Thanks to a nudge from Robb, I tracked down last week’s missing short story.
It is (drum roll, please)…’A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road’ by Graham Greene. (1939)
A man named Craven is walking the streets of London. He wears a cheap mackintosh. He is seedy and alone. Soldiers and girls pass him on the wet pavement and he tells you that he hates the thingness of his body. He tells you that he dreams of caverns under the ground of a graveyard, where all the uncorrupted bodies lie, waiting and quiescent, in their little interconnected pods. (I’m pretty sure a capsule hotel would freak him right out.)
He goes into a cinema to get out of the rain. It is nearly empty, showing a program of silent films about the Roman empire. A piano plays in the darkness. A man shuffles past his knees and takes the seat next to him, brushing Craven’s face with his large beard. On-screen, a woman in a toga stabs herself. The newcomer objects that there is not enough blood.
The bearded man and Craven nearly get into an argument, ‘an absurd and meaningless wrangle in the dark.’ The newcomer continues to talk, and lays a hand, ‘sudden and confidingly’ on Craven’s. It is damp and sticky, and Craven hopes it is treacle. The newcomer announces that he has forgotten his umbrella, and scrabbles out past Craven’s knees.
…I don’t know why this story made such an impression on me the first time. Maybe because I was reading it alone in my apartment before sleep, instead of over a bowl of soup at a brightly-lit dinner table with company just beyond the ketchup bottle.
Maybe because of contrast. I read it towards the end of an anthology of ‘Ghost Stories’; given the typical fare of such collections, Greene’s spare modern prose must have stood out: Banal, urban setting. Repressed. Short, tight, story. No Lovecraftian furbelows.
Reading experiences are made up of at least 50% of the ‘experience’ portion – the experience of the reader, rather than the words on the page. A story isn’t fixed until it is read and intersected. This explains not only why some books are loved by some and loathed by others, but also why I have read books and failed to feel them, or hated authors until I came back to them with a new idea of what I wanted. Just as a bad day can be vastly improved by a good book, I’m pretty sure that a good book can be wasted on a bad day.
(“Edgeware Road” appears in Twenty-One Stories, by Graham Greene, 1954.)