What makes a great fantasy short story? I recently read six of them, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, and it struck me that they have a lot in common. All are what Farah Mendlesohn calls ‘intrusive fantasy’: narratives in which something impossible breaks through into the world we think we know. All are concerned with entrapment, which is a theme ideally suited to the narrow confines of short fiction. Several involve an element of hesitation on the part of the reader: are we facing the representation of a genuinely fantastic event or is the protagonist the victim of a delusion? Since illness features in all of them, the question of what’s real and what’s imagined is foregrounded in each narrative, though each of them treats that question in a different way.
These are the stories:
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, 1892
Franz Kafka, ‘The Transformation’, 1915
Max Beerbohm, ‘Enoch Soames’, 1916
Walter de la Mare, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, 1922
D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’, 1926
Dorothy Haynes, ‘Changeling’, 1947
Five of these tales were written in the shadow of war. ‘The Transformation’ and ‘Enoch Soames’ took shape while war was raging in Europe, while de la Mare, Haynes and Lawrence composed their stories in the extended aftermath of global conflict. Yet none of them mentions war (with one exception: Bassett in ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ was Uncle Oscar’s batman or military servant, who got a gardening job with Oscar’s family after being invalided out of the army with a wounded foot); an odd omission, one might think, given how large it must have loomed in the lives of the writers. But then fantasy often makes a point of turning away from public events to explore what’s unsaid and unseen in official culture (as Rosemary Jackson puts it in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion). These texts address the wars fought on the domestic front, and much of what’s at stake in these vicious skirmishes concerns the things that are ignored or set aside, neglected, shunned or actively suppressed. Such suppressions are part of a cultural milieu that makes war possible; the fields of Flanders and the slowly decaying house in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ are woven out of the same fabric. The suggestion in these narratives of unseen malevolent or tormented presences could easily be taken for an acknowledgement of the close proximity, in time and space, of inexplicable slaughter.
War thrives on secrets, and each of these stories has a secret at the heart of it. The convalescent narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has secrecy forced on her: her obsession with the wallpaper of the title is something she can’t share with others, and her inability to talk about it means she can confide it only to the pages we are reading, which she has been forbidden to write. Indeed, the wallpaper might be read as an extension of this clandestine process of putting pen to paper, with its grotesquely active lined pattern and the strange images that surface through the lines – funguses, strangled heads, a host of creeping women. The pattern also resembles bars, like the bars on the windows that identify the room where the narrator sleeps – the room with the paper in it – as a former nursery. These bars stand for a different secret: that of her husband, who infantilizes her by refusing to let her write or talk about her feelings, but who presents himself as a benefactor, a physician dedicated to ‘curing’ her of the curse of imagination by barring her from her creative pleasures and her stimulating friends.
Gregor in ‘The Transformation’ is his family’s dark secret, and each of the calamities in the narrative occurs when he emerges uninvited into the public rooms of the flat they live in. His predicament – he has turned into a giant beetle – also seems at times to stand for the reluctance of his bourgeois relatives to acknowledge the material processes (his labour and hard-won earnings) by which they have maintained their middle-class respectability. His work as a commercial traveller is the unacknowledged bug under the family floorboards.
Seaton’s Aunt is Seaton’s secret, in that he has no one he can talk to about her. He can’t articulate her strange tyranny over him, not even to the story’s largely unsympathetic narrator, because it’s not clear that there’s any way of describing exactly who she is or what she represents. His monstrous relative herself has any number of secrets, but only in the sense that she seems to exist on a different plane from anyone else, so that the hidden and unpleasant things she sees with such clarity make the ordinary world a matter of indifference to her – a point of view which is confirmed by her eventual descent into a strangely panoptic blindness.
The boy Paul in Lawrence’s story repeatedly urges his uncle to keep the secret of the fact that he can predict winners at the races by riding his rocking horse at a frenzied gallop. The larger secret of the story, though, is the fact that his mother thinks herself short of money, but cannot say so except to her children, because talking about one’s financial situation is impolite in middle class circles – as too is talking openly about depression or one’s own unhappy marriage.
Seven-year-old Moreen in ‘Changeling’, like Seaton or the narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, has a secret in spite of all her efforts to make it public. She can’t persuade anyone to listen to her when she tells them she can see a witch outside her window, sitting astride a gargoyle on the church steeple. She isn’t listened to in Fairyland, either, when the witch comes through her window and carries her off to live among the Wee Folk. The fairies have had her brought to them as a plaything, and resent her persistent refusal to be playful. And no one listens to her when the witch takes her home again after a year of changing seasons among the little people, and she finds herself confronted as a child of eight with her grown-up replacement, the changeling of the title. The woman’s reaction to the little girl’s arrival on her doorstep is to send for the doctor, no doubt for psychological assessment and incarceration, perhaps in a disused nursery. The story closes with the misting over of the window through which Moreen first saw the witch – and through which she can still see her, older and more gnarled, at the end of the narrative. The misted glass obscures but does not erase the fact of the witch’s existence. In the same way, the story has sketched out the precise details of the wee folk (‘sharp as thorns and shrill as treble chanters’) and their country (‘Yellow leaves soaked sodden into the lake, and rain and frost raced each other over the brilliant berries’) so that they become part of the reader’s memories, despite the bleak mundaneness of the story’s ending.
