In my last essay, I explored Stephen King’s ‘The Shining,’ and the benefits that books can gain from a greater length. There was also mention of the short story author Jorge Luis Borges, as well as short stories generally.
I haven’t written an essay on any short stories yet here on the blog, despite the fact that the short form is one of my favourite kinds of stories – in fact, I’ve been reading and writing short stories for a lot longer than novels, and it was short stories that first got me into both reading and writing.
This week, I’m excited to take a look at a short story for the first time. I did want to analyse a Borges short story to begin with, to form a tie between this essay and the last one. But, as much as I love Borges’s short stories, I couldn’t bring myself to make that the first short story analysis on the blog. Although, I’m sure I will be covering one of his stories eventually. This week, I have another short story writer in mind.
When I first got into short stories, I got into the sub-medium through the works of Edgar Allan Poe, while studying Gothic Horror in secondary school. The works were your typical choices for beginner Poe fans – 'The Raven,' 'Annabelle Lee,' 'The Telltale Heart.'
But I won’t be talking about those today either.
The reason for this is because, over the years, and over reading many different short stories, there is one Poe story in particular that I think is not only Poe’s best story, but one that also perfectly encapsulates the short story medium, and the inherent value that can be found in writing – and reading – a short story.
Today then, I will be talking about the super underrated short story, Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.’
To begin with, there are two main things I need to point out. Well, it’s actually the same thing – the premise. The reason for this is because the premise is the most interesting part of this short story. But at the same time, it is the premise that makes something such compelling short story material.
The big factor here is an idea that is original, unique, quirky – and cannot fill a novel. At least, not on its own. The premise in question for this story is the idea of a mesmerist trying to mesmerise a man on the brink of death. This is sci fi, and it is horror.
Of course, this premise could be expanded out into a novel if you really wanted it to, as they all could, technically speaking – but then you’d be running the risk of doing as Borges argued in the quotation we went over in my last blog post, and turning a five minute story into a five hundred page novel.
[Before continuing, it’s worth pointing out that, because of the nature of a short story, as well as having to explain the premise of this short story, it’s difficult to talk about Valdemar’s story without spoiling things. I’ve tried to be as spoiler-free as possible, but if you want to read this story blind, I recommend doing that first, and then coming back here.]
Admittedly, this story does actually spend some time delaying, and provides set up in the early moments, as you might expect from a novel rather than a short story. The main distinguishing factor is that this happens in a brisker, less wordy way here than it would have in a novel. It keeps this set up to the bare essentials.
Poe introduces the POV character and his mesmerism experiments alongside some context – the story we’re about to be told having already gotten out, in the form of rumours, and caused a stir for the general public. The POV character then briefly describes Valdemar, contrasting the healthy appearance the protagonist knew him to have in the past, with the way his terminal illness has affected his appearance in the present. Of course, this illness also gets a brief description and we’re ensured it is fatal. We’re now in hospital – and it begins.
This is all essential writing. We’re given a slow, easy introduction to the important elements of the story. We’re interested in the plot. We care for the two major players. And we’re either excited or nervous about what’s coming.
It does the smallest possible amount of set up work, only introducing the things that really matter. This gives it a miniature, simplified version of the benefits we’ve discussed longer novels having, but keeps the pace brisk, and doesn’t take up much of our time. This means the short story is in fact a short story, but also, that the events about to unfold are not totally devoid of important contexts.
This approach to pacing in fact continues throughout the story – there’s a hint of a slower pace, as introductions are made, elements are introduced one at a time. But it instead happens much faster since all of these elements concern both the steps of the mesmerism, and also Valdemar’s worsening symptoms. In this way, his death and the culmination of his mesmerism approach simultaneously.
The pace speeds up evermore. Before long, the steps of mesmerism are coming faster and more easily, and Valdemar is sinking faster and faster. The equal build up and development of these two primary elements builds up rapid tension, which is vital considering that the story is only ten pages long.
Also of importance in a short story is its approach to theme – in this case success versus failure, and the struggle between life and death. Themes have to be delivered to us quickly, so once again they are introduced by simultaneously utilising both characters – as the mesmerist failed to mesmerise this subject in the past, but is now finding it easier to manipulate him, and at the same time, the subject was holding on for some time, but is now struggling to speak more and more. And both of these are tied effortlessly to the main premise since they progress together as the patient gets closer to his foretold demise.
