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Garlic in Fiction

Far and away the greatest menace to the writer—any writer, beginning or otherwise—is the reader. The reader is, after all, a kind of silent partner in this whole business of writing, and a work of fiction is surely incomplete if it is never read. The reader is, in fact, the writer’s only unrelenting, genuine enemy. He has everything on his side; all he has to do, after all, is shut his eyes, and any work of fiction becomes meaningless. Moreover, a reader has an advantage over a beginning writer in not being a beginning reader; before he takes up a story to read it, he can be presumed to have read everything from Shakespeare to Jack Kerouac. No matter whether he reads a story in manuscript as a great personal favor, or opens a magazine, or—kindest of all—goes into a bookstore and pays good money for a book, he is still an enemy to be defeated with any kind of dirty fighting that comes to the writer’s mind.

Picture this creature, this clod, this reader, as lying comfortably in a hammock, yawning and easily distracted, a glass of iced tea by his side, half a dozen light novels and a magazine or two right where he can reach them, a portable television set well within his vision, the sun shining lazily and a golden sleepy haze surrounding him. Now ask him to select a story—a story slaved over and polished, edited and refined and perfected with infinite labor—and ask him to lie there and read. Dirty fighting is only half of it—any possible trick must be well within the rules for the writer.

Now, this unspeakable boor in his hammock may be a genuinely serious reader; he may fully intend to read the story in his hand, but it is much, much easier for any given reader not to read any given story. Suppose the first paragraph bores him, or the title doesn’t look very promising, or he dislikes the name of the hero. Suppose there is an illustration that makes it look as though the story is going to be about love. Or he read a story once before about the same general subject and he didn’t like that one. Now, of course a writer cannot go around changing the names of his heroes or the plots of his stories or an illustration or a title on the off chance that there is some reader who is going to be thrown off stride by any of them. It is, of course, the writer’s job to reach out and grab this reader: If he is a reader who cannot endure a love story, it is the writer’s job, no more and no less, to make him read a love story and like it. Using any device that might possibly work, the writer has to snare the reader’s attention and keep it.

Here is one of the greatest pitfalls for beginning or inexperienced writers: Their stories are, far too often, just simply not very interesting. It is easy to be trapped in a story you are writing, and to suppose that the interest you feel yourself in the story is automatically communicated to the reader; this is terribly important to me, the writer tells himself, this is a matter of the most extreme importance to me, and therefore a reader will find it important, too. And the reader, opening one sleepy eye, thinks that the fellow who wrote this thing was certainly pretty worked up about something, wasn’t he; funny how hard it is to stay awake while you are reading it.

Any discussion of what might or might not catch the interest of a reader is hopeless; any magazine editor can give endless meaningless platitudes about what people want to read, or what people ought to read, but in the last analysis no story of any kind for any magazine for any type of reader is going to be interesting unless the writer, using all his skill and craft, sets himself out deliberately to make it so.

I want to call this “garlic in fiction” because I cannot think of a more vivid way of describing the devices of fiction, the particular, frequently almost unnoticed tricks a writer can use to enormous advantage. Far too often we think of a short story as a simple account of something that happens, an account in which one event follows another, and the whole, limited by requirements of time and place, exists coherently and complete.

Even when writing a short story there is a tendency to discount embellishments, to feel that filigree writing does not belong: Leave the metaphors and symbols, the images and adjectives, to the poets and the composers of the Sunday supplements. Yet within the rigid framework of the short story, without in any way destroying its unbroken unity, from the first word to the last, the writer is permitted a good deal of space in which to catch at the reader and hold him with small things, used—and here is where the garlic comes in—sparingly and with great care, but used always to accent and emphasize.

Naturally, every writer has dealt in one way or another with metaphor, and there are few more pathetic sights than a writer hopelessly entangled in a great unwieldy metaphor that has gotten out of control and is spilling all over the story, killing off characters and snapping sentences right and left; huge metaphors, such as this one, are far better left to people with a lot more time and space to write. Adjectives are always good, of course; no short story really ought to be without adjectives, particularly odd ones—such as “fulsome”—that the reader usually has to go and look up. And of course adverbs such as “unworthily”—even if you have to make them up yourself—are always very useful.

I recently attended a symposium on folk music, and the very first words of the very first lecture so enchanted me that I left at once; the speaker began by announcing that this lecture was for “those of you who are musically oriented, banjo-wise,” and since I have always wanted to use a phrase like that somewhere, let me make my present position clear by saying that I am speaking to those of you who are fictionally oriented, image-wise, and see how far I get.

