“The Short Story and the Supernatural”

00:00 Fri 17 Jan 1997. Updated: 20:10 28 Jun 2013
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I wrote this during my MA Qualifier year, in Chares E. May’s Short Story class. It was the first time I worked my ideas about the short story into any coherent form, and the train of thought I started here formed the core of my MA thesis.

The short story is a marginal, fragmentary, invasive form. In this essay I shall examine why “supernatural” tales are suited to the short story form and what techniques are used to maximise their effect.

Short stories are marginal in part because of their protagonists, which Frank O’Connor asserts are “submerged population groups” (O’Connor p18), figures on the margins. O’Connor is in general right about the short story. The protagonists are almost always outsiders, from the clerk in Gogol’s “The Overcoat” to almost any protagonist in any Raymond Carver story. O’Connor states: “Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society” (O’Connor p19). What’s more, there is always a sense of the inexplicable about their exclusion. There are evident reasons for this exclusion, but these seem insufficient, especially to the protagonists themselves. Holly and Duane in Carver’s “Gazebo” are a submerged population group—people whose lives have simply gone wrong and who can’t find their way back. The event responsible for this, Duane’s infidelity with a maid, does not rationally explain the complete collapse they undergo afterwards. Carver’s characters are ideal examples of characters in the modern short story in general: unfocused, vaguely wandering, looking for an escape that will never come, unable to identify solidly why they are where they are. Characters in the modern short story are like Ancient Mariners, cursed to suffer for reasons that are at best oblique. They are adrift, as described by O’Connor, in “a society that has no sign posts, a society that offers no goals and no answers.” (O’Connor p18) This is very different from the novel, which is mainly concerned with society and what happens in it rather than outside it.

This tendency of the short story is one of the reasons why short stories about the supernatural work well. Characters who experience “supernatural” or inexplicable events are no longer part of the mainstream of society in many respects. They retreat or go mad, or they become doomed to repeat their tales in the hope of being believed by enough people and hence re-accepted. In either case, they become a “submerged population group” because their belief in their own experience cannot be reconciled with the belief system of the society they live in. Normally, this belief system is also the belief system of the reader’s society, and normally some kind of “rational explanation” is given for the events; however, this explanation often come too late to save the poor individual who is victimised by the “supernatural event” in question. This is precisely what happens in Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”. The Rev. Jennings is plagued by an imp, and retreats, becoming cut off from society (almost literally, as he flees to “a dark street in off Piccadilly, [where] he inhabits a very narrow house” (Le Fanu p180)). He becomes a “submerged population group” because of his affliction, and also because of his studies of and belief in occult texts. The reader, however, is not asked to believe in the imp, since Hesselius reveals (far too late) that the problem lay in the green tea, and that science could have effected a cure easily enough. This serves to offset the unreality of the story, and take it closer to the reader, who can reconcile the events with his or her own knowledge of the world. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” also deals with a “submerged population group”—Roderick and Madeline Usher, separated from the world in their excessively Gothic castle. They also suffer a doom that is inadequately explained by the text; in a sense, the point of the text is to indicate that such things can happen for no good reason.

The short story does not have the time that the novel has for setting up a believable world. It must grip the reader with the reality of its events from the very first. This need coincides with the need of “supernatural” stories to be believed. There is a well-established tradition of establishing the credentials of the narrator, either by giving him or her a highly respected profession or position, or by having the narrator admit to the fantastic nature of their tale and insist on its truth nonetheless. This is how “The Black Cat” is introduced: “Mad indeed would I be to expect it [belief], in a case where my very senses reject their own experience.” (Poe p476) Other devices are also used. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” the narrator is portrayed as loyal, since he comes immediately at Roderick Usher’s request (Poe p263); noble or well-off, as he attended school with Roderick and also since he claims the type of decor in the House of Usher has surrounded him “from infancy” (Poe p265); educated, as evidenced by the books they pore over, among other things; and accustomed to the environment of the castle—as mentioned above, he claims intimacy since birth with such trappings as adorn the House of Usher, but it is worth mentioning again since this also means that he is unlikely to be rattled by the surroundings in normal circumstances, hence adding weight to the feeling that something out of the ordinary transpired in that house. The narrator of “Green Tea” is set up more blatantly: he is introduced as a doctor, a father figure, a man of means, and a genius (Le Fanu p178-179). The person who introduces him, moreover, is also a trained doctor and surgeon, so there can be no doubt about the respectable nature of the man. These characteristics combine, quite deliberately, to make the reader trust the narrators’ testimony. The ending of “Green Tea” is also highly credible because the situation is that of a doctor finding a dead man and ascertaining the cause of death—an entirely normal situation for a doctor to be in. The climactic ending of “The Fall of the House of Usher”, on the other hand, is made more credible because the narrator prefigures it by telling us about the fissure around the house at the start of the story (Poe p265) and then reminds us that he mentioned it earlier (Poe p277). This prefiguring is essential; it creates the effect that the reader feels as if the event is fated, rather than being merely a whim of the author. The sense of fate adds to the credibility of the story as a whole. Inevitability also features in other “Dr. Hesselius” stories by Le Fanu, though in different ways. In “The Familiar” and “Mr. Justice Harbottle” the main characters both die in ways prefigured by earlier events in the stories, creating again a feeling of fate. This feeling combats the disbelief of the reader.

