Bewildering Stories discusses...
with David J. Rank
I am honored that you and your Review Board thought enough of my story to discuss it so thoroughly and include that discussion in your Critics’ Corner column.
My intent in writing “The Man Who Had Lived Here” was threefold:
As in all of the stories I write, I want to flesh out a certain image or scene that occurs to me, which sparked the story idea. I enjoy the challenge of evolving a story out of some crazy notion or image that bubbles up in my head, which I hope will interest others.
I want to write an entertaining story; in this case, a creepy tale to haunt the imagination.
I think a good story lingers in the readers’ mind well after finishing the read. I try to compose a story to keep my readers thinking about it afterward. In this case, keeping them awake late at night listening to the creaks and groans of the world around them.
Don, I like your interpretation of my story. I would, however, respectfully disagree with another Review Board comment that “More answers would make a better story.”
While I generally believe in answering all the questions so there are no loose ends in a story, there are times — and a good ghost story is one of them — where the loose ends add to the story. To me the scariest things are those unseen and unexplained and left to the imagination to fill in the blanks. I like to think fiction is a collaborative work between the writer and reader. The writer sketches in the story, and the reader adds the details.
That was my intent with “The Man Who Had Lived Here.” Consider it a word puzzle, where each reader can finish the tale to his or her own satisfaction.
I hope I have not overstayed my welcome with this lengthy response to your column.
Copyright © 2012 by David J. Rank
Thank you for the kind words, Dave, and for the informative reply. All authors are encouraged to respond, and replies such as yours serve as a model to emulate!
I appreciate your observation about leaving “loose ends” that engage the readers in the story. There is a lot to be said for that; it is part of the art of storytelling.
However, we may not be talking about exactly the same thing. After all, the term “loose end” is quite broad in scope. It may refer to elements of mystery, as you say; or it may refer to elements that call the coherence of the story into question.
While “mystery” is a valid concept, it is elusive and hard to define. I’m more familiar with the technical definition of “loose end” as an arbitrary element, something a story needs to explain but does not. It may be an object that appears in a story but serves no purpose, or an action that has no motive or consequence.
The classic example is, of course, Chekhov’s rifle. If a gun is seen hanging over a mantelpiece in the first act of a play, it must be fired by the end of the play. Likewise, if a character pulls out a gun no one knows he has, the audience will wonder, “Now where did that come from? I didn’t realize this was a Wild West story.”
Genre conventions are very much at stake. A lot often depends on what is not said. In all humor, in any metaphor, and in every story there must be a complicity or a kind of contract — a mutual understanding — between the author and reader. For example:
Can foxes and crows or ants and crickets talk to each other, let alone act like people? In literature, they can. Fables are not for the literal-minded.
In time-travel stories, a reader who objects “But how does a time machine work?” is asking a naïve question. A time machine is not a mechanical contraption, it’s a narrative device. The essential thing is that a time machine work not arbitrarily but consistently, within the logical parameters of the story.
It’s commonplace in science fiction that spaceships travel faster than light, and it’s quite beside the point to ask how they can do that. Likewise, how can Star Trek’s Voyager break the laws of Relativity by communicating with Earth from the other side of the galaxy in real time? Simple: Ensign Harry Kim “reconfigures” the ship’s notoriously unreliable equipment and connects through “subspace” or the equivalent. Does subspace really exist? No one cares, as long as it makes sense in terms of Star Trek’s universe.
Less conventional stories can be a bit trickier. In “The Man Who Had Lived Here,” what might happen to Douglas Clery when he finally steps into the attic? The plot can run afoul of three basic kinds of traps, all of which are “loose ends” in one way or another:
- Good. He steps into Heaven or the equivalent in an alternate universe.
- Bad. He steps into Hell or the equivalent.
- Indifferent: Nothing happens; the attic is empty.
If the attic is “good” or “bad,” readers will wonder, “What did he do to deserve that? What’s the point?” If the ending is indifferent, readers will feel cheated: the attic serves no purpose and the story has no ending. Clery may as well turn around and go back to his aimless life, not that it makes any difference what he does.
“The Man Who Had Lived Here” evades all those traps. Rather, the attic is a kind of void, a logical conclusion to Clery’s gradual withdrawal from the world. The attic is not a “loose end”; it’s really where Clery has been — or the state of mind has been heading for — all along.Is the previous tenant a “loose end”? Who was he, and why did he disappear into the attic? It doesn’t matter who he was; rather, like Chekhov’s rifle, he serves a purpose, namely closing a circle. At the end, the landlady introduces new tenants for whom Clery will be as much a mystery as “the man who had lived here” was for Clery himself.
What causes Clery to spiral up into nothingness? Some readers may consider the cause a “loose end,” but one can also argue that, while relevant, it is really another story.
And as for the landlady, is she a “loose end”? If the story were about her, she would be. But it’s about Clery, and the landlady remains as an element of mystery.
Hoping to hear from you again soon,