I am actually going to talk about what I call images, or symbols. It seems to me that in our present great drive—fiction-wise—toward the spare, clean, direct kind of story, we are somehow leaving behind the most useful tools of the writer, the small devices that separate fiction from reporting, the work of the imagination from the everyday account. Of these the far most important, and the most neglected, is the use of symbols; I am using the word loosely, because it has altogether different meanings elsewhere, and yet I hardly know what other word to use. The thing I am talking about is best identified by reference to a theory of acting that has always seemed to me very profound, and certainly useful to the writer: Before entering upon a role, the actor, having of course familiarized himself with the character he is to portray, constructs for himself a set of images, or mental pictures, of small, unimportant things he feels belong around the character.

There must be at least one basic image, or set of images, for each character in a story, a fundamental symbol the writer keeps always in mind; as these images grow the character grows, and the accumulation of material and information about the image slowly makes up the character in the story. Various things belong to a character—a manner of speaking, a manner of moving, a particular emphasis, a group of small physical things—and each of these must take on, like a perfume, the essence of the character they belong to. Just as a tune or a scent can evoke for most of us an entire scene, so the basic image of the character must evoke that entire character and his place in the story. As a result of this, of course, the characters themselves grow apart in the writer’s mind, become entirely separate people, and by the end of a book or a story the writer can no more mistake one for another than he can mistake a can of beans for a pearl necklace.

Suppose a story needs a male character. In the story he must further the action, although he is really a minor character. If the story requires no very definite attributes from him, suppose the writer were to assign, arbitrarily, the image of a bird to this character. He need never be named or called a bird, but his gestures and his habits are birdlike, his voice and his very words are sharp and twittering, and in his brief appearance he might select nuts, or pieces of popcorn, and pick them up like seeds from the ground, with a quick darting movement. Even if this character never appears again, he has been alive for the space of a page, perhaps, and has added depth and imagination to a story.

As I say, what I am calling images or symbols or garlic is actually a kind of shorthand, or evocative coloring, to a story. A story is, after all, made up only of words. Characters are given only the briefest physical descriptions and identities; there is really no time in a short story to examine any single person in great detail. Events are merely sketched, given clearly enough to forward the story’s action but not described entirely; there is no room in a short story for more than one theme or idea.

Within these strict limits the writer must operate as vividly as he can, drawing as much as possible upon a sympathy with the reader, hoping that a single word will be enough to turn the reader inward, remind him, perhaps, of a similar emotion of his own, to bring him along willingly down the path of the story. Many experiences in life are common to all of us, and a word or two is frequently enough to enrich a story with a wealth of recollection; take, for instance, the words “income tax.” There is surely a community of feeling that overwhelms us at the very sound of the words; no two people, naturally, feel exactly the same way about income taxes, but there is no question but that everyone feels something; a rueful or joking reference to income tax always brings a sympathetic response, and perhaps the only area where the words do not bring happy recognition is one of wholehearted approval. There are many such powerful words that work by themselves for the writer, but beyond these there must be words and phrases the writer enriches artificially for the purpose of a single story, words that have that weighting only in that story, words that must be used, in short, like garlic.

Perhaps this can best be dealt with by examples. Consider an idea for a fairly lunatic story: A silly young woman, alone in the world, falls in love with a man she has just met, and marries him without any knowledge of his history or background. On their honeymoon, which they spend in a borrowed cottage at the seashore, the wife, falling into conversation with a neighbor in the grocery store, learns that various people around the little community believe that her husband is actually a notorious murderer, one of the kind who habitually drown their wives in the bathtub and collect their insurance. This neighborhood theory is broken gently to the young wife, because no one around quite has the courage to take any action; no one is sure that he is the man, but with true neighborly solicitude they want to put the young wife on her guard. Suppose this silly young woman listens with her mouth open to the stories about the vicious murderer: he always persuades his wives to make wills in his favor; he drowns them, of course, while they are bathing; he always chooses a night when there is a full moon; he always brings his wife a box of candy and a bunch of roses on the day when he has decided to kill her.

Our young wife has been in the grocery because she was buying four lamb chops for their dinner. She will have to go back to their lonely cottage, carrying her four lamb chops, and wait for her husband to come home. She knows where her husband is—he has gone to take various papers, including the will she has just signed, and leave them in his safe-deposit box. She knows there is going to be a full moon because he made some romantic remark about it before he left in the morning. He is due to come home any minute. She had intended to put on one of her prettiest dresses and cook him a little dinner, just for the two of them, and then perhaps they would walk by the ocean and look at the moon. Now, with her new information, what should she do? Should she try to take a bath fast and get it over with before he comes home? Will she discover that the lock on the bathroom door is broken? Is it really worthwhile for her to bother setting the table for two or even to cook her lamb chops?

