Friday, October 16, 2009

Say No to Poe: Alternative October Short Stories

Halloween. It’s a time when restless spirits pace vacant halls, clanking chains and moaning for their deaths to be avenged. Undead ghouls pry their way out of crypts, motivated by an insatiable thirst for blood and a hunger for human flesh. Witches gather on wild heaths, chanting about “toil and trouble” while putting unholy ingredients into their cauldrons. Teachers travel to forgotten bookshelves, pulling out of their dust- and cobweb-covered anthologies of Edgar Allan Poe.

With due respect to the master of the macabre—who, 160 years after his death, was finally given a proper funeral—any scary short story, no matter how horrifying, loses its ability to shock and thrill when it is read every Halloween. The beating heart under the floorboards becomes a pulse easily ignored, and the ominous raven an annoying parakeet

As a person who would like to preserve the terror of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, while giving due recognition to some by other authors that often go overlooked, the following are other short stories that are bound to interest, as well as spook:

A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner


The story opens with the funeral of Miss Emily Grierson. She was an odd woman who had been a recluse for over thirty years, but was still respected as a remnant of old, Southern high-society. The town took care of and preserved her, even reneging her taxes. She remained sealed within her house like a precious artifact, allowing no one to enter but an African-American servant.

As the story unfolds, Miss Emily’s history is revealed to be a tragic one. She had lived alone with her father for many years, and when he passed away, was so traumatized by the event that she refused to relinquish his corpse for two days. After the loss, she fell into a depression and gradually withdrew from society. She refused several male suitors, and everyone was certain she would end up an old maid; however, when a laborer from the North, Homer Barron, arrived in town, she fell in love with him. The majority of society deemed him unworthy of her affection, and they thought it was improper of Miss Emily to acquaint with someone lower in station. After a local minister intervened and two of her cousins attempted to dissolve the relationship, Miss Emily went to a druggist and purchased some arsenic. However, instead of committing suicide, as most of the townspeople believed she would, it appeared that she became engaged to Barron. When he left her unexpectedly, Emily fell into a second depression, from which she never recovered. Nobody saw Emily for years, and even when a strange smell started to emanate from the house, the townspeople spread lime around her property, but did not disturb her. While a few individuals did visit once or twice, Emily was left primarily alone and isolated in her house.

After the funeral and Emily’s burial, some members of the town go into Emily’s home. When they enter a room above the stairs that nobody had entered for years, they come across a disturbing sight: Emily’s engagement gifts to Mr. Barron and his clothes rest upon her dressing table, covered in dust as if they had not been touched since he “disappeared.” Homer himself lay on her bed, now only a corpse, and aside his body and on another pillow, there lay a single strand of gray hair, the same color as Miss Emily’s.

Essay Questions or Writing Prompts:

1. How does class conflict factor into the story of A Rose for Emily, and what message about social class might Faulkner be attempting to present to the reader?

2. In the beginning of the story, the narrator describes Miss Emily as “a fallen monument,” in addition to “a tradition, a duty, and a care.” In what way is Emily viewed as a historical artifact, and how does this perception of her contribute to the central conflict of the work?

3. Why might the title of this story be “A Rose for Emily”?

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce


On a railroad bridge in rural Alabama, a civilian in his mid-thirties stands with his hands bound and a rope around his neck, apparently awaiting his execution. Federal soldiers—including a sergeant and a captain—stand on guard. As the planks are removed from beneath the condemned man, he closes his eyes and thinks about his wife and children. The only sound he hears is what sounds like a blacksmith hammer hitting an anvil, the beat gradually becoming slower and slower.

The story flashes back to the events leading up to the execution. The man is revealed to be Peyton Farquhar, a respected planter in and a person devoted to the Southern cause. For reasons undisclosed in the story, Farquhar was prohibited from fighting in the Civil War, but as a civilian, did whatever he could to help the Confederacy.

On one evening, a man dressed as a Confederate soldier arrived on his plantation, and after receiving gracious hospitality from Farquhar and his wife, revealed that the Union was repairing the railroads. The army was currently stationed near Owl Creek Bridge and getting ready to advance. The commander had declared that anyone found interfering with any roads, bridges, or railways would be hanged; however, the bridge was guarded by only one sentinel, and there was plenty of dry driftwood near the bridge to set it on fire. Farquhar took the initiative and attempted to destroy the bridge, but he soon discovered that he had been caught in a trap. The soldier was a Federal scout.

Returning to the execution, as the last plank is removed from beneath Farquhar, the rope apparently breaks and he falls to the creek below. After sinking to the bottom and almost drowning, Farquhar manages to reach the surface and swim away. Dodging the bullets of the soldiers, he reaches the other bank and takes a path through the woods toward home. He travels through the night, startled by the strange sound of voices in the woods and pained by the bruise on his neck where the rope had been. He reaches home in the morning and is greeted by his wife.

However, as Farquhar is about to touch her, he feels immense pain on the back of his neck and hears what sounds like a cannon shot. His vision goes black. The narrator reveals Farquhar’s escape and return home was a hallucination; he hangs by a rope beneath the Owl Creek Bridge.

