The cautionary tale is as old as the hills and starts orally with your worried parents telling you not to put your hand in the fire. But the format is for grown-ups too as learning is lifelong. My short story ‘”A” death’ fits this profile, its grotesque nature identifying it as a precise literary sub-type: the conte cruel or cruel tale, a refined form that emerged from the fairy stories of Charles Perrault and Brothers Grimm, but was made explicitly modern by practitioners such as Auguste Villiers De L’isle-Adam, Guy de Maupassant and H H Munro, more generally known as “Saki”.
De L’isle-Adam led a bohemian life, and his stories were as A W Rait notes in his 1963 introduction to Cruel Tales, “often written on dirty, crumpled scraps of paper stained with the coffee and wine of the café tables at which Villiers, generally more or less homeless, spent much of his time”, possessing titles such as ‘Flowers of Darkness’ or ‘The Apparatus for the Chemical Analysis of the Last Breath’ that hint strongly at their baroque content.
Contemporaneous with him was the short story maestro Guy de Maupassant. In ‘A Piece of String’, first published in the collection Harriet, 1884, a frugal peasant is unjustly accused of theft after being spotted picking up a bit of string off the road. The police clear him but despite the object in question (a lost wallet) being handed in, the man continues to be stigmatised by the local villagers, who suspect him of involvement come what may. Wholly innocent but unable to clear his name in the community, as a result he suffers an apoplexy and dies insane. This is classic Maupassant: a tragedy based on an impulse to which the reader is an eye-witness, but can do nothing to prevent as it unfolds in slo-mo.
The short fiction of “Saki” however can be lighter in tone, Monty Pythonesque even, but still trades on the uncanny and weird. His favoured locale is the countryside, but more especially the goings-on amongst the doomed upper classes just before the Great War: fox-hunting, card games, garden parties and Christmas gatherings often the backdrop to madness and mayhem. Ironically in “Saki” the pastoral settings are never quite what they seem. In ‘The Peace of Mowsle Barton’, 1911, a holidaying city gent discovers that the place he imagined to be the very picture of rural bliss harbours dark forces, witchcraft in fact, practised by two old women who spend their time cursing each other and everything around them. In one hilarious scene the gent watches in horror as a group of ducks drown one after the other in the village pond, while the farmhouse kettle refuses to boil as if bewitched. In the end he leaves in disgust, relieved to find himself back among the hustle and bustle of Paddington station. Relying on the odd incident rather than the quotidian ‘plotlessness’ of soap opera, the cruel tale discharges a flare into the night sky, often signalling that all is far from well in the universe. Twisted, acid and unsettling (thus sharing traits with the Edwardian English ghost story) it focuses on arbitrariness and malignant disorder, as if undisclosing the contents of a restricted police file.
Perhaps such writing is a prophylactic against insanity? But by focusing on the incident that comes out of the blue, out of nowhere, horror gets sharply etched on the reader’s disbelieving mind; so in a 24/7 news media environment suffocating in wholesale death and destruction, in end-of-the-world speculation, the trivial yet telling moment that appears to have no explicable metaphysical cause, operates as an indexical mark, generating a grim brand of humour. Once upon a time such encounters were superstitiously classified as intersection points, the workings of fate, and might still be if there was an agreed upon framework of meaning amongst human beings; but normality was the very first casualty of the World Trade Center attacks.