Suppose, while she is wavering, her husband comes home early. He is carrying a box of candy and a great armful of red roses. The entire story can now be brought to a conclusion without ever referring again to the rude facts. On the one hand, the wife ought in decency to thank her husband for bringing her candy and flowers; on the other hand, how can she possibly say, “Thank you, I know exactly why you brought them”? The conversation, as a matter of fact, would be extremely funny, particularly if the husband’s position remained ambiguous; no one, after all, is sure that he is a murderer. If he is not a murderer, his reaction to his wife’s terrified remark that she thought she would go without a bath might be one of considerable surprise; she would hardly be in the habit of consulting him, after all, when she wanted to take a bath. If he is very hungry and says cheerfully that the lamb chops look very small and that he could eat all four of them himself, his wife can only conclude that he intends to dine alone, afterward. I see the story as ending with the wife, maddened by suspense, shouting wildly that all right, all right, he can stop hanging around waiting; if it will make him any happier she’ll go and take her old bath, and the husband would be altogether dumbfounded—or pretending to be.

Now, here there need never be a moment when the wife asks her husband point-blank if he intends to murder her, or a moment when the husband reveals himself and announces his plans; everything is taken care of by the lamb chops and the bath, the roses and the moon. If the story were broken off where I have left it, one additional sentence could give the reader a full ending. If the lamb chops were cooked at all, there must have been one place set at the table—or two. The candy might be opened—or set carefully aside for the next time.

I want to give you another example, this time from my own novel, where I had a difficult problem and found that I could solve it only by taking it out of the actual, as it were, and dealing with it symbolically. Before I use an example from my own work, I want to mention that I am the only writer whose work I am competent to discuss; it would be presumptuous of me to analyze or assign purpose to other writers. I do know how and why I do things, but with other writers I would largely be guessing, so it is not entirely from vanity that I turn to my own works for examples, and garlic.

If I say “white cat” to all of you, I daresay it would certainly, as a phrase, have some meaning in itself. Almost everyone can picture a white cat or ideas associated with a white cat; there are as many ideas about white cats, I suppose, as there are white cats in the world. The problem of a writer who wants to create a symbol, artificially endowed with a specific emotional weighting, is to invent one white cat that has a particular surrounding of emotional meaning, pertaining to one book and one character. In the book I have just finished, The Haunting of Hill House, the building up of a cumulative set of symbols was the only way to manage a particularly difficult passage. My problem was to take Eleanor, a woman of thirty-two, from her home in New York City to a haunted house two hundred miles away. In the course of this journey, which begins the book, she was to be built up as a wholly sympathetic character, the main character in the book; she was to be shown as infinitely lonely and unhappy. At the same time, there had to be a transition for the reader, from the sensible environment of the city to the somewhat less believable atmosphere of the haunted house, and the preparation had to be made carefully, in Eleanor’s mind and the reader’s, for the introduction of the horrors to come later, and Eleanor’s reactions. The reader had to be persuaded to identify sufficiently with Eleanor so that when later he encounters with her the various manifestations in the haunted house he will be willing to suspend disbelief and go along with Eleanor, because she has become thoroughly believable. This was hard.

I thought that the best way to lead the reader and Eleanor into an atmosphere of unreality was by working through a kind of unreality both of them could accept readily, a kind of daydreaming fairy-tale atmosphere quite natural to Eleanor under the circumstances. She is driving alone, a trip of two hundred miles, and it is not surprising that she tells herself little stories while she travels. The fairy-tale atmosphere begins when Eleanor comes to the garage in the city where her car is kept, and accidentally stumbles against a little old lady who is quite angry, in the best old-witch tradition, but is eventually placated, and as Eleanor gets into her car the little old lady says, “I will pray for you, dearie.” Eleanor thinks of this as a good omen for a journey about which she has considerable misgivings, and as she drives on, the little old lady is woven into her fantasies. Eleanor drives through a little village and sees and admires an old lovely house with two stone lions on the steps, and in the minute or so it takes for her to pass the house she has made up an entire lifetime for herself in the house with the stone lions; she has washed their faces every morning, and inside the house she has lived long quiet years, graciously, growing older in quiet elegance, with a little old lady to bring her a glass of blackberry wine each evening and help her care for the stone lions.

