A Short Story Review Omnibus with Carter, Borges, Russell, Fitzgerald, Lee, Chandler, Hemingway

Long before re-imagining fairy tales became a fantasy sub-genre Angela Carter published her volume of short stories The Bloody Chamber, a collection of fairy tales with her own modern twist. “The Company of Wolves” is Ms. Carter’s take on the classic story of Red Riding Hood.

Ms. Carter’s stories are not for children. She typically takes the sexuality that is present underneath the children’s tale and brings it to the forground where she can fully explore its implications. This is the case with “The Company of Wolves.”

The story begins with a collection of wolf lore and anecdotes, presented as true, the sort of thing a disturbed grandmother might tell her granddaughters to keep them on the straight and narrow. In one a jilted witch gets her revenge by turning an entire bridal party into wolves. In another, a woman unwittingly marries a werewolf. This serves to lay the ground for the Red Riding Hood story that follows.

Red Riding Hood is a beautiful girl who has just reached the beginings of her sexuality. Ms. Carter makes it clear what the red cloak represents. The heroine is inexperienced, but she is no innocent. She waits until her father is away before insisting that her mother let her take a basket of food to grandma through a dangerous wood. When she meets a handsome woodsman she only briefly hesitates to take him up on his bet that he can beat her to grandma’s house. She then dawdles, determined to lose the bet so she will have to pay the forfiet of a kiss.

In Ms. Carter’s version of the story the woodsman is also the wolf, hairy on the inside, so no one will come to the rescue this time. But no one needs to rescue this Red Riding Hood. When confronted with the handsome woodsman/wolf who occupies her grandmother’s bed, she does not run. Instead she turns the tables on the wolf by seducing him in order to gain control of him.

Angela Carter’s version of Red Riding Hood plays with all of the elements of innocence, sexual desire, and gender that are present in the original tale. She takes them in directions many readers may find uncomfortable, but may also recognize. I’m not sure the result is meant to empower–though this Red Riding Hood is in control of her situation, her situation is still a very dark one. But it is clear that Ms. Carter’s herione needs rescuing from nobody.

“The Library of Babel” is really a description rather than a story. Nothing happens in it at all. Instead, Mr. Borges’s narrator describes what the library is like and how the men in it have tried to understand it. (There are no women in the story.)

The library is the universe. It is made of an infinite number of hexagonal rooms each connected to the others by a short passage which contains a sleeping closet and a bathroom along with access to a spiral staircase that goes both up and down to an infinite series of levels of more hexagonal rooms. Each room contains a set number of books. The books contain everything there is to know, a complete accounting of all knowledge including a vindication of every person in the library. If you could find the book of your life, you would discover the purpose of it. But the chances of finding that single book in a library of infinite size are zero.

Is an infinite library a paradise, a purgatory, an inferno? This particular library/universe is ultimately a purgatory. The men in it spend their lives searching for answers that they know must exist somewhere and that will give meaning to their lives, but all of the books they find contain page upon page of nonsense with only a few snatches of meaningful text here and there. The narrator has spent his youth wondering far and wide but he is now an old man and has ended up just a few hexagons away from the room he was born in.

As someone who both makes and reads books, I found “The Library of Babel” to be a powerful story. I’ve had Mr. Borges’s novel The Labyrinth of Solitude on my TBR shelf for just about a year. It may be time to move it to the front of the line.

“Haunting Olivia” is just the second story I’ve read from Karen Russell’s book St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves ,but Ms. Russell may already be my new favorite writer. The first story featured two sisters so naturally this one features two brothers. Left alone with their grandmother for the summer by their parents who are still grieving the loss of the boys’s younger sister, Wallow and Timothy find an old snorkeling mask while scavenging through a floating junkyard of old boats. The mask is pink, made for a girl, and seems like a message from their sister who was swept out to sea never to be found two years prior.

Wallow, the older of the two, makes Timothy try out the mask which turns out to be magic. Once underwater the mask makes it possible to see the ghosts there. Timothy and Wallow use them to discover thousands of ghost fish, some dating back to prehistoric times. Soon Wallow comes up with a scheme to use the mask to find their sister’s ghost. Before Olivia died, she drew many imaginary maps that Wallow kept. When one of them, a map of what Olivia called the Glowworm Grotto, turns out to match a secret spot their grandmother recognizes, the two boys begin a systematic search of the nearby coast until they find the grotto. Olivia’s ghost both is and isn’t there in an ending that certainly worked its magic on me making this one a story I can highly recommend.

I was expecting P.G. Wodehouse. A story by F. Scott Fitzgerald called “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” Sounds like a comic tale of wealthy New Yorkers, probably full of witty repartee like one finds in a Jeeves and Wooster story. Instead of P.G. Wodehouse, I found H. Rider Haggard.

