Friday, September 19, 2014

Dead Air Came Out To Meet Her

Technique is the set of tools that a writer brings to the crafting of a story. Some stories require one set of tools, some demand another; but the beauty of technique is that it can be applied to many kinds of story in different ways.

Quite often, technique is buried in the text of a story; but every now and then, it can be visible on the surface and all the more easy to examine. No writer can show us what to write -- for this, we need our own experience, our own obsessions -- but a writer who uses technique openly can show us how to write.

A story might offer an excellent model on how to use a diary format to build credibility and suspense (Guy de Maupassant's 1887 version of "Le Horla"), or it might show how to use a frame effectively, and why it should be used for certain effects (William Sansom's "A Wedding"). But for an example of how to use foreshadowing, and details that unify a story thematically and dramatically, I like to suggest Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover."

(Because the story is well-known, most of you have read it; but all the same, I will not describe the ending. On the other hand, I will point out foreshadowing details, so be warned.)

Right in the opening sentence, Elizabeth Bowen tells you how the story will end:

Towards the end of her day in London Mrs. Drover went round to her shut-up house to look for several things she wanted to take away.

Revealing so much at the start is a dangerous game: there is always the risk of giving away too much. To conceal her intentions, Ms. Bowen adds a few commonplace details of motivation and time:

Some belonged to herself, some to her family, who were by now used to their country life. It was late August; it had been a steamy, showery day: at the moment the trees down the pavement glittered in an escape of humid yellow afternoon sun.

But some of these everyday details, appropriate to London during the second world war, add a sense of unease:

Against the next batch of clouds, already piling up ink-dark, broken chimneys and parapets stood out.

Then vague unease gives way to a clear hint of what lies ahead:

In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Dover’s return. [Italics are mine in every quotation.]

Other specific hints:

Shifting some parcels under her arm, she slowly forced round her latchkey in an unwilling lock, then gave the door, which had warped, a push with her knee. Dead air came out to meet her as she went in.

Although these hints become clear only in hindsight, after the story has been read, they add to the mood right from the start, and provide a unified impression of the story's atmosphere and intentions.

Again, Ms. Bowen does not want to give away too much, too soon, and so she continues with everyday details. But even here, a phrase or an image will send echoes throughout the story:

Now the prosaic woman, looking about her, was more perplexed than she knew by everything that she saw, by traces of her long former habit of life -- the yellow smoke stain up the white marble mantelpiece, the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire;  the bruise in the wallpaper where, on the door being thrown open widely, the china handle had always hit the wall. The piano, having gone away to be stored, had left what looked like claw marks on its part of the parquet.

Then she goes beyond hinting:

There were some cracks in the structure, left by the last bombing, on which she was anxious to keep an eye. Not that one could do anything --

At this point, she brings in a short flashback that fills in context without giving much away. Yes, there is information, but its vagueness adds to the hint of something at the heart of the story that is mysterious and threatening:

Hearing her catch her breath, her fiancĂ© said, without feeling: “Cold?”

“You’re going away such a long way.”

“Not so far as you think.”

“I don’t understand?”

“You don’t have to,” he said. “You will. You know what we said.”

“But that was -- suppose you -- I mean, suppose.”

“I shall be with you,” he said, “sooner or later. You won’t forget that. You need do nothing but wait.”

The threat becomes physical:

Now and then -- for it felt, from not seeing him at this intense moment, as though she had never seen him at all -- she verified his presence for these few moments longer by putting out a hand, which he each time pressed, without very much kindness, and painfully, on to one of the breast buttons of his uniform. That cut of the button on the palm of her hand was, principally, what she was to carry away.

Four pages later, Ms. Bowen echoes this moment and unifies past with present:

She remembered with such dreadful acuteness that the twenty-five years since then dissolved like smoke and she instinctively looked for the weal left by the button on the palm of her hand.

At this point, for the sake of those who have not read the story, I should stop.

But as a model worth study, "The Demon Lover" has more to offer than I've mentioned here. At one point, it shows the power of a sudden transition:

She unlocked her door, went to the top of the staircase and listened down. 

She heard nothing -- but while she was hearing nothing the passé air of the staircase was disturbed by a draught that travelled up to her face. It emanated from the basement: down there a door or window was being opened by someone who chose this moment to leave the house.

The rain had stopped; the pavements steamily shone as Mrs. Drover let herself out by inches from her own front door into the empty street. The unoccupied houses opposite continued to meet her look with their damaged stare.

As you can also see, the story offers a good lesson in how to use physical detail to imply a danger that goes beyond the physical. This comes to a point on the final page: for me, one of the great fearful endings in horror fiction.


Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Bowen. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1946.

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