The short story is a fragmentary form. Unlike the novel, it does not deal in wholes but in small but crucial pieces of some whole. Mary Louise Pratt states that “One of the most consistently found narrative structures in the short story is the one called the ‘moment-of-truth’ [which] focus on a single point of crisis in the life of a central character.” (Pratt p99) Stories concerning the supernatural certainly do this, though without much subtlety: the “central point” is often death, though not necessarily that of the central character. The events related in “The Fall of the House of Usher” must be central in the life of the narrator; they are so Gothically cataclysmic that the reader knows the narrator’s life will never be the same again. The supernatural short story benefits from the fragmentary nature of the form because the reader must supply the surrounding world and history / future; since this will obviously be more tailored for each reader than anything an author could write, it is more credible to each reader. The novel, on the other hand, would have to support a whole structure inside which the fantastic events could take place; this is possible, but the reader is more likely to simply imagine the novel as taking place in another world, whereas the short story is likely to be imagined as part of the reader’s world. The short story can be an invasive fragment, pushing into the reader’s universe with a power that a larger whole would not have. Jorge Luis Borges deals with a similar theme in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, in which a forged encyclopaedia overwhelms the laws of the world, replacing them with the laws of its (fictional) world. Reading this, of course, is profoundly disturbing, and the victory of “fiction” over “fact” in the story makes the reader worry about how far this crossing of boundaries can extend—can the world of Tlön extend more than one level? In my mind, this Borges story epitomises all that is disturbing about short stories: the possibility that whatever is happening in the story can happen in the world of the reader. Novels cannot have the same impact, since they create an entire other world the reader can safely dismiss as a separate, imaginary, realm; the short story, on the other hand, is just a fragment, and is easily assimilated into the reader’s idea of this world. The Borges story accentuates this by bringing the entire structure under scrutiny, and making us question the validity of our map / territory distinctions.

The Borges story also has another advantage from its short-storiness, that of focus. A novel would get bogged down in details, in divergence of plot, and so on; a short story concentrates on one thing, the getting across the full effect of the fantastic event(s) the author writes. The stories of Poe, Le Fanu and other short story writers of course benefit from the same thing: they sustain the effect for only as long as is necessary, then finish. This gives the short story additional force. “The Fall of the House of Usher” illustrates this force: the reader is immediately submerged in the atmosphere Poe creates, and is held there briefly, but long enough, the plot runs on, and the reader is released. This intensity would probably be unsustainable for either reader or writer over novel length, but it only strengthens the grip of the short story on the credulity and attention of the reader. This focus is also used to great effect in Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, which moves the reader closer and closer to the thoughts of a man about to be hanged—closer than the reader at first realises. This focus works over a short period, and allows the story to get the full impact of the hallucinatory episode across. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is also an excellent example of the techniques used to engage the credulity of the reader. The tone is authoritative from the start—factual, curt, later also paternal: “Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.” (Bierce p59) When the narrative fixates on Farquhar’s fantasy as he falls, it is intensely detailed, and there is absolutely no hint given that it is fantasy. Peyton Farquhar is presented as a solid, practical man, not given to flights of fancy. Here Bierce takes advantage of the convention that the reader expects some heroism, expects some fantastic event, and leads the reader along this imaginary path. The snap back to reality represents the reverse of the standard effect of fantastic fiction: instead of pushing a belief (however temporary) in some unreal event, Bierce’s story forcefully tells the reader never to expect miracles, in life or in fiction.

