Reconsidering Raymond Carver

When it comes to horror fiction the name Raymond Carver isn’t one that automatically springs to mind, writes Dominic Kildare.

Before Carveristas the world over (of whom I’m one, incidentally) succumb to the vapours at the mere hint of any such association I’ll try to explain where I’m going with this.

Recently I found myself re-reading Carver’s story ‘Viewfinder’, in which a man with chrome hooks for hands arrives at the narrator’s house offering to sell a photograph he has taken of the property.

This was my third or fourth reading of the story since I encountered it in a collection of Carver’s stories published in Britain in the early 1980s. And it left me with the same unease that I had experienced previously. My disquiet, let me make clear, is not connected with the man’s disability. Its source is something else: what I think of as the artfulness, the strange mix of desperation and superiority, the knowingness, of this home-calling cameraman.

He knows that the picture he has taken of the house is a good one. ‘Don’t I know what I’m doing,’ he says. ‘Let’s face it, it takes a professional.’ He knows that the customer will buy it. ‘Sure you will.’ From glancing at the living room, he also knows that the man in the house lives on his own.

He knows and he is nosy. These are the things – not his hooks – which make him unpleasant, even grotesque. When the occupier of the house asks him to take more photographs, so that he can send them to the wife and kids who’ve left him, the cameraman  responds: ‘It won’t work… They’re not coming back.’

Virtually in the same breath he offers to do the job at ‘a rate’.

In the story’s closing sentences the dynamic alters. The home-owner wants to be photographed on the roof, and climbs onto it. He now appears to be calling the shots. But the cameraman’s comments are mocking: ‘Look at this!’

When the home-owner, clearly in a state of breakdown,  begins throwing down stones that kids have hurled at his chimney pots, our sleazy snapper shouts back: ‘I don’t do motion shots.’

Carver, of course, doesn’t supply an adverb for the manner in which this response is given. But I think of it as being uttered with a mixture of nervousness on the cameraman’s part – that this situation is getting out of hand – and derision.

This very short story leaves me uneasy, as I’ve said. It makes me think of certain others: Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Good Country People’ in which a young woman on a farm has her prosthetic leg stolen by a conman who professes to sell Bibles (a story Carver knew and discussed in some writing), and Alice Munro’s ‘Images’, in which a young girl encounters an agitated man carrying a hatchet by a river. For me, there are also resemblances – in character – between Carver’s photographer and O’Connor’s one-armed drifter-carpenter Tom Shiftlet in her story ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’. Both live on their wits and are quick to spot openings. Shiftlet is the much darker figure. O’Connor’s far longer story is comfortably the superior.

All of these stories are removed from the mainstream in a way that would have satisfied the commentator Frank O’Connor (The Lonely Voice). Flannery O’Connor has, of course, long been seen as a central figure in modern Southern Gothic and a queen of the grotesque. But Carver? Well, maybe those labels so readily attached to his writing – ‘blue collar’, ‘dirty realism’ – need looking at again.

The definitions of horror suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary include, ‘A painful emotion compounded of loathing and fear; a shuddering with terror and repugnance; strong aversion mingled with dread; the feeling excited by something shocking or frightful. Also in weaker sense intense dislike or repugnance.’ The dictionary advises that in the transferred sense it means, ‘The quality of exciting repugnance and dread; horribleness; a quality or condition, and(concretely) a thing, or person, which excites these feelings; something horrifying.

Clearly, not all of Carver’s stories are horrorsome (O.E.D. ‘adj. full of, characterized by, or producing horror’). ‘Viewfinder’, though, for one, disturbs. The cameraman has a seediness, a slyness, that I find dangerous. He is also on edge – at one stage glancing up and down the street – as if he is uncertain of, but at the same time, enjoying the weird events in which he is participating, as if he is achieving a thrill.

It isn’t the only Carver story that affects me in this way.

