Friday, May 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 17: Gertrude Atherton, The Striding Place (#82)

Gertrude Atherton, "The Striding Place" (1896) from American Fantastic Tales:
The note at the beginning of this story, about the strained friendship between Atherton and Ambrose Bierce, is worth the price of admission (free!). And thank god, too, because while the author and others consider this story to be Atherton's best, I found it a little formulaic, with the one note of weirdness to be more confusing than exciting.

It is a bit unfair to judge older works as formulaic since they may actually be part of the original thrust that laid down the formula for later works. But still, let's note that formula:

  • the story begins with a mood and a mystery: Weigall is visiting a friend's country house, but is bored by the usual activities (shooting, talking to boring women)--but he's actually more interested in the mystery of his disappeared schoolboy friend, Wyatt Gifford;
    • the story makes no bones about how close Weigall is to Gifford, introducing Gifford as "His intimate friend, the companion of his boyhood, the chum of his college days, his fellow-traveller in many lands, the man for whom he possessed stronger affection than for all men...";
  • after the introduction of the present-day mystery, we get a flashback to their friendship, which emphasizes their talks about metaphysics, about the relationship of body to soul; and the relation of soul to self; which ends with Gifford noting that he wants to separate from his body and would even do so if he came back to find his body somehow disabled, which pretty much tells you how the story will go;
    • and it also raises the question: why do rich gentleman always talk about metaphysics in this sort of story?;
  • after the mystery and the flashback, we're back with the mystery, as Weigall wanders the land, comes to a dangerous river, and discovers Gifford's body trying to get out... only when Gifford is rescued, Weigall notices that Gifford has no face!;
    • wait, what? We get a long sentence of Weigall being nervous and thinking something is wrong, and then, "But he sprang to the side of the man and bent down and peered into his face. There was no face." You've got to love that jump from Weigall peering into his face to that bald sentence that there's no there there.
The story winds up where it started, with Weigall's love for Gifford, which sure makes the story interesting to read today, when we like to associate homosociality with homosexuality (and may not be wrong to do so, especially with this story that makes such a to-do over Weigall's affection for Gifford and indifference towards women). So we could just read this story as a failed homosexual encounter: Weigall may not like women, but Gifford is "making love" to one. (It's always fun to read that old phrase with today's meaning.)

Atherton also gives a vivid description of the woods and river, probably written from real life (since she did visit this area). Certainly the environment seems to reverberate with the themes here--the English forest looks different up close than from afar, the river has an undertow that can drag men down. That is something worth keeping in mind when thinking about setting description.

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