, Julius, changed his name to Groucho and they started goin’ by their family name, the Marx Brothers.”

That story seemed pretty far-fetched to me, but I had to admit it was a good one. We finished setting up the chairs. “What’s happening now?” I asked.

“Oh, the Nacogdoches Ladies Reading Society is having a meetin’.” the owner said. “Some writer I sure never heard of is coming in to try and sell some books.” He tapped a ratty looking cardboard box that had obviously been opened and re-sealed a few times, then pushed it under a folding table he had set up next to the lectern.

I thought this might be worth sitting in on, so I walked down and had a burger and shake a few doors down and came back in time for the Ladies Reading Society. Sure enough, I found the seats full of Texas matriarchs, gossiping and waving their programs to try and bat away the flies and heat.

Right on time, the author, Armando Vitalis appeared from the men’s room in the back of the store and took his place at the lectern. The writer was very tall and almost impossibly thin. His hair was thick, dark, long, and wild, with only a touch of gray starting to pepper his temples. He wore a light suit that was fashionable and expensive at one time but gone to shiny at the elbows and knees.

He introduced himself and went into a long story of how he had decided to become a writer while working as a bookkeeper at a foundry in Cleveland. He name dropped a few popular authors and expounded on their theories of fiction that he had pried from them during various parties at New York publishing houses. At hearing these famous names and stories of the exotic big city, the level of excitement of the Ladies Reading Society became noticeably higher – their faces would flush and their waving of programs went faster and more desperate.

Then Armando Vitalis did a couple of readings. First, he read an untitled short story that seemed to consist of a series of odd action-filled short scenes that seemed unconnected to each other. The women were confused, but eventually settled down in that way that folks sometimes do when they assume they are simply too uneducated and ignorant to understand what is being presented to them… but don’t want to admit it to anyone, even themselves.

Then he recited a scene from his new, as-yet unpublished novel, Laid With Iron Rails. It was an embarrassingly detailed love scene between an older woman and a much younger man. You could see the Reading Society ladies squirming, uncomfortable… but riveted nonetheless.

They all applauded with enthusiasm when he finished.

He sat at the folding table and commenced to autograph and sell copies of paperbacks he pulled from the ratty cardboard box and stacked on the table. The Nacodoches Reading Society lined up clutching their pocketbooks, waiting excited yet patient. Everyone bought at least one book. About half left with their purchases and the rest stayed behind, clumped together and talking in low tones, maybe hoping to get another chance to meet with the author.

I bought a copy of a novel, Game for His Crooked Jaw. I asked Vitalis to sign it “To Starbuck.” He glared at me, but I wanted him to know I recognized the quotes that he was using for his titles.

I never read the book. It was so poorly printed and cheaply bound, that it literally fell apart before I could get around to steeling myself up to diving into the thing.

The funny thing is, I did see Armando Vitalis one more time. That night, at the hotel bar, I saw him sitting at a table with the gray-haired, but remarkably well-preserved vice-president of the Nacodoches Ladies Reading Society. He seemed to be hitting a dark whiskey pretty hard while she sipped at a white wine. They were still there when I went back to my room.

There doesn’t seem to be any record of Armando Vitalis on the Internet anywhere. I don’t know how long he was able to keep up his dream of writing and selling his books. The only work I could find was this strange little short story From Hell’s Heart I Stab at Thee – which was published in a shoddy online zine called Handicapped by Laziness. The zine is long gone, but the link to the story still seems to work.

I’m not sure for how long.

She reached a point near the end of the market and was beginning to worry that her contact would not show. She was looking at a pyramid of strange, oblong, spiked fruits, nonchalantly resting her fingertips on one of the samples. She was trying to ignore the peddler that had sliced one open with a rusty machete and was offering her a sample of dripping purple flesh that gave off a pungent sour odor and was rapidly drawing an even thicker swarm of flies. Right then the top fruit in the pile exploded in the crack of a high powered bullet, spraying her with pieces of warm, sticky pulp and sending the crowd into a panicked frenzy.
—-Armando Vitalis, From Hell’s Heart I Stab at Thee

Short Story day Twenty-Six – The Secret Room

26. The Secret Room
Alain Robbe-Grillet

This is day Twenty-six of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

The first book I read by Alain Robbe-Grillet was Jealousy (La Jalousie). I’m not sure why I read it (nobody I’ve ever met has read any Robbe-Grillet) – I think I picked up the paperback from a clearance pile in a used books store. Probably, I liked the cover.

