I think that the short fiction form is severely underrated in contemporary reading tastes. It’s a telling (and troubling) sign that short story collections sell with less success than novels do, to the extent that many writers aspiring towards publication are discouraged from dedicating their time to the former, since the latter holds more promise of lucrative gain.
Short stories are brilliant at capturing the crystallization of a moment, an encounter, a single, sustained emotion, feeling or thought that lingers long after the reading. The best can render us speechless and lightning-struck in a handful of pages. They are ideal conversation fountains, and enrich us with minimal time dedication on our part. Perhaps most significantly, they are valuable gateways into the world of reading, for those who are bookshy.
Ellen Rhudy, of the marvellous book blog, Fat Books and Thin Women, runs a weekly feature dedicated to the enjoyment and analysis of one short story at a time. Its tagline is “Always short stories, always ones available online for free”, and I’ve admired the accessibility of this for quite some time. I’m pleased to announce that, with Ellen’s blessing, I’ll be participating in the Story Sundays feature, every week at Novel Niche, adding to the enthusiasm reserved especially for coffee, cigarette or evening-length reads. Ellen’s story this Sunday is “Fire” by Chelsea Laine Wells.
I’m happy to launch the feature with the work of another colleague of mine, the writer Jason McIntyre. Here are my musings on his novelette, The Night Walk Men, which, in the spirit of the free-to-access segment of Story Sundays, he has graciously made free to download. You can access it in the format of your choosing at Smashwords, here.
“Death has no prejudices. None that I’m aware of. Well, unless of course you count a discordant bias for the elderly. Or that heaving soft spot for the unhealthy and for the careless.”
Jason McIntyre continues to write fiction I like, in a genre I’ve always avoided. Reading his work has proven to be a reliable barometer by which to mark my preconceptions, as well as a reminder of the successes that can accompany fictive genre-melding.
The Night Walk Men, a novelette offering from the author of Thalo Blue, is no exception. It is a curious tale of justice, mediated by non-human hands, narrated to us by Sperro, a Night Walk Man, a character who waxes cryptic and revelatory with each of his admissions. He tells an eager, unidentified listener (for all you know, it might be you) of his brotherhood line, of the life-altering, reality-shaping work they carry out, and of an important young girl, affectionately dubbed ‘Gabriella the great’, over whom two prominent Night Walkers fundamentally disagree.
There is no other personage in The Night Walk Men from whom I would have preferred principal narration. Sperro’s encouragingly irreverent demeanour makes the work that much more readable. He spends much of his time on the page protesting that we don’t really want to hear the story he has to convey, though we protest that we do. His list of metaphors for pain, which introduce us to the novelette proper, are achingly valid, all of them aptly delivered without trite flourishes:
“This is going to be coming down from on high. Or finding your spouse in bed with another. Or murder-suicide. Or heavy metal from the neighbour at three in the morning. This is going to be the doctor telling you it’s inoperable. Or a chemical burn on flesh. Or pepper spray and a wrongful conviction. This is going to be a fire eating your life’s work. This is going to be Your First Time. Or Your Last Time.”
There is something in the way that Sperro speaks to the reader which recalls all the meaningful conversations in your life, the ones that span hours, undivided, or ford the rivers of rushing years with their implacable necessity. If you haven’t had conversations like that, there is an arena of your life that’s not yet been fiercely assaulted with investigation, and more’s the pity. I imagine it would be a worthwhile experience to talk to all of the Night Walk Men whom we meet: flinty Sperro, sad, weary Obsidion, unyielding and resolute Montserrat. These three shadowy, solemn figures each merit our attention, elicit our sympathy, and prompt discussion with fellow readers.
