Monday, March 13, 2017

The Unsettling Punch of Brevity



Two days ago, when I re-read "The Great Clock," by Langdon Jones, I was reminded of just how powerful a story can be when it widens focus in the final paragraphs -- when it pulls back, like the story here, from a tight concentration on one character's disaster to reveal the larger impact of a catastrophe, or when it pulls back to reveal a greater personal crisis beyond the small symptoms we had been offered up to that point ("The Beautiful Stranger," by Shirley Jackson), the larger pattern of pain or obsession in a group or family ("The Fifth Head of Cerberus," by Gene Wolfe), the human loss that extends beyond the loss of one person ("The Dying Man," by Damon Knight), the greater mystery behind a small one (The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins), or even a larger, more sinister context in a story that had seemed local, specific, and simple ("A Wedding," by William Sansom).

The technique is different in a story like "The Dead Valley," by Ralph Adams Cram, which pulls back to reveal the long-term duration and repetition of what had seemed like one isolated, uncanny event: the widening focus, here, takes place over several pages, instead of being concentrated in just a few lines. This method can be powerful (as it is in the story by Cram), but it lacks the unsettling punch of brevity.

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