I have rediscovered my time management skills and organized my executive function disorder to bring you two, count’em, TWO short-story synopsis. First we have that two-fisted purveyor of screw turning, Henry James. After that will follow that treacly plumber of psycho-sexual phantasmorgia, Hans Christian Andersen.
Let’s get to it!
“The Friends of the Friends” by Henry James
This story’s premise was great and hooked me from the start. An editor is going over a deceased writer’s papers and wonders what to do with this strange story she tells. She had two acquaintances who each had true premonitions of a loved one’s death while still both children. Being the society-minded person she is the woman decides wouldn’t it be great if these two people met each other. However every time she or anyone else tries to bring them together some thing happens to keep them apart This becomes a running joke in her social group, and so it goes on for years. Another peculiarity of the pair is that each refuses to be photographed, which is currently all in vogue among high society.
Some years pass, the old joke continues to remain, but by now the woman telling the story has fallen in love with the man and has decided to marry him. Around this time the woman of the fated pair is finally freed from her marriage (she’d been living separate from her abusive husband), and this sparks a crisis in the narrator because she has just hatched a full proof plan to get the two to meet. The narrator fears that these two are so much alike that she’d be tempting fate by having them meet each other. So she lies and has the woman of the pair visit while the man’s away. However, the narrator had compelled the man to get his picture taken, and the picture now sits on her mantle. The woman of the pair spends some time studying the picture and the back on which the man’s address is printed. She then leaves. The next day the narrator feels terrible and goes to confess everything to the woman, but when she arrives she discovers the woman died the night before. More guilt-ridden than ever, the narrator confesses all to the man, her fiancé, and admits that she had played a cruel trick on her friend out of fear at what might happen if the two should meet. The man laughs telling the narrator that the woman appeared to him in the night and stood some time in his chambers watching him. This startles the narrator, who turns detective to piece together the woman’s actions before her death. All she can learn is that the woman spent some time dozing at her club and everyone saw her there. However enough doubt remains in the narrator’s mind that she ends her betrothal to the man. For his part, he feels he has done nothing wrong and that the narrator is being silly. Six years later, the narrator tells us the man dies, probably from suicide, although she believes he had done it to be reunited with the dead woman who had haunted him. The End.
So, yeah. Like I said I fell in love with the seed of this story and the weird mumblecore smallness of it. Sadly, James’s ultra-thick but ultra-pasteurized prose works to suck all the life out of the idea and bury it beneath expositive introspection and I’m not so much a fan of that.
But, that seed of two people in an extended social group having strange experiences so all their mutual friends work to have them meet each other? Lordy, I would love to have a dozen different writers take it up and use it to write a story. Imagining a Victor LaValle version alongside a Kelly Link version alongside a Laird Barron version gives the old skull-nut chills.
Now, on to Hans Christian Andersen
“The Traveling Companion” by Hans Christian Andersen
Parents love Hans Christian Andersen for his Christian imagery and moral instruction. Children like his because the princess has her own private pleasure garden where she can torture the unworthy and feed their eyes to her wizard mentor-pet.
Truth told, I had never read Andersen before, discounting him as simply a moralistic fairy tale writer. And while that’s partially right, it overlooks the heaping fruit-loopy tower of psycho-sexual WTFry he offers.
John is a good protestant boy left alone in the world after the death of his father. But he’s a devote lad full of inherent goodness and has no fear as he sets out into the wide world. Soon he finds himself homeless and forced to shelter in a chapel where he comes upon a pair of Bad Men getting ready to defile the recently deceased body of their debtor. John stops this by giving the Bad Men all his money and then sets off poorer in the morning. Soon he is joined by a jolly traveling companion and the two decide to stick together from now on. As they journey the companion exhibits many strange powers and makes odd bargains with payment.
In time the two reach a city where a king is sad because his daughter is a beautiful witch monster that delights in torture. She will marry whichever man can answer her question “What am I thinking?” three days in a row. Those that fail get impales in her torture garden. Since John had a vision that this woman would be his bride early in the story he falls head over heels in love with her despite all warnings. Figuring John’s dead unless he does something the companion sets about using his magic to spy on the princess. Soon enough we learn she’s in league with an evil wizard who gives her all manner of material comforts. This wizard tells her what to think on the morrow, and the companion hears this and tells John in the morning. Later when John answers the princess’s question correctly everyone starts rejoicing wondering if the end of the curse is at hand.
The second night is a repeat of the first with the princess going to her bad wizard friend and the traveling companion overhearing all. John succeeds in answering the second question, and now things are getting serious. On the third night, the bad wizard tells the princess to think of his head, and this the traveling companion chops off once alone with the bad wizard, giving it to John in a bundle and telling him not to open it until the princess asks her third question. When the time comes and the question is put to John, the head astounds everyone. Since John guessed all three questions correct the princess is his and there’s much rejoicing.
Except for the princess who has to say goodbye to her magic powers and private mountain torture palace. A witch is still a witch after all.
The companion tells John how he might wash the witch out of the Princess by dunking her in a bath with swan feathers in it, and this John does washing the princess who changes into a black swan then a white swan. Now a prince John wants to reward his companion, but the fellow says no, he was but repaying a debt and reveals he’s the dead guy whose corpse John protected at the start of his journey. And so, they all lived happily ever after.
This story was a trip and my experience of it ran opposite to what I felt reading the Henry
Miller James* story. “The Friends of the Friends” had a great premise but meh execution. “The Traveling Companion,” on the other hand, had a meh premise but great execution. Both are worth the time it takes to read them.
If you do, let me know what you think.
Next week… a story by someone the editor refers to as “not a very good poet.” Until then, may all your yesterdays be weird.