It was an amazing book. Robbe-Grillet’s writing is “realist” or “phenomenological” or “a theory of pure surface.” There is no plot, no characters, no inner dialog… no nothing other than descriptions of scenes. In Jealousy there is an unseen and unheard narrator – the book is telling the reader what this person is looking at. Through repetition, geometric arrangements, repetition, details, and finally repetition – a story is built up, layer by layer. Jealousy takes place on a banana plantation where the unseen narrator is worried that his wife is having an affair with a neighbor named Frank.

The reason it works so well, I think, is that the mind of the reader fills in the gaps of story, character and situation that are completely absent from the text. Your imagination is guided by the images that are transmitted… especially by small details that change from one repetition of an image to the next. The book is entirely free of emotion – yet the tension, dread, and excitement builds in the reader’s mind… the inner vision that is conjured up is so much stronger – it is personally tuned to the psyche of the reader by the subconscious – than if it was spelled out by the author.

At least, that’s what I took from it.

Today’s story, The Secret Room, holds true to the Robbe-Grillet style. It is a single scene, meticulously detailed, with no explanation of who, why or how. Yet, at the end, the effect is strong, the emotions are stirred – though there are plenty of loose ends left hanging… so to speak.

One fact that might help, is that the story was dedicated by the author to Gustave Moreau. The story certainly could be interpreted as a description of a Moreau painting. The last word in the story certainly would indicate that.

But the painting moves back and forth in time. Is the story the reaction of a person looking at a painting? Is the author/writer/unknown narrator describing his own thoughts on what must have occurred? Or is he using the technique of a painting to convey the horror and contrasting the terror and violence with the beauty that still resides in the situation?

Almost certainly… all the above and more.

In the background, near the top of the stairway, a black silhouette is seen fleeing, a man wrapped in a long, floating cape, ascending the last steps without turning around, his deed accomplished. A thin smoke rises in twisting scrolls from a sort of incense burner placed on a high stand of ironwork with a silvery glint. Nearby lies the milkwhite body, with wide streaks of blood running from the left breast, along the flank and on the hip.
—-Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Secret Room

The Apparition, by Gustave Moreau

The Apparition, by Gustave Moreau

Short Story day Twenty-Five – The Use of Force

25. The Use of Force
William Carlos Williams

This is day Twenty-five of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

I have always thought of William Carlos Williams as a poet. His poem “XXII” (which most people call “The Red Wheelbarrow“) has always been a wonderful touchstone to me – such an example of the power behind a few simple words. I never knew he wrote short fiction. And I really never knew that he was a physician. A biographer said that he, “worked harder at being a writer than he did at being a physician” – apparantly he was pretty good at both.

Does that illuminate today’s very short short story? Is it important that the author knows what he is writing about and in all likelihood is writing almost directly from experience?

That’s a tough question. I imagine that a very talented writer could imagine what it would be like to be a doctor when confronted with a stubborn child – of course, anyone could type out the same words. But the fact that an experienced physician wrote the piece gives it an air of authority that it wouldn’t have otherwise.

Is that important? Is it fair? Is Batman a Transvestite? Who knows?

At first, the story seems to be a musing on the use of power. Is it appropriate to force a human being to do what they don’t want to do? I don’t think that’s the real intent here, though. First of all, it is undoubtably a matter of life and death – diptheria was an often fatal disease then – both for the child and for society in general. Of course it was appropriate for the doctor to force her to give up.

The real point of the story is the doctor’s attitude. He seems to be a good man, a caring man, and is there to save the child’s life, after all. But her insubordination awakens a primitive passion in the doctor, he finds himself wanting to hurt the child.

It’s a fascinating scene, especially in the hands of someone that knows, and someone with the skills with words of William Carlos Williams.

Get me a smooth-handled spoon of some sort, I told the mother. We’re going through with this. The child’s mouth was already bleeding. Her tongue was cut and she was screaming in wild hysterical shrieks. Perhaps I should have desisted and come back in an hour or more. No doubt it would have been better. But I have seen at least two children lying dead in bed of neglect in such cases, and feeling that I must get a diagnosis now or never I went at it again. But the worst of it was that I too had got beyond reason. I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.
—-William Carlos Williams, The Use of Force

Short Story Day Twenty Four – Red Nails

24 Red Nails (Conan the Barbarian)
Robert E Howard

This is day Twenty-four of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.


