The time has come to keep my promise.
The first three stories in the Glimmer Train Spring/Summer 2015 issue hang on the theme of ominous portending. Each tale; “Window,” “The Bears,” and “Slaughter”; explores a different looming disaster. It may be the abandoning of family, the transformation into maturity, or just the approach of an unjust war.
If you’re going to write your own story about looming tragedy, you’ll need clarity of action and motivation. These three Glimmer Train features will show, through both good and bad examples, what I mean.
“Window,” by Lee Montgomery
In an opening paragraph evocative of Beloved, “Window” establishes that we’re looking back on the year Angela ran away from home. Who’s Angela? She’s the older sister of our narrator Ophelia, who worships her sibling. I do mean worship. Other than receiving the label “the coolest person who ever lived,” (Montgomery, 8) Angela gets literally compared to the Virgin Mary at one point. That correlation, and the poignant and wistful ending, makes this story seem bigger than it is. We’re no longer reading a drama for any old broken home. We’re watching our own relatives change beyond our comprehension. Watching them betray our family’s mini-culture, holding onto the knowledge that we’ll betray our family next.
If you’re going to promise doom, best do it for a doom most people will go through at some point. “Doom” is a strong word— yet I’d argue that we only see ourselves in fiction when we blow up such representations to mythological proportions.
In light of how effective “Window” is at capturing a sister relationship and exploring how escapism damages both us and others, is it unfair to call the protagonist “too interesting?” C’mon, I heard you say. Is Ophelia not up to your capricious critical standards? Do you feel threatened by strong female personalities?
It’s more like the story’s pointing to how interesting Ophelia is, when it should be about the dynamics of the entire family. Can you believe that Ophelia, meek and somewhat innocent in her reactions to Angela’s insurgency, “kept getting kicked out of school,” (Montgomery, 11)? How does that happen, given what we’ve seen of her? During this story, Ophelia insists of being called “Fred.” Is this adolescent rebellion, a sign of gender dysphoria, or something all its own? When I question Ophelia’s character, I question if I read the relationship right. Ophelia contains enough personality for her own story. But that’s not this story, and it doesn’t need to be. There’s enough depth and relatability in “Window” as is. Complicating Ophelia does flesh out the story, but it also causes an expansion in an off-putting way. It makes the story less aerodynamic.
That last sentence made sense in my head, I swear. At any rate: though it’s not as personal as it needs to be, “Window” does enough things right that you’ll look back on it with fondness. I’d also recommend reading an interview with the author here, because she seems cool. If you google “Lee Montgomery,” however, make sure you don’t click on the child actor.
“The Bears,” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
When you’re discussing the inexorable creep of some delicate maturation, sometimes you need a subtler approach. As I can attest to, after countless workshops with the high-minded and ‘respectable’ offerings of English Majors, ‘subtle’ can often mean ‘has no interest on what’s happening in the main story.’ It doesn’t always mean ‘good.’
“The Bears” begins with a woman joining a writer’s fellowship in the country, while recovering from a miscarriage. This isolation from society, while comforting in a way, still allows room for paranoia through the various “No Trespassing” signs on neighboring fields. After an unexpected period strikes, our protagonist wanders into the house of one Jerry Roth. She believes she knows him.
By ‘believe,’ I mean that our heroine passes by Jerry’s house on her walks. She imagines that the building is a reflection of its owner. This imagining goes on for over a page. Whether her guesses end up accurate or not, there’s still the lingering fact that none of her observations are verifiable, and you might as well skip this page. This narrator has a bad tendency for weird tangents into the trauma of her past, her research on 19th century psychologist William James, and the “father of your [her] unborn child” (Bynum, 18). Trust me, those three are the most relevant digressions made. The dramatic moment when Jerry Roth and our protagonist meet has two paragraphs of William James trivia wedged inside it. This kills all momentum. Unlike the other two stories in this post, I don’t think “The Bears,” is all about some approaching existential threat. But, at any rate, the finale lacks power because “The Bears” is less of a slope leading to a drop-off, and more of a zigzag across a field in search of cool-looking flowers.