* I always get these two confused.
I don’t know what to think of this week’s story.
Walter de la Mare’s one of those obscure weird English writers you sometimes hear about, influential and lauded by others, but whom you feel time has left behind or at least buried beneath other more recent obscure weird English writers. “Seaton’s Aunt” is considered one of de la Mare’s best, and it’s very much one of those Weird English stories that leans heavily into its 5.5ness instead of trying to go all the way up to 11. Is this good? Is this bad? I can’t say, but it’s certainly a puzzler and I’m not sure if the bits that I do find unsettling are the bits De La Mare intends.
“Seaton’s Aunt” by Walter de la Mare
This is the bit where I give a rundown of the story’s plot, but there’s not really much of one.
Withers and Seaton were schoolmates, even if Withers denies that they were ever friends. On three occasions Withers has a chance to visit Seaton at home and encounter his aunt. The first occasion is when they’re schoolboys and Seaton makes his aunt sound like she has supernatural powers, compelling ghosts and spirits to visit her. Withers refuses to believe this and claims Seaton is only trying to make a fool of him. And so the visit ends. The second visit comes some years later when both men are in their twenties, and a random meeting rekindles their acquaintance. Seaton’s about to marry and ask Withers to visit as a way to distract his aunt. Against his better judgment Withers agrees to this second visit, and like the first it is awkward. Seaton’s aunt says many arch and ominous things and seems to delight in needling her nephew and his fiancé. The third visit occurs some months after the second when Withers realizes he never heard from Seaton about the wedding, so he decides to make the trip to the house. When he gets there though he can’t find any sign of Seaton and the aunt seems much diminished, or possibly more resident in the netherworld where she exists. She mistakes Withers for Seaton then grows angry when she realizes her mistake. Withers leaves, only to learn from the village newsagent that Seaton died a few months back.
And that’s it.
There’s a thing M. John Harrison does in The Sunken Lands Begin to Rise Again where the whole of the novels seems to taking place in orbit around this void where a mystery may or may not exist. Apparently that must be a trope in weird British fiction, because that’s what’s going on here. On one hand there’s the mundane nature of the mystery: an unliked and lonely schoolboy, the “mysteries” of an elderly women, and the slow decay of lost wealth. On the other hand there are all manner of ominous hints and questions raised that get no answers: the Aunt’s appetite and callous views of death, the strange way Seaton speaks of her being one of “the first lot” and his relationship to her coming from his father’s first marriage, the fear that spurs the narrator to make his third visit.
Does it all point to something or nothing?
I can’t say.
The bit that hit me the hardest was in the way Withers treats Seaton. From the first he makes much of his dislike for Seaton for being in some vague way different and throughout the story Withers never shows any great affection for his classmate. Even when sparring with Seaton’s Aunt it’s all a bit of a game for Withers, up until the end when he walks away from the mansion, somehow judged by the Aunt and found lacking. And that’s the thing that gets me, not whatever question I want answered about the Aunt’s nature, but whether things might have turned out differently if Withers had deigned to care about his classmate at all.
Ultimately, this is the kind of story I enjoy having read even if I didn’t enjoy reading it, the sort of story you could see updated and made compelling by some contemporary creator mining that ambiguity that lies at its heart.
Next week, another purveyor of two-fisted prose. . . Henry James!
This week’s story was the first that made me explicitly look up whether the author was known as an anti-Semite or not. A quick peek at Wikipedia and I discovered it wasn’t Jews the author hated but the Irish. So that’s fun.
“The Grey Ones” by JB Priestley
Our narrator is seeing a psychiatrist because he worries he might be cracking up. You see he’s figured out that there’s some active force of Evil at work in the world and it seeks to destroy all humankind. But first it must crush all our joys and emotions and make insects of us, so that’s what has happened. These Grey Ones have moved into key places of local government and are making things awful for the rest of us, and it’s all part of their awful plan.
Interesting that in the first paragraphs our narrator chooses Smith over Meyenstein, because he doesn’t think he could possibly speak freely to one of “those people”. Whether we are to read this as Priestly raising the anti-Semitic specter to poke fun at it, or to reinforce it by linking the story to it I don’t know. I read the narrator as a crank and think the presentation of the Grey Ones themselves is a bit trash. They’re basically seven-eyed frog-demons, at least if they actually “exist” and aren’t a hallucination of the narrator. And this story comes down on the side of “Ha. Ha. What if this inhuman conspiracy was true and only you knew it?” That said there are some funny bits dealing with how the Grey Ones cloak themselves in dullness to hide and protect themselves. It reminded me of the convention of witches in Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Would you actually attend a conference of the New Era Community Planning Association?
But, honestly? The story’s trash, and unless you accept the narrator’s delusions as real, then any way you cut them his scary THEM that controls everything are either Jews, Socialists, or Neurological Atypical People.
The best read you can make is that they’re vampires of the Colin Robinson type.
The Feather Pillow by Horatio Quiroga
This one’s more old-fashioned, but it’s still in revolting bug territory. What’s best about it is that it’s short and relies on a single gross image to supply its chills. A young bride slowly succumbs to anemia, but before she dies she sees a horrible anthropoid monster moving unseen throughout her house. She also becomes obsessed with no one coming near to her bed. Eventually she dies, and after she does her husband and servants go to straighten her bed. It’s here that a servant discovers the feather pillow’s heavier than usual. Opening it up, the husband and servant find a hideous monster creature, a bloated specimen of a common parasite that lives on feathers. Unbeknownst to anyone it had been feeding on the wife, using its needle-like proboscis to pierce the skin of her temples while she slept.
Next Week, a chonky one from Walter De La Mare.
Don’t forget to wash your pillow cases!