Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake: A Study of Efficiency

            The short story as a conversation is a format we get a lot of at Periphery.  It is a framing device that I particularly enjoy; I find it to be a wonderful way to bring focus to a story.  That focus, however, comes with it’s own set of drawbacks.  If a story consists solely of dialogue, that dialogue has to do many things: provide background, characterization, and context, while at the same time actually tell a story.  In order to fit within the confines of a short story then, each line of dialogue has to be incredibly efficient at doing each of these tasks.  A beautiful example of that efficiency in dialogue comes from Tess Lydon’s Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake

            The introduction of Mar within the story hooked me the first time I read it.  It does a great job of avoiding of the major pitfalls of dialogue heavy stories, and is efficient at introducing characters and the context.  Take a look:

Evan: What are you doing out here?

Mar: It’s raining.

Evan: Come inside

Mar: It seems almost a little too on the nose if you ask me.  Rain on the day of a wake.  The universe is pathetic. 

Evan: Mar, please come inside. 

Mar, Forecast says it should rain harder on the day of the funeral.  It’s like the universe couldn’t resist the cliché

Evan: Everyone is looking for you

Mar: Then tell them to come onto the front porch

In a story of only dialogue it is perilously easy to slip into a single voice, where the author is talking to her or himself instead of characters having conversations.  Lydon sidesteps that pitfall by having the characters initially talk at each other rather than with.  When the characters initially attempt to talk over each other two distinct voices are able to emerge.  It takes Mar eight lines to even acknowledge what Evan is trying to tell her.  It is within those eight lines that the reader gets a deep look into both characters, and it makes both of their introductions memorable.  The reader instantly knows Mar is self-centered, ironic, and not shy about showing her feelings.  About Evan we can see that he is obedient, more pragmatic, but still cares for Mar and is used to putting up with her.  Not only do these lines efficiently characterize the two main characters, and develop two distinct voices, but also sets the scene.  It is incredibly efficient writing. 

            Again and again the efficiency of the story is impressive.  The efficiency overcomes the lack of tools usually available in prose when a story is restricted to dialogue.  The conversation between Mar and Evan is carefully crafted so that each line does an incredible amount of work.  As Mar is talking about all the ways that Aunt Deb was ignorant, she is giving context to both her and Evan’s character, and while she is ranting, Evan is trying to distract her with carbs, again informing both their characters in a different way.  I would challenge readers to find more than a handful of lines within this story that don’t serve multiple purposes.  I know I couldn’t. 

            A comparison I wanted to make here was between Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  When I recently read Gaiman’s Hugo award winning novel what surprised me most about it was how inefficient it was.  Long segments of chapters detailing characters never to be seen again popped up several times.  Page-long descriptions of places only seen once in the story before being quickly cast aside were not uncommon.  A look into how a story specifically uses inefficiency can be telling into how it can and should be used. 

            Before I go any further it is important to note that short stories by definition have to be more efficient than novels, simply due to size.  To tell a complete story in less words necessitates efficient storytelling.  It is something that Gaiman uses knowingly.  The inefficient style is used for a specific purpose, but the different formats is worth noting. 

            The inefficiency of American Gods ties into the central themes of the novel.  One of the main themes of American Gods is what happens when people forget.  What happens to the old gods when people forget about them in a modern world?  Do new gods take their place?  Where their older gods before the ‘old gods’?  Does that mean there is an endless string of newer and older gods gaining and losing worshippers?  Questions like these greatly apply themselves to inefficient storytelling.  If people worship a endless string of gods one after the other, that system relies on inefficiency: one then the next, and then the next, rather than many at one time.  That concept easily parallels Gaiman’s descriptions of places and characters quickly discarded.  A more specific example of that inefficiency is in how Gaiman uses conjunctions:

“The Lights were off, and there was silence, mostly, nothing but the hum of the refrigerator, and, somewhere in the building, a radio playing” (Gaiman 256)

I noticed early in the novel that Gaiman tends to use several conjunctions in sentences, rather than lists of commas in order to elongate sentences and lists.  The sentences become diced up into discrete clauses, all jumbled after the other.  Does that sound familiar?  It is an inefficient style all the way down to the syntax, but it is used for a specific reason. 

            Between these two stories one can see the disparate ends of efficiency within storytelling.  What initially drew me to Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake was it’s focus.  The conversation seems monolithic alone on the page, like its message is supposed to ring out.  It is a finely tuned story where every aspect ties to itself or does many jobs.  Keeping stories tight and short is a much more reliable way to achieve that effect so finely captured by Lydon.  The beautiful exception to prove that rule is American Gods.  It shows how powerful the space can be to develop character and place at the expense of efficiency.  Gaiman uses the inefficiency knowingly and purposely; it is a wonderful example of how to break convention through the understanding of it. 

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.