“A Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is narrated by Fitzgerald’s standard middle class young man, John T. Unger, who has found himself among the very rich. The narrator agrees to visit a school mates family ranch during a long semester break. His friend, Percy Washington, has bragged that his father owns a diamond as big as the Ritz hotel. John would like to see it.

John and Percy travel to the rugged Canadian border, somewhere in Montana, to the Washington family estate. John soon learns the family history. The original Washingtons arrived in Montana from the south, slaves in tow, discovered a diamond mine that held wealth beyond imagination. Should anyone discover the diamond mine, which turned out to be a single diamond as big as a mountain, the value of precious stones and money itself would immediately decline to near worthlessness. So the Washington family set about making sure that no one ever found their estate. They used their wealth to keep their land out of the land surveys, out of all contact with either Canada or the United States and turned their ranch into a sort of lost civilization, much like the forgotten kingdoms in the jungles of Africa that one finds in novels like She by H. Rider Haggard.

Fitzgerald’s story follows the typical plot arc of lost kingdom novels. We learn how the place was kept secret over the generations. We get a tour of the place so it’s wealth and opulence can be described and its social customs explained. The narrator falls in love with a local girl, Percy’s sister. Finally, the ranch/kingdom falls and the narrator escapes, girl in tow. None of this should be considered a spoiler, you knew it would all happen didn’t you–it always does. What’s fun about stories like this one are the details, the explanations the author gives as to how it all works and how it all came about.

But this is not the sort of story I expected F. Scott Fitzgerald to write. Nor did the Saturday Evening Post, which typically paid him 1,500 dollars for a long story. “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz” was rejected as too long at 20,000 words. Fitzgerald cut it down to 15,000, but it was still rejected. It’s not a very nice story–the Washington family keeps the source of their immense wealth a secret through intimidation and murder which may not have been suitable for the Saturday Evening Post. Fitzgerald eventually published it in The Smart Set and later in Tales of the Jazz Age.

If you’d like to read “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz” by F. Scott Fitzgerald the full text is here.

I listened to a podcast of “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz” from The Classic Tales series of free podcasts. You can subscribe through iTunes or visit The Classic Tales Podcast website here.

Earlier this month, Podcastle featured “Rapunzel” by Tanith Lee. I can’t say much about the story, without risking a spoiler, but I wanted to feature it here. It’s a marvelous story.

And I want more people to read it, or to listen to it.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve grown tired of fairy tales retold with a modern twist, but I keep running into wonderful exceptions:  Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves”; Tanith Lee’s “Rapunzel”. I don’t know if Ms. Lee counts Angela Carter as an influence, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised. (Or perhaps Ms. Lee influenced Angela Carter.) Lee’s “Rapunzel” is set in a land of princes and kings where people do believe in magic though there is none in the story. Her Rapunzel is a refugee, a survivor of war who bears the scars of that experience. The prince is a soldier, tired of war, who falls in love with a girl he knows his father will never allow him to marry. How he solves this problem is what makes the story so good. I really, really want to tell you, but I can’t.


You can listen to “Rapunzel” by Tanith Lee over at Podcastle. If you haven’t checked out their weekly podcasts already, give them a try. They’re always high quality and they’re free.

“Killer in the Rain” by Raymond Chandler was first published in The Black Mask, a pulp magazine featuring detective and crime fiction in 1935. Mr. Chandler has this to say about writing for magazines like The Black Mask:

The emotional basis of the standard detective story  had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing. We who tried to write it had the same point of view as the film makers. When I first went to work in Hollywood a very intelligent producer told me that you couldn’t make a successful motion picture from a mystery story, because the whole point was a disclosure that took a few seconds of screen time while the audience was reaching for its hat. He was wrong, but only because he was thinking of the wrong kind of mystery.

From the author’s introduction to Trouble is My Business.

Scene over plot. A mystery that you’d read if the ending was missing. Both good ways to look at and judge the stories of Raymond Chandler like “Killer in the Rain.”

A down-on-his-luck detective is hired by a wealthy man to get rid of his daughter’s boyfriend. A typical job, one the detective could basically phone in. The father is Anton Dravec, former Pittsburgh steelworker who left town, came West and got rich buying up ranch land. The daughter is adopted, sort of. Dravec raised her up and has fallen in love with her. If he can get rid of the boyfriend, maybe he has a chance. The boyfriend is Harold Steiner, small time operator with a penchant for producing dirty pictures. The daughter, Carmen, is what’s called man-crazy. She doesn’t know it, but she’s been the subject of Steiner’s photography.

No one in a Raymond Chandler story is a clean as they try to appear. The characters in “Killer in the Rain” start out shady and soon get dirty. As the plot goes from complication to complication the detective is soon in over his head fighting for his own life and reputation. Chandler claims in his introduction that Black Mask stories are not about the denouement, that the reader would enjoy them even if the ending was missing. He’s right, but “Killer in the Rain” comes to a conclusion that satisfies none-the-less.

Is it classic Chandler?