Another is ‘Are These Actual Miles?’ (as it mostly seems to be known: it has also been published as ‘What is it?’). A young couple – Leo and Toni – whose finances and relationship are disintegrating think that selling their car will be a quick fix. Their troubles are observed by a neighbour, Ernest Williams, who (albeit unspoken in his case) seems to share something of the awareness of the photographer in ‘Viewfinder’. It show itself in the way he beats his furled newspaper in his hand, how he waters his lawn and even in how he puts up his shade.

The seriously unpleasant character in the story though is the man who buys the couple’s convertible. He returns Toni, who earlier takes on the task of selling the car, home in it at dawn. She enters the couple’s house drunk, argumentative and swaying. The man gets out and lays her make-up pouch (which she has left behind) on the step. Carver, with characteristic economy, tells us that the man is tall and that he wears a white linen suit. Without being asked to, the stranger testifies to the good conduct of Toni. ‘She’s a fine lady, very refined,’ he tells Leo.

The inference I draw is that not only has this man bought Leo’s car, he has also ‘bought’ his wife. And that the two of them have had sex, more than likely in the car. The movement of the car in the hands of the white-suited man – onto the drive, back from it and drawing back further again – seems to echo what has gone on. At the very least he has ‘tried it on’, groped, before she has fought him off, maybe, at the last.

The man’s question as he’s about to drive off – about the mileage on the car’s clock – ‘Between friends, are these actual miles?’ – confirms  his sleaziness and is more dirt in the face of Leo.

It’s an encounter that lasts barely a page, yet it’s a memorably unpleasant one.

In their bed, Leo looks at the stretches and creases in Toni’s skin and thinks about how these look like so many hundreds of roads. His last thoughts are of when they first bought the car and how it once sat on their drive, gleaming.

Elsewhere in his writing Carver serves us cameos of odd (peculiar) figures. Not with the regularity of, say, Annie Proulx. But they are there. The diner of the title in his story ‘Fat’ is one such. The man’s bulk – he orders a meal at a restaurant (which he eats without taking off his coat) – is a talking point among the staff. But his waitress treats him well, the unfolding story suggesting a connection between the two, particularly when the waitress is later violated by her partner.

Clearly Carver isn’t an ‘orthodox’ horror writer. Cemeteries, sewers and dank chambers aren’t his. Possessed children, women at high windows and sinister old men in dark automobiles tend not to feature. But horror is there in his stories: in lives that suffer alcoholism, poverty, loneliness, in relationships on the point of collapse: states of being whose essential everydayness represents their key troubling quality – that these things could happen to us, too.

Carver’s characters occupy a landscape that perhaps finds its equivalent among English writers in the seedy milieu that came to be known as Graham Greene’s Greeneland. Horror and the supernatural have their day in Greene’s work: one thinks particularly of stories such as ‘The Hint of An Explanation’, ‘The Basement Room’ and ‘The Second Death’.

It’s interesting that Stephen King’s collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains a story dedicated to Carver. In a prefatory note King explains that he wrote ‘Premium Harmony’ shortly after ‘reading more than two dozen Carver stories, and it should come as no surprise that it has the feel of a Carver story’ – albeit that King says his tale is imbued with his own black humour: humour being a quality he felt he hadn’t encountered in Carver’s work. (Different from Ian McEwan, who has called Carver’s stories ‘gloomily funny’.)

King’s title refers to a brand of cigarettes, of a kind that Carver characters down-on-their-luck might, perhaps, be imagined to smoke. A shopping trip doesn’t end happily for one of the main players, or her dog.

And my point in writing this piece? There are two, that connect. The first is that many strong short stories have in them some element of horror. This doubtless entwines with the oral ‘camp-fire’ strand of the form’s heritage. The pithy nature of the short story also lends itself to some kind of wake-up call: an epiphany that is not always pleasant.

The second point is that many literary heavyweights – Stevenson, Dickens, de Maupassant, Collins, Hardy, Wilde, James, Conrad, Kipling, Greene and Borges among them – have written at times in the field of horror and the supernatural. The message, I submit, being that this is a field of fiction that – sojourns into dark laughter notwithstanding – deserves to be taken seriously.


Dominic Kildare has been captivated by short stories since his teens. 

Follow Horla on Twitter @HorlaHorror