Though in many ways the opposite of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, Bierce’s story uses the same mechanisms. Borges also establishes the credibility of his narrator early: he is erudite, owns an encyclopaedia, is given to discussing ideas for novels with equally erudite friends late at night, and narrates in an even, educated tone. Of course, the fact that the information first comes from an encyclopaedia, a standard “repository of fact” of the Western world, is part of the brilliance of the story. The reader suspects that if it is in an encyclopaedia, even just in a fragment, there must be some truth in it. The introduction of Ashe, whose death provides a crucial link, is perfectly real: “He and my father had entered into one of those close… English friendships that begin by excluding confidences and very soon dispense with dialogue.” (Borges p30) The piecing-together of the puzzle is also a common way of establishing the veracity of an account: the reader, impressed by the logical deduction of the narrator and by the way the pieces fit neatly together, is distracted from the improbability of the whole being constructed. The sheer detail (excerpts from the encyclopaedia on philosophy, language, geography, etc.), as well as the weary, fatalistic tone with which the narrator greets the usurpation of the old order, make it very convincing. Poe used the puzzle-solving and raw detail approach, essentially inventing the modern “deductive reasoning detective” character, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. This works convincingly; the short essay at the start also works well, since it is highly probable that the narrator, after spending any time with so prodigious an analyst as Dupin, would write some kind of treatise on analysis and deduction. The introduction serves the dual functions of that just mentioned and also that of preparing the reader for the somewhat astounding feats of reasoning that follow. The introduction could also serve to give an “ordinary” approach to the story; the early part of the story is not particularly strange, and readers of Poe might have thought that they were reading the beginning of one of his essays. The method of beginning in an ordinary fashion is common in short stories dealing with fantastic themes. Ordinary means ordinary for that genre or author: in J. G. Ballard’s “Report on an Unidentified Space Station” the beginning is completely standard science fiction of the 50s “classic sci-fi” style. The story departs quickly from this mode, but it has already claimed from the reader (who after all thinks he or she knows what to expect) a certain credulity, an expectation that the story will follow the genre. The story also uses a very authoritative voice, that of a log of survey reports. Charles Bukowski does essentially the same thing in “No Wing High”, starting off with a “typical Bukowski story” opening featuring two guys in a bar. The approach to the supernatural element is very down-to-earth:

Beating them on the field was the only way we could get even. We dreamed about it night and day. It meant everything… We were down 20 to 16 with 30 seconds left and they were on our 12 yard line… they wanted to rub it in. Not bad enough that they were screwing our women, they wanted to score again, on us.
(Bukowski p195)

All of these techniques, all of the things that heighten the short story’s ability to intrude into this reality, make the short story an ideal form for “supernatural” stories. The aim of a “supernatural” story is to grasp the attention and belief of the reader, and force them to accept what is written at face value, at least for a time; the writer must also achieve an effect or effects that takes advantage of this credulity and gets its message across. The aims of a non-supernatural short story are essentially the same. The novel is like a painting of a foreign landscape; the author paints a picture so that the reader can see what the author is imagining. The short story is a bridge from the writer’s consciousness to the reader’s consciousness, a bridge that’s only there for a moment and that must allow its effect to cross. The immediacy of the short story , and its fragmentary nature, as well as its highly-refined, highly-crafted nature, make it an invasive form, as I stated above. Short stories, like those of Poe, or Carver, leave a desolate ringing in the mind where they have passed, an echo that remains and that reflects the entire story, whatever it was; this makes the short story different from the novel, play, long poem, or film, only segments of which will remain carved in memory. The ultimate aim of the short story is to have such an impact; “supernatural” stories are a cruder attempt at doing this, using their strangeness as an attempt to last in the mind of the reader. Early short stories, like those of Le Fanu and Poe, often attempted to dull the impact of such strangeness (thus heightening its credibility) with rational explanations of the goings-on. The modern short story, as exemplified by Carver, aims at the same thing but does it more subtly, less forcefully, with subject matter as close to the everyday as possible, but the everyday so closely and carefully examined and laid out that it assumes a strangeness as well, while Borges seeks to break boundaries with paradox, using the short story to push the paradox, subtly enough, into the reader’s mind. I define the “supernatural” as something outside of your world, outside of your experience, your reality, that is trying to “get in”, trying to affect you. The short story does that best.


Bierce, Ambrose. The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce. New York: Ballantine, 1970.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. London: Penguin, 1981.

Bukowski, Charles. Septuagenarian Stew: Stories & Poems. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow, 1990.

Carver, Raymond. “On Writing.” The New Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles E. May. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1994.

Carver, Raymond. Where I’m Calling From. London: HarperCollins 1993.

Jarrell, Randall. “Stories”. The New Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles E. May. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1994.

Le Fanu, Sheridan. Best Ghost Stories. London: Constable, 1964.

O’Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice. London: MacMillan, 1963.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Poe on Short Fiction.” The New Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles E. May. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1994.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “The Short Story.” The New Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles E. May. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1994.

Rucker, Rudy et al., eds. Semiotext(e) SF. Edinburgh: AK Press, 1989.

Tallack, Douglas. The 19th Century American Short Story: Language, Form and Ideology. New York: Routledge, 1993.

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