There are no “classics” of crime and detection. Not one. Within its frame of reference, which is the only way it should be judged, a classic is a piece of writing which exhausts the possibilities of its form and can hardly be surpassed. No story or novel of mystery has done that yet. Few have come close. Which is one of the principal reasons why otherwise reasonable people continue to assault the citadel.

From the author’s introduction, 1950.

Looking backwards from nearly 60 years on, I am going to disagree. “Killer in the Rain” is at least classic Raymond Chandler, if not classic “crime and detection.”

 Karen Russell writes of roadside America, all those little, run-down attractions that used to dot the highways with desperate billboards trying to catch each tourist’s fancy– Just 100 miles away, 50 miles to….., 10 more miles to……., you’ve just missed…… A dilapidated alligator farm, a collection of giant seashells, big enough to hide in, a retirement home made up of old houseboats, a skating rink with live orangutans, a summer camp for children with sleep disorders, an orphanage for werewolves’s daughters. Even people who don’t take the time to stop and see what’s there spend a few minutes wondering what kind of people would. Just who runs places like that? What would it be like to grow up there?

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves starts of strong with Ava Wrestles the Alligator and Haunting Olivia, two stories I’ve reviewed previously.  Both deal with two siblings–girls in one, boys in the other–on their own for the summer, parents away dealing with problems of loss. The children try to make sense of their worlds and their family’s neglect of them in whatever way they can. Their imaginations play such a strong role in their lives that the both stories begin to border on fantasy, the reader begins to wonder what is real in each.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the stories decline in quality. I enjoyed “Z.Z.’z Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers” and “Out to Sea,” but the novelty of each story’s unusual setting and unusual premise began to wear off well before the last story in the collection. The early stories used their fantastic premises and fanciful plot elements to say something about the human condition. But by the end of the collection what had been insightful seems merely clever. What insight into ourselves can we gain from a story about girls raised by wolves who are trained to function in the human world? We learn that afterwards they are no longer wolves, they cannot ever return to their wolf families. You can’t go home again. I expected more of a payoff than that. But the stories in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves that do payoff, payoff well. The fanciful plot elements draw the reader into the childhood worlds Karen Russell explores, worlds that can be as imaginary as they are real. Child’s play can take very serious turns in it’s attempt to make sense of the adult world.

Karen Russell, at age 24, has received high praise for her collection. She’s been featured on National Public Radio, named one of the Best Young American novelists by Granta without actually having published a novel, and has something of a following already. I hope this doesn’t end up hurting her writing in the long run. While I’m not recommending anyone buy St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves I am looking forward to more from Karen Russell. What’s good in her collection is very good. Unfortunately, success can lead a writer to focus on what succeeded, instead of on what was good.

The trouble with stories by Ernest Hemingway is that it so often looks like nothing is happening in them. Take “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” Two waiters in a Spanish cafe, one older and one younger, argue briefly about whether or not they should close up for the night. The younger one wants to go home and argues that no one is out so late anyway, while the older wants to keep the cafe open a little longer because there may be someone out there who is looking for a clean well-lighted cafe to spend an hour or two. A cafe is different from a bar or a bodega, the older waiter insists.

That’s the story!!! The whole thing is so short you can read it in under ten minutes! Why bother?

One bothers because of this paragraph which comes just after the waiters have closed the cafe.

“Good night,” said the other (older) waiter. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who are in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada and in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

Damn. That nada stuff sure is something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but after re-reading the story a couple of times, it’s very short almost a long poem really, I get it. I see why the old waiter wants a clean well-lighted cafe to hide out in for a while instead of going home. I see why it is so important to him and I appreciate how he ultimately accepts a bar instead. But I can also see why so many people have so much trouble with stories like this. Apparently pointless rambling dialogue with a seemingly flippant last line about it all just being insomnia. So many people seek connections when they read fiction; it can be difficult to face the prospect that in the end we may be separate.

And it’s a damn fine story in any case.

Reading Hemingway makes me write like that.



These reviews all first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are C.B. in the fall of 2008.  Looking back at me now what impresses me is how many great authors you can read in a short time if you focus some of your reading on short stories.  

4 thoughts on “A Short Story Review Omnibus with Carter, Borges, Russell, Fitzgerald, Lee, Chandler, Hemingway

  1. Love Angela Carter. Just got a big collection of her work for an informal Halloween read. Karen Russell frustrates me. I’ve read several things she’s written, and she can be a really good writer, but then she seems to lose control.

  2. The Angela Carter story collection would make good future DMI fodder, methinks. You may remember that Candiss from our deal me in group read the Borges story earlier this year and reacted favorably. A Clean Well Lighted Place is one of my very favorite Hemingway stories as I think I may be one of those who likes to stay late at the cafe…

    1. I should visit Candiss’s review. I thought the story was darn goo. Angela Carter has some terrific stuff. Be sure to put the one about Lizzie Borden in your DMI folder sometime.

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