Perhaps less engaging is the character of Braille the Rail, a blind, affable saxophonist whose own life imbricates meaningfully with Gabriella’s, at a crucial juncture. I don’t think he’s poorly done, necessarily; I’m quite certain he’d induce me to hunker down on the floor of the train station and belt out a rousing duet with him—after all, he’s written that way. Still, there is something in him that resembles residual stock quality. He almost reads as a composite of every emotionally sensitive, mentally attuned blind man with a penchant for music and wise ruminations we’ve encountered in works of fiction. The constraints of the novelette form may not afford him the same room in which to take root. Nor do we learn much of Gabriela that emotionally binds us to the promise of her slumbering greatness. Perhaps we are meant to empathize far more with the guardians who struggle, labouring beneath the yoke of their extraterrestrial vocations… and if this is McIntyre’s purpose, it is handsomely achieved.
There is something maddening about reading a fictive work that lingers perpetually on the precipice of a big reveal that is never revealed, isn’t there? Many of the questions this novelette raises do not answer themselves. Unless McIntyre is brewing a sequel, the only responses to your burning queries about Gabriella’s fate, or the continued role of the nocturnal sojourners, might well be the ones your own imaginative speculation furnishes. In some instances, this unresolved tension is indicative of nothing so much as authorial laziness or indecision, in the mode of “I didn’t know where to end it, so I just… ended it.” Thankfully, McIntyre’s writing does not give rise to this breed of suspicion. Indeed, the lack of comforting closure by the end of Sperro’s grim discourse could be interpreted as a quiet affirmation of the fact that tidy, linear endings rarely exist—a reality within which the Night Walk Men must function, or else perish.
An hour’s read as cerebrally provocative as it is solidly presented, The Night Walk Men distinguishes itself from normative crime-suspense-thriller dross with its decidedly literary cast. Shot through with shades of the metaphysical, the bleakly humorous and the wildly speculative, if it doesn’t at least make you wonder… then I’m coming straight to your door for the answers.
Jason was gracious enough to answer some questions I had on The Night Walk Men; here’s a transcript of our interview.
The writer, giving his best Sperro impersonation?
‘The Night Walk Men offers us your perspective of eternal guardians, watching over the realms of the living, acting on orders from a source on High. This isn’t necessarily a unique concern (but, of course, these days, what is, right?) What do you think sets your treatment of this archetype in literature apart from the rest?
The candy coating. Don’t laugh; I’m actually being serious when I say that. Let me explain. Most books and films that personify death do so in one of two ways: either showing it as a harbinger of black, horrific nightmares plus all the bad stuff we associate with leaving this world, or as benevolent angels doing everything they can to make our exit peaceful and meaningful in a dramatic way.
The Night Walk Men is about the blue collar working class who are charged with dealing Death. And Life. These people are doing their job. They get orders from a boss in a figurative corner office, whose motives they don’t always understand. These are assembly-line figures who do everything short of punch a clock. Our narrator is bitter, embroiled in a centuries-long tenure he feels is important but that no one fully appreciates, that no one really understands. He and his kin are the writhing, unwashed masses of his occupation. And he is desperate to leave some kind of understanding behind to those he feels might be, ironically, incapable of understanding.
Plus, he’s a sarcastic, heavy-handed fellow. I can’t help but love his brutal honesty, can’t help but love him—warts and all, as the saying goes.
As you know, I enjoyed reading Thalo Blue, one of your full length novels, which I reviewed on Novel Niche in June. If you had to single out one thematic concern that unites Blue with The Night Walk Men, what would it be?
Writing decent fiction is similar to good songwriting. There’s power in the silences, those moments between chords, those moments between melodic movements. If the writing is good, the reader will skim across character, detail, plot and everything else that’s left deliberately out then come up with a result somewhat unique to them, possibly akin to their own sheer imagination, or to drag out my analogy, akin to a melody heard inside one’s own head.
I believe this is why you can see drastic, bi-polar reviews for the same book; some hate it and some love it. If everyone had the same look at the same book, then it would likely be called “Sweet Vampiric Stereotypes Volume Thirty-Nine”.
As for thematic parallels, I must say that all my work, Night Walk Men and Thalo Blue included, deal with the idea that we are not above anything. There is something at work on our lives and in our world that is trying to harmonize with us. Is it a spiritual undertone? You might interpret it that way. Is it a supernatural or paranormal presence? That’s also a valid interpretation.