Nearly four years ago, WEIRD TALES published a story called “The Phoenix on the Sword,” built around a barbarian adventurer named Conan, who had become king of a country by sheer force of valor and brute strength. The author of that story was Robert E. Howard, who was already a favorite with the readers of this magazine for his stories of Solomon Kane, the dour English Puritan and redresser of wrongs. The stories about Conan were speedily acclaimed by our readers, and the barbarian’s weird adventures became immensely popular. The story presented herewith is one of the most powerful and eery weird tales yet written about Conan. We commend this story to you, for we know you will enjoy it through and through.
—-From Weird Tales, 1936

A dozen years ago, in February of 2001, I had just finished up a solo camping trip to Big Bend way out in far west Texas. I had a long drive back to the Metroplex, one I had made before. This time, however, I had picked a different route back, one that was slightly longer than usual.

Instead of going north to Interstate 20 and taking it back, I caught 67 through San Angelo and on to Brownwood, then north to the little hamlet of Cross Plains. Once I made it to that small town, I followed a little map that I had scribbled to a tiny house on the west side of town. I stopped, looked at the nondescript wood frame dwelling for a minute, then went back to my car and drove the rest of the way home.

I had wanted to see that house because of the person that lived in it in the 1930s – it was the childhood home, and the place he committed suicide, of Robert E Howard. Even though it looked exactly like a million other old farmhouses all across the Great Plains – I wanted to see this one… to see it, and nothing more.

Like anyone that has been a voracious reader for almost half a century now, I have read my fair share of pulp. Mostly devoured in the form of cheap paperback reprints, I was familiar with Conan, and with Robert E Howard… along with the other writers of depression-era fantastic, gothic, and strange tales – plus their imitators that have continued the tradition still.

But the specific incident that lead me to my stop in Cross Plains had occurred on a cult movie night at the Dallas Museum of Art. I had seen that they were showing a film I had never seen before – The Whole Wide World – an elegiac story of Robert E Howard (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) and his relationship with a girl named Novalyne Price (Renée Zellweger, in one of her first roles).

It was an amazing film and one that almost nobody had seen. It was so representative of the writing life, the desire for creativity and expression, the sad doomed love story, and the insane dreamer pounding out madness for pennies a word. Even the evocation of rural Texas in the depression felt true and fascinating. The representative from the distribution company came out and thanked everyone for seeing it – he said, “We are so proud of this movie and want as many folks as possible to see the film.” Now it’s more available… you should take a look.

I found out that it was based on a memoir by Novalene Price – called One Who Walked Alone – which hadn’t sold many copies. I ordered it from Amazon and (though it really wasn’t particularly well-written) enjoyed it thoroughly.

So here’s a pulp novella from Robert E Howard, Red Nails. Don’t think of Arnold and his movie when you read it… think of the doomed crazy boy hammering away in the back of that little farm house in that little town in Texas… fighting back his demons the only way he can – with a typewriter.

“Five dead dogs!” exclaimed Techotl, his flaming eyes reflecting a ghastly exultation. “Five slain! Five crimson nails for the black pillar! The gods of blood be thanked!”

He lifted quivering hands on high, and then, with the face of a fiend, he spat on the corpses and stamped on their faces, dancing in his ghoulish glee. His recent allies eyed him in amazement, and Conan asked, in the Aquilonian tongue: “Who is this madman?”

Valeria shrugged her shoulders.

“He says his name’s Techotl. From his babblings I gather that his people live at one end of this crazy city, and these others at the other end. Maybe we’d better go with him. He seems friendly, and it’s easy to see that the other clan isn’t.”

—-Red Nails, by Robert E Howard

Short Story Day Twenty-Three – Hunters in the Snow

23. Hunters in the Snow
Tobias Wolff

This is day Twenty-three of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite short story writers. His story In The Garden of the North American Martyrs is one of the best pieces of short fiction ever scribbled out.

I remember one time, years ago, he was giving a talk at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of the Arts & Letters Live series. Well, I’m poor and can’t afford the full price ticket to these lectures, but, for a pittance, you can attend and sit in an auditorium off to the side where the lecture is beamed in on a screen. I was sitting there, waiting with a few other people (the main room was packed) when I looked up and there was Tobias Wolff, walking between the rows talking to us. He said he didn’t think it was fair that we had to sit in the other room and had arranged for an extra row of seats down across the front. We all marched into the big room and saw the live lecture, thanks to the author.

