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 Destructionas 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 Allisona fictional town “on the western edge of that remote, depressed part of Maine.” A scuba diver hired to untangle the engine teases the husbanda restaurateur from Portlandcalling 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?
- Read “The Paperhanger” in William Gay’s collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down
- Find “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in O’Connor’s Complete Stories or read it online
- Track “The Diver” down in Lewis Robinson’s collection Officer Friendly and Other Stories