Suspend Your Disbelief

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Stories that Scare: "The Diver"


CIMG2167 Diver Silhouette I have a big heart when it comes to short stories. There is a handful that I press onto friends with the pimply-faced intensity I had as a seventh-grader for Appetite for Destruction—as in, like this story as much and in the same way as I do or risk ending our friendship. There’s another handful that I love, dozens more that I adore, and bushels for which I have warm feelings. I can only think of three, though, that scare the living daylights out of me.

The first is “The Paperhanger” by William Gay. The opening sentence does it to me, the way it unfolds with the matter-of-fact certainty of a gloom-and-doom preacher:

The vanishing of the doctor’s wife’s child in broad daylight was an event so cataclysmic that it forever divided time into the then and the now, the before and the after.

The second is Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I’m terrified of The Misfit and the grandmother’s bloody moment of grace, sure, but what really creeps me out is the story’s landscape:

There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another. Then silence. The old lady’s head jerked around. She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath.

But the story that gives me the biggest case of the willies is Lewis Robinson’s “The Diver.” A family out sailing becomes stranded when their propeller is fouled by rope in Point Allison—a fictional town “on the western edge of that remote, depressed part of Maine.” A scuba diver hired to untangle the engine teases the husband—a restaurateur from Portland—calling him “friend” in a way that shifts from overly familiar to obnoxious to outright intimidating. The story’s tension develops in similar rapid fashion, moving from niggling class distinctions between townies and “yachting jackass[es],” to the diver openly commenting on the wife’s fantastic ass, and finally to his asking to switch places with the husband, “Let’s make a deal. You stay here, be the town diver. I’ll sail to Portland, run the restaurant and have your wife.”

The innuendo leads the husband to act on a split-second decision: treat the diver as a harmless jerk or as a dangerous threat. You find yourself unable to condemn or condone his choice. Robinson leaves you examining your own values, wondering what you might do. It’s a risky way to write, but isn’t risk part of love?


Contributor

Forrest Anderson

Forrest Anderson’s stories have appeared most recently in BULL: Men’s Fiction, Blackbird, The Louisville Review, and The South Carolina Review, and his essays have appeared in The Southeast Review and Pembroke Magazine. A graduate of the doctoral creative writing program at Florida State University, where he worked for two years as an archivist and assistant for Robert Olen Butler, he also holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of South Carolina. Currently, he lives in Salisbury, NC and is an assistant professor of English at Catawba College.


Join the Discussion

  • Lee Thomas

    I haven’t read a really great sinister/scary story in a long time. Thanks for the post, Forrest! I’m going to track this down. The blend of menace and humor sounds delicious.

  • Hannah

    “The Pilot” by Joshua Ferris really weirds me out…

  • The O’Connor story gets me every time. As does Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

  • Forrest

    Thank you for the comments. I’m planning to check out the Ferris and the Oates story. It’d be cool to put together an anthology of contemporary freaky stories.

  • I have a love of William Gay’s writing that borders on mythic obsession. It’s a personal mission of mine to make everyone in the world read every single story in “I Hate to See…” Have you heard the word about the story behind The Paperhanger?

  • Forrest

    There’s a story behind “The Paperhanger”? Now, that’s terrifying. Let’s hear it!

  • Stacie

    Apparently, when William Gay was working construction, he was working on a house for some uppity couple with an annoying little barky dog. The story goes that one of the guys working with him, the paperhanger, got so irritated by this little yapper, that he picked it up, snapped its neck and shoved it in his toolbox. Another author who knows WG shared this with me, so I’m inclined to think there’s truth to it. Obviously, he took it to the next level.

  • Forrest

    Okay, I’m now forever afraid of William Gay. Thanks for sharing the story!

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