Sunday, June 20, 2021

Tiger in the Snow (1984).

In my last article I made a deliberate effort to draw the reader's attention to the way author Philippa Pearce used the image of a lion, or generalized Big Cat, as a symbol for the fantastic in her story.  The tale is told in such a way that the appearance of this Cat right out of the blue, on a normal city street, is meant to appear enigmatic, and out of the ordinary.  This is easily demonstrated by the way the story handles its titular character.  The human like attributes of Pearce's second main lead mark him out as something other than just a normal lion.  There is always an undercurrent of the odd about this strange talking cat, and it's perhaps to Pearce's credit that she was aware of this in composing her work.  As an artist, she appears to have been able to recognize just how unusual a note her talking cat is able to strike in the reader, along with the other fictional characters surrounding him.  It's a character note the author recognizes, and is smart enough to realize that this is the note she needs to latch onto if her story is to have any chance of success.  That element of the unexplained is precisely where the engine that's driving this peculiar narrative is located.  It's what gives even the most unbelievable elements in her story their gripping power.  As a result, the reader keeps turning the pages, and even when the book has been closed up and placed back on the shelf, it's very oddness manages to stay with you.  There's always this lingering sense of the uncanny emanating from the story, and it still hangs in the air well after the final line.

It almost has to be one of the more unique experiences I've had from going into a story cold and unprepared, yet more or less ready for anything.  Part of my reasons for not calling it the most unusual story I've ever read is because, in the strictest sense, I'm not all that sure that Pearce's story exists in a vacuum.  If a fable such as The Lion at School were a genuine one-off, then it might have amounted to something like a true literary anomaly, the printed-page equivalent of one of those old impressionist landscape paintings featuring a lion crawling up to an unsuspected sleeper in the dunes.  Instead, it turns out I can point out at least two other examples where different writers sort of wound up using the same or similar conceit at the center of their respective, individual works.  The first title is the one up for discussion today, Daniel Wynn Barber's Tiger in the Snow.  The second is an old short story by Stephen King.  By turning the focus onto separate and yet somewhat thematically united works from both authors, the atmosphere begins to take a slight turn.  Philippa Pearce recognized an element of the uncanny in her story, and yet her narrative as a whole is kept light and humorous, for the most part.  When we turn to the efforts Barber and King, however, the uncanny begins to take a firm grip on the genre proper.  Even if there's the possibility that we are still dealing with children's stories, we've nonetheless wandered onto the shady side of the street.  By taking up first Barber, and then King, we've more or less entered the precincts of what Ray Bradbury liked to call the October Country.

This in itself doesn't strike me as all that big a leap of imagination.  If Pearce was able to locate an element of the uncanny in her own story, then all it takes for guys like King and Barber is to take that slightly off-kilter note, and then tip it over into full-on Gothic territory.  This includes bringing the image's potential for all out horror right to the front of center stage.  The contrast may seem jarring to some, though any careful examination of literary history and practice will be enough to show that this sort of thing happens all the time.  What it can't show quite as well is just who the author of today's story is, or where he came from, nor have I been able to learn about anything that he might have done, or written since.  In that sense, Daniel Barber is one of the most interesting types of case for the critic to have to confront.  If writer's like Philippa Pearce are capable of providing just enough material to allow us to reconstruct a working, fact-based biography about them, then Barber is very much of the other kind.  All we have of him is a name on the author's byline space, followed by a blank nothing where all the useful background material should be.  

Instead, the closest I've been able to come in terms of a reliable chronological record is this story's publication history, as laid out by the helpful folks at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.  There you'll be able to find out all about the surprisingly long-lasting staying power of Barber's story.  It seems as if his simple efforts have turned out to be the little short story that could.  Tiger in the Snow is not a household tale like Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan, yet ever since its first appearance way back in 1984, that one effort has managed to stay in print, all the way up to the present day, in fact.  If nothing else, it's a textbook example of the reliability of good writing.  I'm just sorry that I can't find out anything else about the guy who wrote it.  The only other title Barber has to his name seems to be a 1985 effort known as Wings of the Hunter.  Nothing else is forthcoming.  In a way, while that does make the job of contextualization a lot more difficult, it doesn't render the task impossible.  A lot of the reason for that is because even here, Barber sort of conforms to a specific type.  He's one of several anonymous toilers in the trenches who have been able to leave some kind of mark behind, right before they vanish into the literary aether forever, never to be seen or heard from again.  

