Afternoon Nap: A Study of Suspense and Trauma

            The story this week after returning from the 4th of July break, is Afternoon Nap by Rai Ahmed-Green.  It was printed in Periphery 54 and can be found under the story of the Week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            The first story I ever read from Periphery was Afternoon Nap by Rai Ahmed-Green.  It is a story that ran in Periphery 54 and it shocked and awed me.  Upon returning to it, I found myself feeling the same way.  What sells the story for me, however, is not the gruesome imagery, nor the palpable sense of anguish and unfairness, but how Ahmed-Green frames the story, and how he builds suspense. 

            It’s funny looking back in this story to realize that it starts with a young girl building a budget for student council and ends with her vengeful spirit killing a family.  The distance traveled between those to points is incredible.  The shock that comes from the initial murder is all the more potent because Ahmed-Green takes time to misdirect the reader away from what is going to happen.  The first paragraph of Afternoon Nap, with its worries about a Trigonometry test and prom, could easily fit into an entirely different story.  Taking the time to fill the girl’s world makes the stories disregard for those concerns even more shocking.  Just as the girl never gets to experience those things that once filled her life, neither does the reader.  They are presented only to be taken away.  Those very first things the reader learns about the girl’s world are ripped from them, just as they are the girl.  Afternoon Nap could have easily started long after the girl’s death, but it would have lost what makes it stand out. 

            An interesting way that Afternoon Nap creates suspense is by focusing on specific details when something horrible is happening.  After the girl ‘wakes up’ and discovers the murder of her family, she spends a great deal of time discussing her mother’s sewing. 

The stitching is immaculate, patterned to resemble butterflies and flowers; a perfect dress for a beautiful spring day. The girl always loved to watch her mother sew.  (Ahmed-Green)

As a reader I was on the edge of my seat this entire paragraph.  I didn’t care about the detailed stitching or the pattern of the dress.  I care about the mother who was just murdered.  The girl takes her time to examine every detail of the situation before finally looking directly at her mother.  One can imagine her trying not to look, trying not to comprehend how her life has been irrevocably altered.  Not only does that specificity create suspense, it sets up the theme of lost scraps of fabric, while also showing how hesitant the girl is to accept the fate of her family. 

            The same pattern can be found with the Benise family at the end of the story.  All of the details about the commission on the house, and the lack of haggling keep the reader from what they really want to know: what the girl is going to do.  How is she going to react to these intruders into her home?  By the time the reader gets an answer to this question suspense has been built throughout the entire conversation. 

            More than its violence what stands out to me about Afternoon Nap is the pain that both causes and stems from it.  The girl’s frustration with being forgotten, the unfairness of a life cut short, and the inability of others to understand how she feels are all very human emotions.  Underscoring all of these points is the need for others to understand how one feels.  The reader can understand the girl’s pain, can understand why does what she does even while they are horrified at it.  This was a story that shocked me, and continues to do so, but more than that makes me sympathize with a scared young girl who can’t find relief.  Who is so angry about the end of her life, how quickly it was forgotten, and how little any of it mattered, she forces that same horrific experience on others. 

There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book: The Use of Symbols and Legends

There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book by Lucius Pham is a story from Periphery 55 and can be found in the archives as well as the story of the week.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            I have always had a soft spot for surreal or absurd stories.  I think they are able to capture a mythic quality that is meant to be thought on: meant to be savored.  These stories do a really good job of creating symbols and themes overtly, showing them immediately in the foreground to force readers to think on them.  There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book by Lucius Pham does just that.  Images of towers of books and bodies tumbling from them are effortlessly evocative, and inherently deeply symbolic.  The story is reminiscent of legends and tall tales, where a lesson or warning is lurking behind the story and symbols.  How then, does There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book achieve this mythic quality? 

            The most notable way that There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book strives towards a mythic quality is the lack of defined sentences.  Despite the many commas and quotation marks, there are three periods in the entire story.  The lack of differentiation between sentences just begs for this story to be read aloud.  The passage that sold me on it was this one:

I am mesmerized by it’s handwritten lettering

Entranced by it’s hypnotic text

Studying each line, singing every word in my heart

There is something about this book

Time passes and I check my timepiece

The books topple behind me as I get up to leave

It is a genius stroke of using prose to mirror narrative.  Each incomplete phrase leaves the reader hanging, waiting for the next one to fully understand what is going on, stringing the reader along word to word, phrase to phrase.  Then the narrative shifts suddenly, describing the books piling up around the protagonist, mirroring how time rapidly passes for the protagonist.  The stark shift surprises the reader just as it surprises the protagonist.  The wonderful metanarrative of the story of a young person becoming consumed with stories is perfectly shown through how easily readers become hooked with these sentence fragments.  The mythic quality comes from allowing the reader to feel the same interest that consumed the protagonist.  It makes them wonder if there is danger lurking within handwritten lettering or hypnotic text. 

            The use of symbolic imagery is key to There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book is key to the mythic quality.  There is something inherently evocative about a throne of books.  Ideas of knowledge, and enlightenment spring forth from the books, while power and regality are associated with the throne.  The man atop that tower of books brings to mind monks on top of mountains or hidden away in remote vistas safeguarding knowledge.  Everything that happens to them begs to be analyzed on a symbolic level.  What does it mean that the tower of books stands only a short while after the man dies?  What is significant about the height of the towers?  Whether or not Pham meant anything by these details, the symbolic nature of the images assigns meaning to them, and makes readers stop and think on it, just as they are meant to think on legends or myths. 