The one narrative in the list without a secret is ‘Enoch Soames’. Indeed, the story is cruelly explicit about the facts of Soames’s case, which is that he yearns to be made immortal through his writing and instead finds himself made immortal by the writing of Max Beerbohm, whose short story is the only place where his name survives beyond his death. If there is a secret here, it’s the knowledge implicitly shared between Beerbohm and the reader that Soames is in fact no fiction, that this forgotten man really existed and is trapped somewhere, even now, in the devil’s clutches. The potency of this implied shared secret is attested by the desire of some readers to add to the puzzle set up by Beerbohm by staging in their turn an ‘actual’ visit of Soames to the Reading Room of the British Museum in the 1990s, at the exact time to which he was transported by the Devil in the story, and in the exact location where he searched in vain for evidence of his literary immortality. This imaginative extension of Beerbohm’s story into actual twentieth-century history is invited by the author, who fills his tale with references to real events and living people, and even introduces himself into the story as character as well as narrator. But it also represents what seems to me a widespread attitude to the best fantasy short stories: that they are the special secrets of their readers, making us into a cohort of initiates who have been collectively imprinted with their disturbing images and seduced by their strange intelligence, and who recognize each other by certain hallmarks when we meet in public places such as libraries, cafés and second hand bookshops.
The notion of private, solitary secrets (which ironically make a kind of secret family out of their initiates) has in most of these stories a social equivalent: a powerful clandestine community whose membership is often exclusively male, and which has its own ‘official’ secrets, its own specialized discourse, designed to exclude and diminish those who don’t know it. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ that community is the medical profession, to which the narrator’s brother and husband belong and into which women can only intrude if they are prepared to serve as acolytes – like the husband’s Sister, the capitalization of whose title marks her out as a hospital official. In ‘The Transformation’ there are several communities from which Gregor is excluded by virtue of his change: the workforce from whom he absents himself as a result of his condition, and from whose company he is barred at once – despite his conviction that he still speaks their language – because they can suddenly no longer understand a word he says. The family, whose notions of solidarity and mutual support he has violated by changing. The three bearded and identical gentlemen lodgers, who take advantage of his presence in the apartment to discharge themselves of the obligation to pay their rent. In ‘Enoch Soames’ the closed community is that of the artistic set of the decadent 1890s who both tolerate and scorn Enoch’s presence among them; and later the community of scholars in the 1990s, who turn him into a spectacle when he visits the British Museum of the future. Unlike Gregor, Enoch speaks the language of the group he longs to join – the decadent artists – with apparent fluency, but the words he uses are empty signifiers, and he continues to use them, and to imbibe the toxic fluid, absinthe, that marked out the artistic set from their contemporaries, long after the rest of that community has moved on to other discourses, other poisons. His scholarly labours, too, prove fruitless, because the only evidence of his existence in the British Museum turns out to be the story we’re reading, ‘Enoch Soames’, which turns him into a work of art. That, at least, is a kind of immortality, though for Enoch such immortality would be hell. He expected perpetual fame, but not as a verbal construct in someone else’s fiction; he planned to be remembered as a shining light, not as the apotheosis of dimness. Another open secret in the story, then, is that it’s Beerbohm rather than the Devil who has condemned his own protagonist to eternal torment.
In ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ the closed male community is that of the school. Running through the narrative – and standing out for a twenty-first century reader by virtue of its obsolescence – is the jargon of the Edwardian boarding school, which Seaton strives to use properly but repeatedly violates (he swears, for instance, which is forbidden by some unspoken agreement among his fellow pupils). Lawrence’s story inverts the situation: the boy Paul finds himself admitted into the brotherhood of the turf, speaks its jargon and gains its respect (with considerable winnings). But for Lawrence masculinity has been irretrievably damaged by the rise of capitalism, and by the apex of that rise, the mechanized war from which the world had just emerged. Paul’s mother dismisses her husband as ‘unlucky’ because his earnings aren’t enough to cover the costs of an upper middle class family. The gardener Bassett’s war injury has turned him into an object of charity, forcing him into companionship with a child rather than grown men. Young Paul struggles to find security by swearing his adult friends to silence about his many secrets; his perpetual mantra is the phrase ‘honour bright’, rendered ironic by the fact that the term ‘honour’ has been permanently tarnished by its overuse in the context of mass murder. The only successful man in the story is Uncle Oscar, who finds common ground with his nephew and his former batman by virtue of their common interest in the races. But he doesn’t come to visit when the child is dying, although he has enriched himself at Paul’s expense. And his belated words of sympathy for his dead nephew (‘poor devil, poor devil’) identify the boy as the unluckiest of the unlucky, a moral and economic reject who has never reached manhood. Uncle Oscar is the scourge of masculinity, not its epitome, and this is brought home to us by the fact that we never see him utter these words: it is his disembodied ‘voice’ that speaks them in the story’s closing lines, like the voice of a self-satisfied deity pronouncing its judgement from behind a screen of obscuring clouds.