“The Bears” does boast some choice metaphors, and the central idea behind it presents a good challenge for the protagonist. And hey, the author took the workshop at my alma mater, so I can’t hate too much. Perhaps I’ll check out her other work. As for this issue? “The Bears” is exclusively for the patient.
“Slaughter,” by Jon Chopan
Right from the fist two sentences, we know what’s coming. Our narrator outlines that this story takes place in Iraq before hooking us with the second sentence: “up to this point the war had been mostly boring,” (Chopan, 31). We know things will escalate. I’m still unclear if this story takes place in the First or Second Gulf War, but I don’t think “Slaughter” cares.
On a mission to bag up civilian corpses, soldier Fitzsimmons ends up tagging with his partner Bodi on some strange missions. Bodi wants to return a head to its body, reunite a dog with its owner, and perform as many random acts of kindness possible until the random acts of terror begin. Bodi and Fitzsimmons are like boys on an adventure through a forest preserve. Yet their uniforms mark them as oppressors to the people of Iraq, and I don’t think any visits by mystical dancing ladies in the tale will change that. It’s endearing to see a story with a setting and mood like this, and it’s almost revolutionary.
The horrors of war get foreshadowed without leaving an impact. Even the piles of bodies at the beginning receive few descriptions other than smell. It’s evocative, but it’s not enough to convey how terrible the future will be for these young men. “Spoiled Meat,” may be an accurate description of the smell of the dead. It’s also an accurate description of what I have to endure when taking out the garbage.
Our Horseman of War in the story is Styza, the young, racist, and bloodthirsty Marine who literally shouts at Iraqi crowds that they’re all going to die. With Styza’s characteristics as plain as a dog tag, we realize that all these players are broadly painted for reasons of symbolism. This decision helps develop the anti-war-parable nature of “Slaugher,” giving a sense of what a culture clash could look like without a military machine putting all empathy through a wringer. It’s also sanitized, and distant from war’s grisly nature. A fable. Disney could make a movie based on this; it would be PG-13, but ask your veterans if their war deserved a PG-13 rating. Unlike with “Window,” “Slaughter” focuses so hard on the message that it’s hard to be in the moment with it. I felt I was right there with Ophelia. But with Fitzsimmons, I’m watching him on a movie screen. With a conceit this innocent, how bad could the horrors that arrive after the story ends possibly be? Fitzsimmons and Bodi are just going to find more corpses, and they seemed fine with going on adventures after cleaning up the first batch.
Jon Chopan teaches at Eckerd College, and boasts some excellent ratings from former students. It might be nice to attend one of his classes. That is, assuming the return to a school setting doesn’t cause my skin to burn. Despite what I said before, I still like “Slaughter” for its air of mystery and its well-timed points of humor. Yet I’ve taken from it all I need to, and don’t plan on revisiting.
How Do You Best Utilize Foreboding In Short Stores?
Here’s my takeaway on the three stories:
- Whatever you foreshadow, have it be, in some way, relatable to your audience. You can promise a lot of horror, but only your reader can decide to care.
- Don’t get sidetracked. Have each detail build to your finale.
- Flash us a little of the goods, so we know what’s coming. You still have to leave a bit to the imagination. At the same time, create the right aura around the chosen doom.
“Window” was the best of these stories, though I have trouble remember its title. “Slaughter” might actually be the most memorable, even though I don’t think it accomplished its goals. “The Bears” is worth thinking about, but not worth reading.
And now I have kept my promise: I dedicated Short Story Saturday to three Glimmer Train stories, instead of the usual one. Do you like the new structure? How could it be improved? Share your thoughts below. As you can tell by the results from my last poll, I’m always listening…
Interested in these stories? Buy them and many others here!