Barber isn't alone in this type of fate.  The most famous and similar example of this kind of author belongs to that of H.F. Arnold.  He is most known today (if at all) for a short subject known as The Night Wire.  In essence, the tale itself amounts to what has to be one of the first modern examples of apocalyptic horror ever printed.  It comes complete with an otherworldly fog, and what might be the first examples of flesh eating zombies in Horror fiction.  We also don't have a clue as to the life of the man who wrote it.  Dan Barber seems to amount to pretty much the same thing.  He' a name on a page, and his entire mystique stems from the fact that we know positively jack about him.  It's got to be the most anonymous way of gaining fame that exists out there.  You've got to admit, it's a genuine accomplishment of sorts, even if it is a headache for completionists.  The good news is that even if the author has slipped past the microscope lens, there is still plenty in the story itself worth talking about.

 The Story.

Is it possible that there are still some out there who find it more convenient to travel on foot to wherever it is they want to go?  In the strictest sense, it's probably more than just a possibility.  For some it's perhaps the most logical choice, especially if you don't have that far to go.  I've done it myself on occasion.  However, it's the sort of thing I try to make a point of doing as little as possible.  It would be easy to say things like, "It's not any one thing I can point to", and leave it at that.  It would also be a flat out lie.  Walking around on the streets can be a scary business.  That's the real truth of the matter as far as I'm concerned.  This is true especially for those solitary hours after the Sun goes down, and it's up to the streetlamps to try and do what they can to keep the shadows at bay.  That's got to be the worst time to go out for a walk.  The crazy part is there are some out there who find it an ideal time to take a stroll round the neighborhood.  

Nor is this just one of those empty, anecdotal type deals, either.  I've seen some of these evening constitutionals for myself.  Most often it happens when its getting late, and I'm edging toward calling it a night.  Sometimes that's the moment when I'll hear my dog, out in the yard.  She was purchased with the goal of having a good, reliable alarm system around the place, and she does her job well.  Anytime someone comes strolling past, or if one of the neighbors is walking their dog, she'll usually be there in an instant, warning others to keep out of what she's long since come to regard as her territory.  She's kind of great like that.  What's not so hot is when I hear her sound the alarm close to the dead of night.  Usually it just means more of the same as above.  Either a person, a dog, or most likely both combined are just making their way through.  So far that's been the case a hundred percent of the time.  I've had no hassles, and that's a small blessing in and of itself.  

At the same time, there's always something eerie about the whole thing.  This time there really isn't something I can just point to that would explain everything.  It's more to do with the fabled "still of the night", combined with the occasional sigh of of the trees, and nothing else except the rattle and hum of the air conditioner, and maybe the occasional piece of music for background noise.  Into this relative calm comes the noise of a dog barking in the night.  It's nothing out of the ordinary, like I said.  I'm able to ignore nine times out of ten.  It's just that ever so often I have to wonder.  What is it about the people she meets that sets my dog off like that?  I'm told the best ones are often great judges of character.  If there's any truth to that claim, then what does it say about the personality of someone walking the streets at night, in those lonely hours before sun-up and not even the dogs like the look of you.  Sometimes I can't help wondering about those solitary walkers as they pass by my house, in the odd watches of the night.  Are they all there, or is nobody home?  Are they safe, in other words, or it best to keep a good distance?