In each of these stories, it’s the buildings inhabited by the central characters that both keep and reveal their secrets. Claustrophobic and insanitary, they conceal rooms that turn into prisons whose doors are locked by the inmates – as in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – or ‘echo and answer in […] a medley of infinite small stirrings and whisperings’, as in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, awakening in their hearers the dreadful awareness of the presence in them of a jailed community of the dead. The locking and opening of doors successively conceal and reveal the noxious presence in the Samsas’ apartment of their shameful insectile relative; while Paul’s house insistently urges on him the irresistible demands of capitalism: ‘the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a kind of ecstasy: “There must be more money! […] There must be more money!”’. Moreen’s home in ‘Changeling’ embodies her imprisonment as the possessor of a truth no one else will acknowledge: ‘The house […] had its windows misted over with damp, and there were lace curtains, and geraniums gasping for air against the panes’. In these stories buildings are strident in bearing witness to the crimes being perpetrated within their walls; and in each the passers-by seem unacquainted with their stony dialect, despite its clarity to the reader, who hears them stirring, whispering, trilling, screaming and gasping as they turn the pages.
Once again it’s ‘Enoch Soames’ that seems to be the exception. No building dominates: it moves from the Café Royal to various Soho restaurants to the New English Art Club, and in each of these places Soames is the only constant, with his soft hat, his waterproof cape and his incurable dimness. The building everyone remembers from the story is the Reading Room at the British Museum, as seen by the protagonist in the future, and the most striking thing about this is its merciless predictability: its refusal to confirm Soames’s grandiose expectations of discovering his fame in its catalogue; its insistence on fulfilling everyone else’s assumptions about the shape of things to come. On Soames’s return from the future to which he has been sent by his Faustian contract with the devil, Beerbohm questions him as to the people he found there: ‘all of them – men and women alike – looking very well-cared-for? very Utopian? and smelling very strongly of carbolic? and all of them quite hairless?’ Soames’s assent to all these questions may, of course, be due to distraction – he has, after all, every reason to be distracted, since he has just sold his soul to the devil for a glimpse of a future that never took place. His only observation on the future Reading Room is that it is ‘Much as usual’; for him it is no more than a tool, an architectural search engine, and the behavior of the readers merely a nuisance to be ignored as far as possible. For us, on the other hand – the readers of Beerbohm’s story – that ordinariness, the mundanity of the middle desk, the Dictionary of National Biography and the card catalogue, are tools to engineer Soames’s tragedy. The bright light that floods the room from the windows in its famous dome are what mark the dank, ‘dim’ Soames as less than a ghost – a figment spawned by a satire, an image conjured up by words.
This ghostliness he shares with the central characters in all the other stories. Each of them fades away as their stories unfold, ignored or forgotten by their closest relatives, their bodies giving way under the strain of sustaining their identity in the face of the impossible – which in each case includes the impossible expectations foisted on them by an inflexible society. The narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ exchanges places with the creeping women from behind the pattern, her trajectory round the nursery-bedroom walls carved out for her, in effect, by her husband’s restriction of her movements. Gregor Samsa’s health declines after his transformation thanks to his family’s shame at his appearance – a shame that takes physical form in the apple that lodges itself in the middle of his back, thrown at him by his irate father in an attempt to force him back into his room. A stronger reason for his decline, however, is his own shame at the trouble he’s causing: ‘His own opinion that he must disappear was if anything even firmer than his sister’s’. Seaton is first diminished then exterminated by his aunt’s contempt; but he is also snuffed out, so to speak, by the contempt of his only friend – the story’s narrator – who is willing, for simplicity’s sake, to accept the aunt’s low opinion of her nephew. Seaton grows incrementally weaker, yellower and more ‘foreign’-looking as the story goes on, until by the end the narrator realizes with a shock that his old schoolfellow had been dead to him for some years before his actual death, buried beneath the piled-up prejudices held against him by his fellow pupils as much as by his aunt’s lifelong certainty that he will soon be added to her ever-expanding collection of captive ghosts.
The boy Paul, meanwhile, like Miles in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, grows feverish under the strain of channeling supernatural forces – or of precociously striving to measure up to the demands and desires of greedy adults. The calling of the doctor at the end of ‘Changeling’ encourages us to predict an anonymous future for Moreen, hidden away in some institution for those whose tales are not worth hearing. She will be disappeared, like the other protagonists, leaving only this curtailed work of fiction as ambiguous evidence that anyone like her ever existed. The great short stories of the fantastic, then, tell the tales of the vanished, the lost, the spurned, the prematurely deceased. And the greatest secret they contain is the secret of who, exactly, was responsible for their disappearance from the pages of history, and for their ghostly resurrection in the pages of story, where what’s lost gets found, for a while, perhaps, depending on the whim of any passing reader.