Poe is a master of maintaining tension, not only in individual scenes but for the entirety of the short story, with anxiety introduced in the first paragraph, which itself transforms into deeper tension and dread with every passing sentence. This kind of constant, flawless tension is only effective in a story this short. It simply wouldn’t be possible in a longer story, for two main reasons. Firstly, the writer would struggle to weave it in while juggling everything else that goes into a longer story. But also, the reader wouldn’t be able to manage with several hundred pages of constant threat. Neither of these concerns are relevant when it comes to short stories – so tension can be both heightened and constant.
What makes Valdemar’s story such a fantastic example of this quality is the way all the dual build up and development of Valdemar and the mesmerist builds to the simultaneous reaching of the two paths’ eventual conclusions. At the exact same moment, both complete mesmerism, and final death, are reached.
Or are they?
See, just because it’s a short story being written, doesn’t mean it has to be simple or straight forward. A writer can still weave in depth and different possible interpretations, or twists and surprises. In fact, it might be easier to accomplish this in a short story – since the writer will inevitably have to leave something up to the imagination, or maybe even leave everything to the imagination. Again, this just wouldn’t be effective in a longer story, where leaving everything up to the imagination would simply leave the readers frustrated. You’d have to give the reader at least something, at least one answer. But in a short story, you can do basically anything you want. There are less rules.
As Valdemar is either mesmerised at the point of death, or simply believing himself dead, whatever the reader decides, the character becomes trapped in that state – and to wake him, they all decide, would almost certainly kill him instantly. Thus, a grim conflict is introduced with a single paragraph.
Valdemar is kept in this state seven months, and equally, the protagonist is kept in a state of conflict for the same amount of time. In a novel, this would lead to one or possibly even several chapters of philosophical discussion, character monologues, and side plots. But here in the short story, it’s a sentence. Because in this sub-medium where every word counts, all you need to do is introduce the question – what would you do here, how would you be affected, how would you feel? The question is all. And the actual seven months time period is essentially cut out, keeping the story tight, focused, and briskly paced.
Because if you’re going to write a short story, then it’s important to do as Borges would argue, and cut things down to the barest essentials, the smallest, most laser focused version of things.
Which means, subsequently, that the story can continue to build to the equal parts intensely shocking and more subtly unnerving ending. I can’t entirely explain why the end of this story gets me so bad, but it really does. Part of the reason is the way the scene manifests in my imagination. Part of the reason is the implication – which again, is down to personal interpretation. But the biggest reason is almost certainly because of the short length of this story, and the effects such a short wordcount has.
So, in that vein, what benefits does this story gleam from having such a short length? Let’s take a look more deeply:
By introducing only the essential elements, and doing so in as focused a way as possible, the story has a brisk pace, moving quickly from one development to another, all eventually culminating at the same time.
Tension can be built up constantly, with no breaks in between crucial scenes, leaving the reader much more intensely emotionally affected. Whether that means fear, as in this case, or some other emotion in a different story.
Because of the short length, common rules of writing become arbitrary and non-applicable, which allows a short story writer to involve weirder, crazier and more ambitious concepts that couldn't be stretched out into a longer story with a more conventional plot structure without putting readers off.
The two main parts of the plot simultaneously lead towards this one end. And it feels sort of open, when it arrives. There is no ‘post-end’ like a lot of stories have, where there’s one final oomph… then the quieter, slower ‘real end’ so to speak. Rather, as a short story, Valdemar’s story simply ends with that final oomph. After all, why drag it on any longer? The impact is made. Nothing more needs to be said. You’re shaken – and there’s no ‘calming down’ section to allow you to recover.
This is the major benefit of short stories. Their tight, intense, perfectly paced one-shot storytelling allows for the kinds of stories you couldn’t find anywhere else. In some ways, the best and weirdest short stories feel like single throw away ideas from other novels. The bits that couldn’t be fit into the author’s more regular stories, or are simply too strange to be expanded out into a ‘full’ story. But here? The brief wordcount leaves you able to do just about anything, because the reader will only have to invest in the concept for a short amount of time, so we become more open to the genuinely bizarre and experimental. And I think that on some level, this knowledge makes writers equally more willing to give in to the odd, and the experimental, and the impossible story premises that just couldn’t work – and they say, to hell with it – maybe this can work.
I love short stories, and I will definitely be covering more of them on the blog from here on out. Poe knew short fiction – he simply had a grasp of its value and abilities like no other. And this short story in particular demonstrates perfectly the reasons for both why I love the medium, and how Poe mastered it.