Essay Questions or Writing Prompts:

1. There are several instances in the text where Farquahar’s death is implied. How does Bierce effectively conceal these clues, making the ending surprising to the reader, but not wholly unexpected?

2. What does it mean that Peyton Farquhar is “ardently devoted to the Southern cause”?
How does this statement help the reader understand the text?

3. How does Bierce’s use of flashback, as opposed to a presentation of events in chronological order, enhance the pacing and suspense of the story?

Afterward by Edith Wharton


After spending months looking for a home, Mary and Edward Boyne found one that was perfect: Lyng, an old, Tudor house in Dorsetshire that, with its beautiful landscapes, remoteness from civilization, lack of hot water, and no electric lighting, appealed to their romantic sensibilities. However, the characteristic of the house that was most attractive to the couple was the fact that it was haunted; however, as their friend, Alida Stair, told Mary, the legend of the house states that its inhabitants don’t know they have seen a ghost until “afterward.”

The peaceful monotony of life at Lyng and the Boynes contentment with the home’s beauty distract them from the ghost story. However, a year or so after moving into the house, Mary starts to suspect that something is bothering her husband and that he is keeping a secret from her. The secret, she believes, is that he has seen the ghost. When she reflects back on their time spent at Lyng and when he could have possibly seen the apparition, she recalls a particular instance that occurred the previous October: One day, when she was exploring the house, she discovered a hidden staircase that led to a coign, from which she could see the entire yard. She invited her husband to share the view with her, and as they were looking out at the landscape, a man walked up the drive. Ned thought the man was Peters, a servant on the property, but by the time he went down the stairs and reached the yard, the man had disappeared. Without any reason to be suspicious about the event, Mary had forgotten it.

After talking to her husband about the ghost, he attests to not having seen it, and both he and Mary mutually agree to forget about the ghost entirely. After sitting down to tea and checking the mail, Ned gives Mary a letter addressed to her. When she opens it, she discovers a newspaper article from the Waukesha Sentinel concerning a lawsuit involving her husband and a man named Elwell. Initially, Mary becomes concerned and worried, but Ned informs her that the article is old and, since then, Elwell had dropped the suit.

The next day, Mary decides to take a walk around the gardens of Lyng while waiting for a man from Dorechester to inspect the hot-house boiler. As she is exploring the yard, a gentleman arrives and asks to speak to see her husband. Knowing that Ned spends the morning hours working on his book, she asks the man to come back later. After he disappears, Mary continues her walk, and on returning to the house for lunch, discovers that her husband is missing. Upon extensive inquiry, Mary learns from the servants that a gentleman, most likely the one that she met in the garden, had arrived at house immediately after he left her. The kitchen-maid let him into the house, and when she asked his name, he wrote it on a piece of paper to present to Ned. She did not read the name, and when she went to deliver the note, the man followed her into Ned’s library. Afterward, the two men took a walk together, and Ned has not yet returned.

Ned never returns home, and while authorities launch a search for him, Mary does some investigating of her own. She contacts a lawyer named Mr. Parvis, whom her husband had been writing to about the old lawsuit at the moment the stranger arrived. Mr. Parvis denies knowing anything about Ned’s disappearance, and the case goes unsolved.

However, some time later, Mr. Parvis visits Mary while in the area to find out what she plans to do about Mr. Elwell’s family. The history of Ned’s connection with Elwell is revealed: Ned tricked Elwell out of money in a business deal. Elwell went into debt, and he tried to commit suicide by shooting himself. However, he survived the ordeal, but passed away from his injuries a few months later. His family was left behind in great economic hardship, and how they are appealing for aid. In order to prove the veracity of his tale, Mr. Parvis shows Mary an old article from the Sentinel. In it, she reads about Elwell’s death, and looking at the pictures of him and her husband, recognizes Elwell as both the man she saw from on the coign and the visitor with whom her husband left. At that moment, it all becomes clear. When Elwell was seen on that day in October, he had just committed suicide, “but wasn’t dead enough” to reach Ned. The day he came to speak to Ned was the day he actually died. The legend of the house, then, was true. It did contain a ghost, but Mary was only able to recognize it “afterwards.”

Essay Questions or Writing Prompts:

1. When talking about the house and speculating the reasons why the ghost can only be recognized “afterward,” Ned remarks, “why, amid so much that’s ghostly, it can never affirm its separate existence as THE ghost.” How does Wharton’s description of Lyng help establish the mood of the text? Furthermore, how important is setting in this story?

2. In what ways does Mary Boyne’s anxiety about her marriage become projected into her fascination with Lyng’s ghost?

3. How is “Afterward” an example of the gothic genre?


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Don't forget about Roald Dahl's "The Landlady". A fellow teacher suggested it to me several years ago, and I started using it with some of my students.

Annie Rizzuto Urbanik said...

I haven't read that one yet, but now it's on my list! Thanks for the suggestion!