It is with at least a permissible dash of hubris that the literary and artistic population of any (that is to say, every) generation considers itself on the forefront of something. We are always looking for the pulse, the zeitgeist, the movement; be it an “ism” (say, modernism or futurism, both of which are, ironically, long past their sell-by dates) or a “school of,” or an identification based on location (Denver for the Beats, Paris for the ex-pats). As creative folks strive to create art and literature, they of course aspire to break new trails and inspire, shock, and/or perplex (Dada . . .) The People. That or they seek to resolve some conflict within. This is not to say that attempting to affect externally while grappling internally are in any way mutually exclusive.
And all that is fine, as long as no one grows so deluded as to convince themselves that they indeed are creating something truly new and unique on their own, rather than simply putting their own spin on universal, timeless themes and concepts supported by thousands of years of creative human endeavor and profound philosophical effort. The old “we stand on the shoulders of giants” thing, y’know? At the end of the day, most art tends to be about human folly, death, sex, or lack of sex, anyway, so it’s important that we keep coming up with new ways to cover the topics. Just bear in mind that we know what that flower petal or that allusion to darkening thunderclouds is standing in for, Mr. & Ms. Writer/Painter/Sculptor/Etc.
In that vein, I wish today to turn your attention to three short stories that you have likely heard of and possibly read, and that, if not, you would do well to make time for in the next few days. Or right now. Cleaving close to the opening sentence of this article is the fallacy that We (whoever, wherever, and whenever We may be) deal with topics in a more frank and open way than our predecessors. We joke about an exposed ankle being ribald in Victorian society, and we snicker at the clean-mouthed television families of the ’50s, but we do so forgetting that somehow people kept having babies, starting wars, starting drunken bar fights, and so on. They were doing the same stuff we do, just talking about it a bit differently. In fact, wait, no . . . the Inquisition? Guillotines in the streets? The Opium Wars? The Plague! Things were much worse Back in the Day, from an intensity of violence and cheapness of human life standpoint (I know—the plague was not our fault, per say, it was Yersinia pestis’s fault, but go with it, I beseech). As evidence that great writing dealing with serious “Holy Shit!” kinds of topics is nothing new, ponder these three stories:
- The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe
- The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane
- A Man of the World by Ernest Hemingway
These stories were published in 1846, 1899, and 1957, respectively (putting a little over half a century between each of them, please note). Each of the stories deals in its own way with an act of violence and with the psychology related to it. The first story listed, Poe’s, is a very short, extremely dark piece, and one that is all the more impressive for its having been penned years before the birth of the modern psychological studies. I will not get into the plot details of any of these tales, as I admonish you to read them all, but suffice it to say that The Cask of Amontillado deals with a man acting on the darkest impulses he feels and doing so in a cold, clinical manner. It would stand shoulder to shoulder with any of the raft of horror films audiences seem so happy to consume these days (Saw or Hostile or The Ring or all the other movies crowding theater marquees). Except that Poe can casually dance circles around such offerings, and this is true despite the fact that he has been dead since 1849. He’s that good.
The Blue Hotel may seem a strange companion to the macabre Cask of Amontillado, but in the end, it forces the thoughtful reader to consider how they would have acted (or at least reacted) if given the same set of circumstances, and in both stories these circumstances involve one of those themes I mentioned above (it’s death, dammit. I’m sorry). Stephen Crane paints us a cast of characters—in contrast to Poe’s story involving only two people—and we are thus made to consider What Happens through multiple perspectives. Almost automatically, the reader finds himself or herself choosing sides with one or another of the characters—Crane has given us options to choose from in response to the mess he creates for us, and one could gain much insight based on who seems to be “right” at the story’s end. If anyone.
Hemingway’s A Man of the World is another very short story, and a simple one at that. As is so often the case when Hemingway does what he does best, it is little more than a near-perfectly described setting—in this case it’s a bar one evening—populated by men who are talking. In this case, the main subject at hand is a fight that happened some time back; one that had a profound and lasting effect on several of the characters we meet. There is really only one line in the story, one bit of speech that is recounted by a patron, that is truly awful to read. (I mean that to say awful as in powerful and upsetting, not bad writing, of course!) If you read the story, it is the few sentences containing and surrounding the word “grape.” You will understand.
When we read of the savagery in A Man of the World we may recoil, but we must not forget that if we were there, hot-blooded, whiskey-slicked, and in the moment, we may have been willing participants. That is the question that runs through all of these stories and, frankly, all of life, to eschew any suppression of grandiosity in this conclusion: What Would You Do?
Or . . . perhaps better . . . What Could You Be Capable of Doing . . . given certain circumstances.
Steven John has been an avid reader for as long as he can remember, and has been writing for almost that long as well. Most of his early writing you will never, ever see. But as for some of his more recent writing, namely his debut novel Three A.M., he admonishes you to read it and force—er, ask—all your friends to do the same. He is currently at work on his third novel and a host of side projects. Track his wanderings at www.StevenJohnBooks.com.
Read all posts by Steven John for Criminal Element.