It was better that way.

I’m afraid today’s story is one that I had read before – but had forgotten until I was about a third of the way in. That’s not surprising… I guess Wolff is another writer that I have read, if not everything, then almost all his output.

At any rate, it’s a good story, with a few differences from similar modern realistic tragedies. First, the origins of the story is pretty obvious. First, there’s the eponymous painting by Pieter Bruegel.

Hunters in the Snow, by Bruegel

Hunters in the Snow, by Bruegel

The tone of the story is different from the balanced and optimistic winter scene in the painting. A more accurate source of the story is an old joke about a man asking a hunter to shoot his old dog for him, as a favor.

That’s what is so odd and interesting about the story is the juxtaposition of the realistic horror of the situation and the humor that laces the story. It’s an odd combination – sort of like the three stooges, but the blows actually hurt.

Some juvenile delinquents had heaved a brick through the windshield on the driver’s side, so the cold and snow tunneled right into the cab. The heater didn’t work. They covered themselves with a couple of blankets Kenny had brought along and pulled down the muffs on their caps. Tub tried to keep his hands warm by rubbing them under the blanket but Frank made him stop.

They left Spokane and drove deep into the country, running along black lines of fences. The snow let up, but still there was no edge to the land where it met the sky. Nothing moved in the chalky fields. The cold bleached their faces and made the stubble stand out on their cheeks and along their upper lips. They stopped twice for coffee before they got to the woods where Kenny wanted to hunt.

Tub was for trying someplace different; two years in a row they’d been up and down this land and hadn’t seen a thing. Frank didn’t care one way or the other, he just wanted to get out of the goddamned truck. “Feel that,” Frank said, slamming the door. He spread his feet and closed his eyes and leaned his head way back and breathed deeply. “Tune in on that energy.”
—-Tobias Wolff, Hunters in the Snow

Short Story Day Twenty-Two – The Sandman

22. The Sandman
E.T.A. Hoffmann

This is day Twenty-two of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

When I turned to today’s story, I glanced at the name and the author and it meant nothing to me. I don’t even remember how I chose this story. I decided to do no research and simply dive into the thing blind.

I don’t know what I expected… but I didn’t expect this. From the archaic language and style I realized that it was a classic story, written a long time ago. But man, that bugger was strange. It was an odd bird even by modern standards.

There are two themes going on at the same time, tightly interwoven. The first is a standard science-fiction meme – the idea of a mad scientist making the perfect woman. The second, more subtle and horrifying, has to do with childhood fears echoing down the halls of time, affecting a person’s entire life… it has to do with evil, with the mystery of a secretive father, and with the theft of a child’s eyes.

So I finished and did some research on the author. The story was older than I realized, E.T.A. Hoffman lived and wrote in the early 19th century – this story about a mechanical person is way before its time. I should have recognized the name and would have if I had thought about it. He is famous for several reasons. Three of his stories (including this one) were adapted by Offenbach into the well-known opera Tales of Hoffmann. Another one of his stories was a very odd and disturbing yarn about a young girl and her enchanted toys doing battle with an army of rodents. This was cleaned up a bit by Alexandre Dumas, père. Tchaikovsky used the watered-down version as the basis of a famous ballet – maybe the most famous of all. The Hoffmann story was called, of course, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

Hoffmann was the master of several forms of art – in addition to his writing – fiction and non-fiction – he wrote some very influential music and could even draw a line or two.

He was so influential in his time – more people have seen the works derived from his ideas than read the originals. Freud wrote a famous essay – The Uncanny – based upon today’s short story.

The theme of the automaton “ideal woman” created by science is seen again and again, from Fritz Lange’s Metropolis to Weird Science. Blade Runner is especially descended from The Sandman – think of the importance of the eyes.

There is some really odd qualities to the story. Pay attention to the parts that simply don’t make any sense. For example, in the story of Nathaniel’s childhood terror – what do you make about the statement where The Sandman, “seized me so roughly that my joints cracked, and screwed off my hands and feet, afterwards putting them back again, one after the other.” What is up with the telescope? What is its terrible power?

Now I’m going to have to read it again.