Before she has quite completed her dream of the lions, she passes an oleander hedge along the road, and she imagines that she might stop her car and go through the gate in the hedge and step into a castle, magically released from a spell by her coming, and she thinks that she would run down a path of jewels to a terrace before the castle, where there are fountains and stone lions and a little old lady who is actually the queen, her mother, waiting for the princess to come home and break the spell. Before she has quite unwound this story, she comes upon a little cottage almost buried in roses, and sees a white cat sunning itself on the step; she thinks that perhaps she will stop and live here forever, becoming a little old lady herself with a tiny pair of stone lions by her fireplace, oleanders and roses planted close beside her door, and she will make love potions for village maidens and dig magic herbs in the forest.

After Eleanor has driven a hundred miles, she stops at an inn for lunch, and while she is sitting in the inn a little girl at a nearby table cries out clearly that she will not drink her milk because she does not have her cup of stars. Eleanor is thinking with delight that of course a cup of stars is vital and essential for any fairtale heroine when the little girl’s mother explains to the waitress that it is not really a cup of stars, but a cup with stars painted inside, so that when the little girl drinks her milk at home she can see the stars in the cup.

Now, the basic emphasis in the entire journey has been Eleanor’s longing for a home, for a place of her own, and of course for a real cup of stars to break the spell of dullness and loneliness that she has always known. Five symbols have been set up. First there is the little old lady who is praying for Eleanor, then the two stone lions, then the oleander bushes and roses, then the white cat, then the cup of stars. Now, you see, the phrase “white cat” is beginning to take on the meaning it needs for the book. Each of these cumulative symbols dovetails with the others, each belongs absolutely to the journey between reality and unreality, and each must carry the weight of Eleanor’s loneliness and longing for a place where she belongs.

Now, these artificially loaded words can only be used with extreme care, and there again is the garlic. Garlic is a splendid thing, and one that is irreplaceable, yet there is no question but that it is possible to use too much of it. This collection of weighted words can only be used like garlic, where they will do the most good, and they must never be used where they will overwhelm the flavor of another passage. They can only be used, in short, in spots where it is essential to emphasize Eleanor’s loneliness, and then only in very small quantities. If one of the other characters in the book happens to remark that he dislikes cats and Eleanor says at once that she likes cats, but only white ones, what she is saying, of course, is that she likes white cats and has a dream of living alone in a little cottage covered with roses with an old lady praying for her and oleander bushes by the door. Consequently, Eleanor cannot make such a remark unless it is absolutely necessary, and the other character cannot even be made to remark that he dislikes cats unless Eleanor’s entire structure of fantasy has to be evoked at that particular moment.

One side result of this, of course, is that the garlic-laden symbols cancel out any similar references. Eleanor cannot, for instance, admire a pair of Chinese porcelain lions without keying in to the whole laborious story again; she cannot have any dealings with black cats or tortoiseshell cats; she cannot admire a privet hedge or drink from a cup painted pink on the inside. Moreover, each time one of these symbols turns up, it gathers new meanings and identities; when, later in the book, Eleanor wants to make an impression on one of the other characters and says boastfully that when she was a child she used to have a cup of stars, this is supposed to act as a kind of jolt to the reader, because of course it was not Eleanor as a child who had a cup of stars, but a strange child in an inn. Eleanor’s appropriating the cup of stars has become a further statement about her own lost loneliness; she has suddenly made a picture of herself as a little girl in an inn with a loving mother and father indulging her pretty whims.

Furthermore, it is beginning to appear that Eleanor is sinking into her fantasies, is moving herself into her dreamworld where she is loved and secure, and is perhaps already beginning to see herself as an enchanted princess or a happy child. Before she is through, Eleanor has made every one of her symbols her own; simply by presenting these various things as real, as belonging to her, she has come from her unhappy real life to a very happy, very dangerous, unreal life. By the end of the book, Eleanor is looking at other characters and thinking “I remember you; you dined with me once, long ago, in my home with the stone lions on the terrace.” Her last sad statement—spoken as she is leaving the haunted house at the insistence of the others, who do not believe she is safe there any longer—is “But nothing can hurt me; somewhere, someone is praying for me.”

It has become a statement that she is so far lost in fantasy that reality cannot touch her anymore; she is safe from danger because she no longer believes in its existence. The other characters, who believe reasonably enough what Eleanor has told them—that she has a little house where she keeps her cup of stars that she used as a child, where she has a white cat, where she has two small stone lions on the mantelpiece and roses and an oleander bush by the door—think that they are doing the right thing by sending Eleanor away; they think they are sending her home.

Masterful writer known for 'The Lottery' and 'The Haunting of Hill House', who carved a niche in horror and mystery.