ARTICLE (July 2018)
SCARIEST STORY EVER (Nomination No. 2)
A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND by FLANNERY O’CONNOR
NOMINATED by MATTHEW G. REES
Something I’d like you to do – I need you to do – before going any further is for you to put from your head the image attached to this article of a smiling, slightly-built young woman. Without wishing to malign the character of the subject, it’s simply (for reasons that I hope shall become clear) too nice, too deceptive. I know of a more appropriate one – on a book cover from the 1960s – that, due to things such as zoom, angle and light, is, frankly, pretty scary, but which is almost certainly under copyright. And here at Horla we try to observe such things.
Thanks. Now I’ll jump to it.
Nominating the scariest story – the billing is intentionally sensational and aimed at generating debate – in the genre in which Horla operates is, for me at least, a difficult matter. There are plenty of stories out there, but relatively few of them are genuinely good.
I think it was Roald Dahl who, having been commissioned to compile a compendium of fine ghost stories, found himself after a period being badgered by the would-be publishers, unhappy with the time he was taking. His answer to them, I believe, was that he was having difficulty finding any that were any good!
Certainly, with the passing of the years and the dulling of our senses (a dog’s savaging and even partial eating of its ‘owner’ – or some poor passing innocent – can earn as little as half a column in newspapers nowadays) often-quoted stories such as Jacobs’ ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ and Maupassant’s ‘The Hand’ can seem really rather quaint, even endearing.
A defect common among contemporary stories, meanwhile, is lack of invention. Tired tropes are repeated, frequently taken from films presumably produced by studios on the basis that they will at least be new to this generation of cinema-goers and have ‘worked’, more or less, in the past.
Another flaw is how so much contemporary writing seems to occupy one extreme (intent on causing maximum repulsion) or the polar opposite: dull lands where authors seem to strive to avoid giving offence – their end product nebulous and unsatisfying.
Still – away from the material that tends to be foisted on us by fashion and metropolitan mores – fine stories and excellent writing are ‘out there’ and can be found by those who are prepared to look. Of an age which means it should probably be referred to as ‘a classic’, I would cite Rudyard Kipling’s beautifully written ‘They’ (1904). Among very recent stories I recommend the wonderfully descriptive writing in Catherine Fisher’s ‘The Tunnel’ (reviewed elsewhere in these pages).
Horla contributor Jon Gower in his selection of Horacio Quiroga’s ‘The Feather Pillow’ as the inaugural nomination in this series has rather set us on the trail of the less ordinary. After Quiroga, Henry James’s ‘The Turn of The Screw’ and Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (of which I am fond, though arguably novellas rather than stories) seem too obvious.
The story ‘Jordan’ by the relatively little-known Welshman Glyn Jones (1905-1995) is one that I like very much. It is a short tale (as with all of those mentioned here I would rather you read them than me disclose their particulars) which conjures a genuine eeriness. Similar, in that respect, is ‘All Hallows’ by Walter de la Mare. Certain stories by Graham Greene, meanwhile, are particularly good for the way in which he ratchets-up our concern for the welfare of children (as in ‘The Hint of an Explanation’).
For now though, at least, I find myself settling on a writer who knew the work of James but found her own voice.
In terms of public knowledge, Flannery O’Connor may, I fear, be falling from the page. She was surely a far better story-writer than her fellow American Shirley Jackson, whose over-reverenced tale ‘The Lottery’ is, in my view, rather lacking (even allowing for its intended prosaic tone) compared with many by the short-lived O’Connor (1925-1964) whose interests included rearing peacocks.
In selecting O’Connor I’m perhaps pushing the envelope. Although frequently referred to as an exponent of Southern Gothic she was not a writer of horror and the supernatural in the lineage of a figure such as Poe. Yet in so many of her stories we come up against the sinister, the disturbing, the jarring. Her fiction is peopled with marginal, drifting, desperate grotesques. And technically she is a very good writer, managing to be both economic and lyrical, particularly when it comes to landscapes and weather.
The story by her that I choose is ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ (1953).
I select it principally for its dénouement: the cause of genuine shock in my case that lasted for several days. The ending is telegraphed, but deeply unsettling even so. This isn’t a story to be picked up lightly. (It also contains (very briefly) language of the era that some will understandably find unpleasant, albeit deployed to illustrate the ‘hick’ nature of the family at the centre of the fiction.)
The story concerns a family who become lost on a road trip in the American South. If that backdrop sounds familiar, I repeat that this story was first published in 1953. As with James and ‘The Turn of The Screw’ (1898), O’Connor got there early.
At times the story is faintly cartoonish. The family’s visit to the diner of a backwater road-stop proves amusing, but our pleasure is a nervous one – gallows humour, if you like – for we sense that something bad is waiting down the road.
And when the ending comes it does so in a way that is unsparing and unflinching.
Some of you reading this now may perhaps find your thoughts turning vaguely to John Boorman’s film Deliverance (1972). Let me simply say that, in terms of what happens, O’Connor’s story is worse… far worse.
I have tried to rationalise my shock. It comes, I think from several things (and not just the events in the story).
First, there is the calmness and directness of O’Connor’s writing: particularly her portrayal of the family’s seeming resigned acceptance (apart from one of them) of their fate. No gratuitous gore is inflicted on the reader. Yet – emotionally – the reader is shown no mercy.
The second factor is the story’s date and therefore its ‘earliness’ – nearly twenty years before Anthony Burgess’s landmark A Clockwork Orange (1971) and a decade and a half before Gordon Williams’s novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969) which became director Sam Peckinpah’s controversial movie Straw Dogs (1971).
Third is the fact that, from a time before Civil Rights, before Women’s Rights, and in an age when the worlds of individuals were so much smaller, this startling, violent, disturbing story was written by a woman – which I say as a tribute and, I hope, in a fiercely unpatronising way.
Sarah Orne Jewett, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, to name but three, had already demonstrated fine, indeed at times brilliant, story-writing by women. Edith Wharton (1862-1937) had, of course, made memorable excursions into the supernatural. And countless readers were enjoying becoming uneasy over the paranormal fiction of Daphne du Maurier (as in ‘The Apple Tree’, 1952). Writing from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Annie Proulx was also to come, but not for another decade.
But this story… this story, was, and perhaps will always be, something else.
Benchmark fiction. Nothing less.