It occurred to him, however, in the end to make his gloomy foreboding, that Coppelius would destroy his happiness, the subject of a poem. He represented himself and Clara as united by true love, but occasionally threatened by a black hand, which appeared to dart into their lives, to snatch away some new joy just as it was born. Finally, as they were standing at the altar, the hideous Coppelius appeared and touched Clara’s lovely eyes. They flashed into Nathaniel’s heart, like bleeding sparks, scorching and burning, as Coppelius caught him, and flung him into a flaming, fiery circle, which flew round with the swiftness of a storm, carrying him along with it, amid its roaring. The roar is like that of the hurricane, when it fiercely lashes the foaming waves, which rise up, like black giants with white heads, for the furious combat. But through the wild tumult he hears Clara’s voice: ‘Can’t you see me then? Coppelius has deceived you. Those, indeed, were not my eyes which so burned in your breast – they were glowing drops of your own heart’s blood. I have my eyes still – only look at them!’ Nathaniel reflects: ‘That is Clara, and I am hers for ever!’ Then it seems to him as though this thought has forcibly entered the fiery circle, which stands still, while the noise dully ceases in the dark abyss. Nathaniel looks into Clara’s eyes, but it is death that looks kindly upon him from her eyes.
—-The Sandman, E.T.A. Hoffmann

Short Story Day Twenty-One – Mexican Manifesto

21. Mexican Manifesto
Roberto Bolaño

This is day Twenty-one of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

Illustration from the New Yorker

Roberto Bolaño considered himself primarily a poet. For most of his life he was a bohemian vagabond poet, working odd low-end jobs by day and writing poetry by night. Good work if you can get it.

He married in Europe and in 1990 his son was born. At that point he felt responsible for his family and began writing fiction to help pay the bills. Over a short period of time he produced a series of acclaimed novels, collections of short stories, and his magnum opus – 2666, which was published posthumously.

I haven’t read any Bolaño up to this point. I did buy a hardback copy of 2666 – the huge novel (900 pages) sits on the bottom row of my book shelf like a leaden lump of wood pulp; a mysterious Pandora’s box of secret promises, putative wisdom, and unknown wonders locked tight between its covers – only to be opened and released by masses of time, long sleepless evenings, and painful eye strain.

Maybe I should read The Savage Detectives or even the novella By Night in Chile first.

Today’s story Mexican Manifesto, was first published this year in the New Yorker. Since Bolaño passed away a decade ago – I assume this story was found in his papers or computer files.

It is a hazy memory of the narrator, thinking about his youth and the adventures he had with a woman as the two of them explored the world of public bathhouses in Mexico City. He talks about the bathhouses in general and the denizens of the rooms, corridors, and steam. He elaborates on a strange encounter when he and the woman hire a trio – an old man with filthy underwear and two young boys – to provide them with a sexual performance. It doesn’t work out right. Due to his leaky memory, the ethereal nature of the bathhouse, and the clouds of steam that conceal and confuse – it isn’t clear exactly what happened.

The story is a dream or a dreamlike memory or a dream of a memory, or a memory of a dream… or maybe just a half-forgotten recollection mixed up with a fantasy of something that might have happened a long time ago. Youthful adventures tend to warp as time goes by – they become like wisps of steam leaking into the outer chamber of a bathhouse, ghosts of time – they become what they weren’t.

Maybe they never were.

I’ll have to read the story again, and think more about its secrets. I think a key might be the mural described in the first paragraph. It’s in the foyer of their first and favorite public bath, Montezuma’s Gym. I want to figure out what the king sees.

Laura and I did not make love that afternoon. In truth, we gave it a shot, but it just didn’t happen. Or, at least, that’s what I thought at the time. Now I’m not so sure. We probably did make love. That’s what Laura said, and while we were at it she introduced me to the world of public baths, which from then on, and for a very long time, I would associate with pleasure and play. The first one was, without a doubt, the best. It was called Montezuma’s Gym, and in the foyer some unknown artist had done a mural where you could see the Aztec emperor neck-deep in a pool. Around the edges, close to the monarch but much smaller, smiling men and women bathe. Everyone seems carefree except the king, who looks fixedly out of the mural, as if searching for the improbable spectator, with dark, wide-open eyes in which I often thought I glimpsed terror. The water in the pool is green. The stones are gray. In the background, you can see mountains and storm clouds.
—-Mexican Manifesto, by Roberto Bolaño