It’s been a couple months ago that I read this short story as part of my 2013 Short Story Reading Project. I acquired it, along with nineteen others, when I purchased “The Best American Short Stories 2011” anthology, edited by Geraldine Brooks.
I selected several of the stories therein to include in my annual project in hopes of adding a more contemporary flavor to my roster (I tend to read or re-read a lot of classic stories and authors in these projects). Not all of the stories in the anthology are on my list for 2013, but the ones that are were chosen based upon the contributors’ notes in the back of the book. Millhauser (a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1997) says of this story: “For a long while I wanted to write a story about a phantom woman. It never came to fruition, for reasons I can only guess at. One day, unexpectedly, a different kind of phantom story appeared to me and dared me to write it. The story “Phantoms” is the result of that dare.” I liked that. Especially how a phantom story “appeared” to him – what else would a phantom story do? The story was originally published in issue 35 of McSweeney’s Magazine (cover pictured below).
The narrator of this story (which should not to be confused with the Dean Koontz novel of the same name) is from an old town, founded in 1636, and surprisingly, matter-of-factly explains how these non-malevolent phantoms “plague” his town. So many of the people in the town have encountered phantoms that those who haven’t are actually a small minority.
What I Liked about this story was the unique way in which the supernatural was presented. Calmly, rationally, the author enumerates six separate proposed “explanations” for the phantoms. E.g., “the phantoms are the auras, or visible traces, of earlier inhabitants of our town,” or that “…the phantoms are not there, that those of us who see them are experiencing delusions or hallucinations brought about by beliefs instilled in us as young children,” and so on. Millhauser also includes numbered “case studies” and “histories” that sync-up with the different explanations.
The phantoms of this town always, upon discovery, disappear, but not after giving their spotter “The Look” described in this passage:
“Most of us are familiar with the look they cast in our direction before they withdraw. The look has been variously described as proud, hostile, suspicious, mocking, disdainful, uncertain; never is it seen as welcoming. Some witnesses say that the phantoms show slight movements in our direction, before the decisive turning away. Others, disputing such claims, argue that we cannot bear to imagine their rejection of us and misread their movements in a way flattering to our self-esteem.”
There is something about the rational and matter-of-fact way the town’s phantoms are presented that makes the story more chill-inducing than your standard issue “ghost story” too. In a section titled simply “You”, Millhauser challenges the reader:
“You who have no phantoms in your town, you who mock or scorn our reports: are you not deluding yourselves? For say you are driving out to the mall, some pleasant afternoon. All of a sudden – it’s always sudden – you remember your dead father, sitting in the living room in the house of your childhood. He’s reading a newspaper in the armchair next to the lamp table. You can see his frown of concentration, the fold of the paper, the moccasin slipper half hanging from his foot. The steering wheel is warm in the sun… the shadows of telephone wires line in curves upon the street… You pass through a world so thick with phantoms there is hardly room for anything else.”
Good stuff, huh?
In his final section, titled “How Things Are,” he finishes us off:
“For though we have phantoms, our town is like your town: sun shines on the house fronts, we wake in the night with troubled hearts, cars back out of driveways and turn up the street. It’s true that a question runs through our town, because of the phantoms, but we don’t believe we are the only ones who live with unanswered questions. Most of us would say we’re no different from anyone else. When you come to think about us, from time to time, you’ll see we really are just like you.”
I really enjoyed this story and its fresh approach. I’m sorry to say I had neither read nor even heard of Steven Millhauser before now, but I certainly plan to seek out other works of his. What about you? Does your town have phantoms or not? Have you seen any yourself? I have. (Well, kindasortamaybe.) Have you heard of, or read something by this author before?
(above: author Steven Millhauser)