            Finally the cyclical nature of the story not only mirrors the structure of legends, but gives readers direct access to it.  It makes the tower of books seem like a perpetual entity.  Something that always has been, and will be.  Moreover, the failure to name characters allows the reader to insert themselves directly into the story, as if they too, might stumble upon a tower of books.  From there it is up to the reader to wonder if that is something to be celebrated, or feared.  Either way the story is meant to be thought upon, and it is a goal effortlessly achieved. 

Spectral Light: A Gothic Upheaval

            Spectral Light by Lillian DeThomas, can be found in Periphery 56 downloadable online, as well as under the ‘Story of the Week’ tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between. 

When I first read Spectral Light by Lillian DeThomas, one of the first things I did was mark that this story needed revisiting.  While being only a little over a page long at 541 words, it executes a shocking and wonderful twist that made me return to this story, weeks and months after first reading it, and yet again after seeing it in print.  It is a classic, in this case singular, page turner that leaves the reader hooked until the very last word, where all is revealed.  On top of that suspense, Spectral Light manages to touch on grief, loss, and sorrow in a particularly poignant way.  The combination of those two aspects made the story a favorite among the Periphery staff, that was almost immediately and unanimously accepted into the publication.  Here I want to look at how the story does both of these complex tasks in parallel, and if you haven’t yet read the story, I will be talking about how it ends, so go take a read first, you can find it under the ‘Full Written Submissions’ tab.  I can’t recommend it enough. 

            The story opens with the line: “The walls were a jaundiced yellow. They were bleached to a crisp, but not by the sun” immediately starting the extended metaphor of the house as a body, or carcass.  The story references the ‘heart’ of the house, it’s darkness and claustrophobic atmosphere.  The husband and wife seemed trapped by it, being slowly digested in the bowels of the house.  It is only later in the story that the reader learns that it is not the house that traps them, but the sorrow and loss it represents: the death of a child. 

            The body imagery of the house in Spectral Light plays on the trope of the Gothic Mansion.  Many classic Gothic mansions like Thornfield Hall from Jane Eyre or Bly from The Turn of the Screw, initially masquerade as being haunted, only to later draw doubt or complicate that assumption.  Within Jane Eyre the house isn’t haunted by a literal ghost, but the lady of the house, trapped away in the attic.  In The Turn of the Screw the existence of a ghost is ambiguous on whether or not the governess imagined it all.  In both of these cases, the haunting is used as a metaphor for underlying issues.  In Spectral Light the ghost of the daughter isn’t malevolently haunting the house, nor is the house trying to consume the parents; the sorrow and loss drives both of those haunted aspects of the story.  By hiding that sorrow beneath the pretense of a haunting, the reader can begin to understand how the sorrow of the family is also hidden away.  Under the mask of the haunting, the story exposes how the grief of the parents is hidden. 

            In order to get to that grief, to show how it is hidden, the story uses a shifting perspective as well.  Reading Spectral Light is like watching a slow camera zoom into the lives of the family.  Just as the sorrow and loss is hidden for the family, so too is it hidden from the reader.  At first they are simply a couple in an ominous house, only referred to as ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’.  It is only when the perspective is revealed, as from the ghost’s point of view, that the man is referred to as a father, and his relation as husband to the woman made explicit.  On top of this, the tragedy of the family is finally revealed.  The end of the zoom no longer sees the barren walls of the house as malevolent, but sorrowful as the parents couldn’t bear to see pictures of their lost family.  Here again, just as with hiding the tragedy behind the metaphor of a haunting, so too is that grief hidden with perspective. 

            That shift in perspective highlights how Spectral Light functions stylistically as well.  The use of almost entirely compound and complex sentences gives the story a rhythm, a sort of ‘buh-bum buh-bum’ heartbeat pattern.  Take the first paragraph for instance:

“In the end, the man and the woman that lived there would be fine. They shared the house and lived a simple life. Sometimes the woman cooked and the man cleaned and everyday distractions were sobering for them. Even though there was something in the air, they had each other.”

There is a dream-like quality to the lives of the man and the woman.  That quality is paralleled in the repetition of sentence length and structure throughout the story.  The reader, like the grieving parents, falls into habit through the use of syntax.  Tension is built through ominous details fitting into the pattern of sentence structure.  The reader sees “There was something in the air” and yet the man and the woman don’t seem to pay attention to it.  These details fit neatly into complex, compound sentence pattern, showing how these unsettling details fit into the everyday lives for the man, the woman, and the house. 

            One of the greatest impacts of the repeated sentence length and structure is how the pattern is broken.  When the perspective shifts to first person, so too does the syntax change.  Short simple sentences like “They were listening” and “I could see this army of specters” stand out because of the repetition.  The breaking of the syntactic pattern allows DeThomas to highlight details without unnecessary words.  These sentences stand out because of their abruptness in the midst of flowing compound and complex prose.  Fittingly, the last two sentences, the last pieces of the puzzle, stand out not only because of their impact, but because of their abruptness as well:

“He doesn’t know that he lives on my grave. He doesn’t know that he’s the one who buried me.”

            DeThomas, rifts from and adds to Gothic tropes, builds tension, and crafts sentences all leading to a wonderful twist.  Spectral Light does so in a tight package, not lavishing detail where it doesn’t belong, nor extending the story unnecessarily.  The story showcases the powerful punch that flash fiction can and should be.  It is the kind of story we at Periphery love to read, publish, and share with you.