Will I be so overt as to say what I believe? Perhaps in time. For now, though, I’ll probably just explore these ideas through more stories and see if I can use this exercise as a way to establish what I do believe. And what does make sense to me.
The names you’ve chosen for this novella are spot on! I’d like to know a bit more about what goes into your naming process; has any name you’ve given a character been arbitrary?
They’re all completely arbitrary. What? You thought there was some magic there? Some divination? Nope. None.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I do give great thought to character names. Have any been without some level of forethought? Sadly no. And when writing—since I write in an entirely linear fashion, despite the sometimes non-linear stories—I will often find myself at a dead stop for fear of introducing a new character called by the wrong thing. I can’t go forward until the name is right.
The process starts in the cranium. I draw ridiculous associations with names that I’ve heard, people I have known, or those from other stories and films. Then I do research and try to combine given names and surnames with some sort of semi-obvious tone to them. I don’t want them to be outright and obvious but perhaps they can be let to stew in a reader’s mind as they read the book. Then, Eureka!, I know why he named her that!
So you’re sitting opposite a stranger on a park bench, and she’s reading “Sweet Vampiric Stereotypes Volume Fang-fourty”. Tell her something about your work, The Night Walk Men in particular, which will make her drop the smut and run to Amazon.com/Smashwords/the other fine e-stores your writing is sold.
Well, I imagine, knowing my own character, I would probably converse with her about anything other than my writing. I might enquire as to what she finds so titillating about the smut, as you call it. But all the while, I’d probably never ‘fess up that I have written anything. In truth, if she’s reading that, she’ll likely never care to give anything of mine a chance.
However, to play along, I’d probably say that this young author is writing something like contemporary baroque lit-fiction, often but not always, with tinges of the paranormal. His characters explore their world with innocence but the world in these books is anything but.
I like to say that my role as a writer is to break your heart, utterly and completely shatter it to pieces. Then, bit by bit, my next task is to put it back together again.
I’ve quoted a set of lines I especially like, to preface my thoughts on your novelette. If you were going to excerpt some of your favourite lines, what would they be, and why do you love them so?
Tough question. I do like the ones you’ve chosen as well.
My feeling is that the more melodic bits can only exist if there are, as I said before, empty spaces around them. If there is too much of this melody, then the whole thing falls under the weight of its noise.
I like many. Some include:
“It’s a strange thing: I suppose a body gets used to laying under a sheet at night and when it doesn’t feel the familiar weight of fabric pressing down over it, it can suddenly feel exceedingly unnatural.”
from Shed, 2010
It’s not written particularly well, but the sentiment is a strong one. Not only does it work well in the story, but it says so much about the human condition.
Another from The Night Walk Men might be this entire paragraph:
“I should tell you that I’ve seen Death. I’ve seen Death nearly every day. Just today, in fact, I witnessed Death walking down McMurchy Street. In what city, I cannot recall. And for what purpose, I cannot tell you. But at what time, that I do remember. It was just before high noon, and He was there, moving south, determined. If you had eyes and were at my side, you’d have seen Him too. He might have been searching for a sick child, might have been looking for a young fellow who didn’t look both ways before crossing.”
Why do I like it? It does a solid job of personifying Death. It is mythical in its quality and I believe every reader will understand the notion of Death seeking out sick children or some young one who didn’t heed the words of his parents while trying to fetch a stray ball.
I’m deeply grateful to Ellen for her consenting to my adoption of the Story Sunday meme; I fully intend on doing it justice and continuing to contribute in the fine style that Ellen’s established (with my own, Novel Niche-esque quirky flair, of course)! I’m also appreciative of Jason taking the time out to respond so thoughtfully and thoroughly to the questions I posed. I look forward to seeing his writing career evolve. His finely articulated, synergistic style is a worthy platform from which many lofty fictive trees can be grown; so here’s to reading in that particular forest… and here’s to countless Sundays of short fiction splendour!
Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation for this undervalued fiction form. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine. Want to start up Story Sundays on your blog? Yay! Email story.sundaysATgmail.com for details.