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thoughts: on short stories

Sometimes wonderful writing creeps up on you by stealth. It may seem simplistic, perhaps overly so, or even naïve - or primitive. But then something changes, perhaps in the reader’s perception of what the writer is trying to say, or perhaps in their understanding of the text, but something definitely changes.

This experience has happened to me on a great number of occasions. One of the first times I remember, when I was a young teenager, was while reading a Pan Book of Horror Stories. One story, now almost universally panned by critics, was massively fascinating to me. It was called ‘The Speciality of the House’ by Stanley Ellin. One online critic says ‘Rather a lengthy short story for such a thin concept. The twist ending can be seen miles away as we follow 2 characters who frequent a very little known restaurant where they serve up such amazing food that all the patrons become addicted to it. All the customers are regulars and now and again one of them disappears. You can guess why. Really dull story.’

I understand what the critic is saying, I really do. However, I can’t help thinking that it’s all horses for courses. I was a young reader and did not know for sure that the shock ending speciality of the house would be human flesh. I had an inkling, of course, but I didn’t care. I liked the writing, I liked the suspense and there was something about the whole story that really stuck with me over the years. And I feel defensive of it. I don’t understand why something has to be shocking or surprising in order to be a satisfying read. I don’t believe for one moment that it does. I am a realist!

I no longer own a copy of the 2nd Book of Pan Horror Stories, but I know that the story was only a few short pages in length – perhaps 20 at most. I also know the writing was not poetic, metaphoric, challenging or in any way outstanding, literary or brilliant. Nevertheless, I loved it because it gave me a feeling of anything being possible behind closed doors. I remember a few years later on, I met a friend for lunch in Manchester. It was the first time I’d been to a restaurant without the safety of an accompanying adult. I remember thinking of this Stanley Ellin story and wondering what I was eating in the mild, spicy Indian sauce. I watched the kitchen doors, intrigued and horrified by the prospect of what might be - in equal measure.

The short story, by a successful mystery writer, was adapted into an Alfred Hitchcock Presents… TV programme. It was changed massively, and didn’t have the same appeal as the original story did. Perhaps it just got me. Right place. Right time.

The writing in this story is not special, and it isn’t a story I would recommend to squeamish readers or those who demand a happy ending in their fiction, but for an adolescent with a bit of an odd need to be delighted by the macabre, it worked. More than anything, of all the books I read as a youngster, this one stayed with me.

There’s another book that’s stayed with me (Fay Weldon’s ‘Polaris & Other Stories’) and both these books together prove how unashamedly downmarket my reading tastes can be. Another book of short stories, Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Illustrated Man’ stayed with me too. Fay Weldon’s ‘Polaris’ however, was discovered by me when I was politically active in the anti-nuclear movement, and the cover story was interesting for that reason alone. I’m just going to say a few words about another one of the stories in this short story compilation. It is called ‘The Bottom Line and the Sharp End’. Two characters, Avril the seedy and brassy blonde nightclub singer, and Helen the classy hairdresser are its only characters. Avril has been visiting Helen’s salon sporadically for many years. This time, an ageing Avril again wants Helen to bleach her hair. The first bleaching doesn’t take properly and Avril insists on Helen trying again using a stronger solution. Helen does, and goes into shock when Avril’s hair falls out. This leads to the women sharing a couple of home truths and then to Helen visiting Avril at a new club – Mayfair now, rather than Soho. She sings very well with a ‘coarse and melancholy’ voice. Her new bald look was the making of her. It did not make her look glamorous. However, it made her look “important, as if her sufferings and her experience might be of considerable interest to others, and the customers certainly paid attention, were silent when she sang, and clapped when she’d finished”.

After the set, Avril speaks to Helen. She says “Remember what I told you about the bottom line and the sharp end? Nothing lasts, so you’d better have as much as you can, while you can. And in the end, there’s only you and only them, and not what they think of you, but what you think of them”. The most interesting thing about this is that it isn’t quite comprehensible to me. I have no idea of what Avril is trying to say. Success from adversity. Making the best of one’s lot. Belief in oneself. I don’t know. And that’s why I find it so intriguing.

I love short stories. They can do so much in such a condensed form!

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