It’s always tricky, discerning when to include “useless” information or scenes. I’m not talking about, “I like this subplot but it’s pointless.” I’m more about, “I want to have a reader immersed by not breaking away from the action, but I still want each detail to communicate something.” It can be done well with authors like Cormac McCarthy, or filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino. But this kind of storytelling does not benefit from a huge info-dump at the beginning, which “The Cabin” unfortunately succumbs to.
So here’s the info-dump: Alex goes on a trip with his parents to the mountains of Virginia, to visit his maternal grandparents. His father’s friend, Bowie, has a nice cabin in that area. But Bowie’s undergoing medical difficulties, and he needs someone to look after the cabin… someone like Alex and his father, though the two end up regretting their offer to help. Did I mention that Alex’s mom was a childhood sweetheart of Bowie? I really shouldn’t; it’s not important.
There’s something to be said for packing a tangle of detail into the first few pages, forcing a reader to slow down and read at the appropriate pace for your subject matter. It gets you into a rhythm, like a video game might do with some enemies before a boss fight. And books share a lot in common with most video games, like how you need lots of experience points to wield a double-edged sword.
(I have no idea if that simile was brilliant or corny, but it cuts either way!)
It’s a tangle dense with who-gives-a-fuck at the beginning. Bowie says something to “the husband of a girl who grew up with his sister,” (Rheinheimer, 145), and maybe I’m an attention-deprived video game junkie, but that’s a lot of unpacking to do for a family you don’t even know. Does this story want to follow a McCarthy-esque vein, with its setting and pacing and nihilistic tragedy? Then take notes, you McCarthy-impersonators amongst my readers: McCarthy would start in the present moment, telling a story before he starts explaining a story. Where “The Cabin” gets it right: I don’t mind exact details of what’s happening taking care of the farm because I feel like I’m right there with Alex, and I’m invested in what’s happening where I’m at. Once I’m “there,” then I care about who Bowie is and why this real-seeming cabin is so important to him. But I need to be set up someplace other than “going on a trip” before I start drawing family trees. A 13-page story shouldn’t start on page 4.
Kurt Rheinheimer’s webpage details a love of hiking, in addition to listing his published story collections. He has kept a career up for several decades, according to his achievements page, so good on him. Once again, I wonder if “The Cabin” is the small part of a larger, better-developed book by this industry veteran. But as a small part in a short story collection, it’s worth skipping.
Interested in this story? Buy it and many others here!