I've had just one incident where I thought my luck had broke.  Sometimes my dog will go on a late night tirade, and I'm left to scan the surrounding streets, seeing no one, and hearing nothing.  And yet still the little girl yaps and growls, delivering her abuse to someone or something that you just can't see.  One time when I looked out from a darkened upstairs window I saw this guy all dressed in an ankle length black coat with a hoodie over his head.  It was a genuine shock to see anyone like that out in my neighborhood.  The worst part is he didn't look like he was on his way to anywhere.  He just stood there on the sidewalk by my house, not moving.  As I continued to watch it looked as if the guy was swaying back and forth, like a drunk or a stoner doing all he can to keep on his feet.  I stood watching that damned clown for the longest time, wondering what I should do, or if someone in some of the other houses had seen him, and were maybe calling the cops.  I never saw a face, for the record.  It wasn't until I moved to get a better position that the guy dissolved into the branches of one of the trees, and an old stop sign that's been outside my place since probably before I was born.  It's the kind of thing of thing you can look back on and laugh at now.  For one awful moment, however, the terror was more or less a real thing.  I guess you could say I was lucky.  Others might not be.  Sometimes there's a joker waiting in the deck.

That's probably what happened to a friend of Steve Baxter's a while back.  Steve and his folks, they're like a whole neighborhood or two away.  Their street seems just as quiet as mine, or at least I can't recall hearing any complaints.  And anyway, Steve isn't the real issue here.  It's this friend of his that I told you about.  Justin I think his name was.  I don't rightly know who his folks were.  I never met him, you see.  All I know about him is what Steve has told.  There's not much at all to talk about.  Justin sounds like one of those next door type guys, the kind who are destined for being an Average Joe, with all that such an auspicious title implies.  "I work from nine to five," as an old 80s song puts it, "Hell, you know I pay the price".  If I had to single out anything curious about the guy, then it might be this crazy, recurring dream he used to have, or does he still have them?  Justin used to get these nightmares where he was either walking around his neighborhood, or like he was in his own home, or an unfamiliar house, or something.  The one thing that never changed was the general situation.  Sooner or later, Justin would realize he was being stalked by this huge, hungry tiger.  It may have looked and acted like one of the big cats in the local zoo, however, this is a dream tiger we''re talking about here.

That sort of thing has less to do with any given specimen of the species (whatever's left of it) and more to do with how the things must have looked to our earliest, primitive ancestors.  That's no tiger, what Justin saw in his dream was more like a monster from the Id, if that makes any sense.  Doubtless someone out there is smart enough to know what it all means.  It's probably all just a recurrent metaphor for some unspoken fear or personal obstacle that Justin hasn't confronted in his life yet, or something like that, anyway.  I only bring it up at all on account of three things.  The first two are pretty simple.  This is all the stuff that Justin shared with Steve for some reason.  According to Baxter, Justin told him it was this same dream that often made him afraid to walk home alone at nights, especially on those occasions when the two friends were having a good time.  When that happened, he often dreaded having to leave.  It meant facing the quiet streets at twilight, when the stillness could just as easily be a mask hiding who knows what.  Steve told me Justin often had to fight his own imagination from planting a Bengal man-eater behind every bush and tree, or lurking behind a car in a nearby driveway.

So yeah, I guess you could say Steve's friend was a bit peculiar, in at least one regard.  The good news for him is that it never seems to have gotten too much in the way of things.  In fact, he even seems to have been able to hold his own against a local school bully once.  That's got to be proof of a stable enough mind, right?  The reason I ask is because of the third reason for bringing this whole thing up in the first place.  Here's the point where things stop being normal.  Or maybe they don't, I'm not sure I can tell anymore.  You see, Justin often made it a point to leave Steve's house early before sunset.  It was the one peculiar quirk of his personality.  Steve says he had a pretty good idea of why Juss would do a thing like that.  It was his way of admitting that having to walk home in the dark scared the crap out of him, is what it was.  It's to Steve's credit that I don't recall him ever ranking out his friend for it.  The thing, you see, is that the last Steve ever saw of Justin was when he wound up staying too late playing video games.  I think his folks might have offered him a ride home, however Justin claimed he would do okay reaching his destination by shank's mare.  Anyway, he said his goodbyes, and then he left.

