shining the spotlight on short story collections
The Short Review is delighted to welcome Christopher Fowler – whose tenth short story collection, Old Devil Moon, won the Edge Hill 2nd Prize 2008 and had seven other nominations, and his eleventh, The Horrors, features 14 new stories and is scheduled for summer 2010. Christopher talks about what a great short story is for him :
“Feelings, as Antonia Byatt recently noted, are ruining short stories. Detailed descriptions of emotional states don’t take the place of a good story well told. I don’t believe everyone can write – it’s not something you simply become passable at producing, like watercolours. A short story needs to surprise and entertain, but also needs an element that rings true; recognisable humanity. The opening of John Collier’s The Devil George And Rosie starts ‘There was a young man who was invariably spurned by the girls, not because he smelt at all bad but because he happened to be as ugly as a monkey.’ You want to read on.
My favourite short story volume is the anthology Black Water, edited by Alberto Manguel, a veritable encyclopedia of great tales. The book contains a famous story; David Garnett’s’ Lady Into Fox’, where the plot is actually embedded in the title. Tennessee Williams said ‘I don’t want realism. I want magic…I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be truth.’ I think tiny moments of magic can reveal great truths.
Short stories should be pleasurable to read. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, a sailor buys a genii and has to sell him for less than he paid – which proves impossible. Stories are much more enjoyable when the main character is having a terrible time. Panic breeds action, and action adds pace – when I read tales in which a lonely woman stares out of a window at the rain, my heart sinks, because I know we are off to a slow start. It’s often the case that the reader is way ahead of the writer.
John Sladek wrote a story called Anxietal Register B which consists of a form to be filled in by the reader. Good ideas satisfy immensely. For this reason, I’m sure, Roald Dahl is often cited as the perfect short story writer, but in truth he’s part of a long historical line, from Poe to Saki, from E F Benson to Somerset Maughan. Dahl is easy to read; no crime, this – for some reason, certain writers go out of their way to be unreadable in short form. I’ve been guilty myself, once writing a story in futuristic phonetic teen slang.
A short story doesn’t need the kind of structure one would expect in a novel. It may even end before the main event. In J G Ballard’s The Watchtowers, ominous towers guard a frightened populace, and only begin to open and reveal their purpose in the last line of the story. The point of the plot is to highlight the effect that a police state has on ordinary people. In Shirley Jackson’s celebrated The Lottery, villagers stone a character to death, but there is no explanation provided that will allow us to comprehend their cruelty. The point of the story is that real cruelty is inexplicable. So the plot does not directly provide the reader with satisfaction. Rather, it is the author’s delivery method for the idea. In Daphne Du Murier’s The Birds, no explanation for the avian behaviour is given, and therein lies its power.
Of course, a plot is a skeleton; it is hidden under the skin. It needs characters and scenario to function. The perfect plot is one which emerges from the other two factors. “Don’t look now,” says John to his wife, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.” John and Laura have lost a child, and are in Venice. John has a secret ability he has failed to recognize. The two old girls will ignite a terrible tragedy. Daphne Du Murier’s brilliant short story Don’t Look Now’ combines the three elements to perfection because they rely on each other. If the couple had not gone to Venice, if John had not been so blind, everything would have been different – but how often in life do we ask ourselves what would have happened if we’d only behaved differently?
A plot can’t simply be imposed on its characters, because free will must be exercised – but of course people are willfully blind, or too optimistic, or cruel, and this affects outcome. Kenneth Tynan once said that you don’t need to know why two people fall in love, you just need to know that they do.
The unexpected is important. It’s the element in any story that makes you want to describe it to others. ‘You’ll never guess what happened today’ is a phrase which begs the other person to undermine any surprise. I’m not a fan of trick endings unless they come naturally – we never see the best ones coming. In Don’t Look Now, the elements of the ending are put in place early on, and still we fail to spot the climactic tragedy. Mystery writing, in particular, is about the fair withholding of information. I stress ‘fair’ because it would be a cheat to reveal at the end that the protagonist is a dog, unless you can read the story a second time and see that it’s obvious. Hiding is not the same as withholding.
In Du Murier’s Adieu Sagesse. This plot concerns a dull 60 year-old banker with three daughters and a wife obsessed with appearance and status. He owns an old boat that has never been sailed, and lovingly tends it. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that he’ll soon give his family the finger before taking off for the open sea. After all, the title can be translated as Goodbye Common Sense. But instead of a closing scene in which the old man sails into a calm and glorious sunset, Du Murier makes him sail off into stormy grey seas. The suggestion is that it won’t be plain sailing, but at least he’s got away. It’s more realistic.
In my last collection I wrote a story called Cupped Hands after reading a newspaper report about African towns with no natural water supply. How do they survive? They have the water delivered in tankers. What if someone stole the truck? Why would they do that? Well, suppose they needed to leave town fast and there was no other vehicle? Suddenly I knew the story was there, because a moral problem had been created. The guy can save himself by stealing the truck, but will doom the stricken town.
So far I’ve had over 150 short stories published in ten collections. I’ve yet to write the perfect short story.”