Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms”

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.

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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).

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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?

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(above: author Steven Millhauser)

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“Omelas, Bright-Towered by the Sea”

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“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin (and other short stories I’ve read recently)

In catching up (and I AM caught up now – hallelujah!) with my 2012 short story reading project, I’m reading stories faster than I am able to blog about them, so this post is a bit of a catch-up with just brief comments on the last six I’ve read.

Maybe the best of the group was “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, a highly acclaimed science fiction writer.** The story tells the tale of the city of Omelas, where all the citizens enjoy a seemingly unadulterated happiness. Well, ALMOST all, I should say. The city has a dark secret to its happiness that the reader only discovers midway through the story. Largely allegorical, the tale asks the question of how much we would be willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Apparently, most of the citizens are willing to accept the sacrifices their city has deemed necessary. Some are not, however and they are the titular “ones who walk away…” This story won the Hugo Award for The Best Science Fiction Short Story of 1974. Wikipedia has a list of nominees and winners – take a look and see how many you’re familiar with.

Another good one was “Cumberland Breakdown” by Joyce Carol Oates. This was another from her collection “I Am No One You Know,” from which I’ve read another story, “The Mutants,” as part of this year’s reading project. In this story, two children, Melora (13) and her older brother Tyrell (16), are coping with the loss of their father, a volunteer fireman who lost his life fighting a fire at the house of some “welfare people,” the Barndollars. Tyrell especially resents that the act of saving these poor, “probably drunk and smoking in bed,” people has taken away their father. With Melora tagging along, Tyrell contemplates revenge and stalks the Barndollars, meeting them in the final pages of the story, which did not end as I expected.

I also read a sad story by Katherine Mansfield titled “Marriage a la Mode.” Published in 1921, it deals with a man fighting a seemingly hopeless battle to prevent losing his wife to her new “Bohemian” friends and lifestyle. As a last ditch tactic, he writes her a traditional “love letter” which she reads to her friends(!) who enjoy a good laugh over it. She feels ashamed and resolves to write him back in kind, but her resolution is tested by the pull of her new friends.

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My recent reading also included two stories by James Joyce, both from “The Dubliners.” One, “The Boarding House,” didn’t do much for me, being the “standard fare” of the daughter of a boarding house owner being compromised by one of the boarders and the natural attendant consequences. The other was better. Titled “A Little Cloud,” it deals with a reunion of two friends who had grown up together but had, at the time of the story, been separated for quite awhile. One had gone off and “made a name for himself” while the other has settled into a traditional life. The traditional life friend feels some jealousy and envy of the one who went off to seek his fortune. This was kind of an analysis of the concept of “the grass is always greener” that I thought was very well done. I enjoyed neither of these stories as much as I did “The Dead.”

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I also read my second Henry James story of the year. Though I enjoyed it less than the other one (“The Middle Years”), “The Tree of Knowledge” was an interesting look at the concept of self-delusion and how we may support each other in our self-delusions. In a nutshell, it’s about a couple, the man being a professional – though certainly not brilliant – artist, who have a son who also wants to follow an artistic career path. Not too remarkable a situation until you throw in the old family friend, who “has always loved” the artists wife, and has carefully protected her from the knowledge of “the truth” about her husband’s lack of real talent. He finds he wants to protect the son from this truth too, leading to a cerebral story that may be a warning about the futility of getting tangled up in the lives of others.

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So, have any of the above stories – or authors – struck your fancy at some point in your reading life?  What did you think of them? Do you have any recommendations for  my future short story reading?

**Those who are not fans of the sci-fi genre may have heard her name in the 2007 movie – based upon the 2004 book – “The Jane Austen Book Club.” In the movie, ***SPOILER ALERT*** the only male (Grigg) in the book club is a sci-fi fan and recommends reading Le Guin to fellow member, Jocelyn, who’s a bit of a literary snob and thus above reading sci-fi even though Grigg explains that his recommendations are not the standard ray gun & robot sci-fi. She’s also blind to the fact that Grigg is clearly interested in her, but eventually reads them and is swept away, driving immediately over to his house and only realizing after she’s there that it’s five o’clock in the morning,so she waits in her car and falls asleep. He sees her when he’s leaving to go to work the next morning, and taps on her window… “I read these books!” she gushes, and they head inside and tear off each others clothes. So cliche. That happens to me all the time <cough cough> when I recommend books to women who look like Maria Bello and they actually read and like them. (below: the cast of “The Jane Austen Book Club” – that’s Jocelyn & Grigg on the right)

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