That's the last time anyone can recall seeing a young kid known as Justin Davis.  Ever since that night, things have just gotten weird.  At least that's one possible impression of the whole thing.  I can't tell for sure, really.  It's been more than three weeks since that night, and yet concern at places like the school Justin attends (or is it attended?) has been cursory at best.  It's curious that no one seems to take that much of an interest in a missing persons case.  At least if that's even what we're dealing with here.  Another strange thing is Steve's reaction to this whole thing.  He was there when anyone last saw Justin, and yet it's sort of curious.  He remembers Justin was a friend of his, and yet these days he has a hard time recalling who he was as a person, or what he looked like.  Steve recalls Justin was wearing a sweater that night, and yet its like an empty suit filled with blanks space, maybe a pair of glasses hanging in mid air.  At least Steve remembers that Justin's was the thrid house at the end of the block on State Street.  Once you get there, however, you're faced with an unassuming looking house, and its hard to make head or tails of.  If you look in the windows, it's hard to tell whether or not someone is living there.  There's no dust or covered furniture to be seen, and yet the light is often bad.  It can be difficult to make shapes out, or even tell if you've just seen movement.  Unless that was just imagination.

I'm not certain if I've ever really gotten over a fear of the dark.  When I was maybe around five years old I just knew for a fact that Count Dracula was hiding in my closet.  I can't tell even now where that idea came from.  One minute I was lying in bed in my old room.  In the very next instant, it's like the knowledge is just there, unbidden, unwanted, and yet true as liars.  You couldn't see him, and yet somehow I was able to pick up the basic outline of him, old moth-eaten evening tux, red inner lining of the cape, and then there were the eyes and the teeth.  It's a strange kind of certainty that enters the mind on occasions like that.  I wonder where it comes from.  Sometimes if you are brave enough to approach that old house at the end of State Street at night, if you watch it from a distance long enough, you'll find that even the light itself has ways of playing tricks on you.  Sometimes it almost looks as if you could see those same glaring points of light flitting back and forth from one room to the other.  Those lights could almost be mistaken for the eyes of a bat.  Or maybe it's just a cat?  Then again, it could always be something else.  As I've said already, the light plays tricks.  And sometimes you find out that not even the streetlamps help that much.  Instead of dispelling the shadows, they often have nasty a way of making them grow, linger, and move out of the corner of the eye.  That's a lesson I'm pretty sure Justin Davis learned on his walk home.  It might also explain why I've just never been comfortable with walking alone at night.

Creating a Palpable Sense of Dread.

I first ran across this story in one of its many (and hopefully on-going) reprints.  It was tucked away in the pages of a collection known as, Beware!: R.L. Stine Picks his Favorite Scary Stories.  What the editor has to say about Barber's short story is one of the few pieces of genuine commentary that I've been able to discover about this piece.  There is just one other observation that I was able to uncover in regards to Barber's efforts here.  As it turns out, it was also this second critical remark that might provide a doorway into a richer literary vein, one that might just be well worth mining for a few trace elements of textual gold.  We'll get to that last one in a minute.  For the moment, it's enough to start with the basic observations of one writer commenting on another.  Stine writes that "When I was a kid, sometimes I would stay at a friend's house until late and have to walk home in the dark.  I lived in a quietest, peaceful neighborhood.  But that walk home was always terrifying - because my imagination was too good!

"As I hurried along the sidewalk, I would imagine a snarling wolf creature crouching behind a bush.  Or a drooling fanged monster waiting to pounce from the side of the garage.  Every sound made me jump.  every rustle of leaves in the wind made me think I was being followed by something hideous.  I came across this story recently and it brought back memories of those frightening walks home.  I also loved the title.  Sometimes a title is so intriguing you just have to read the story.  In the story, Justin leaves his friend's house one night and imagines he is being followed by a tiger.  Is it really a tiger - or is it something worse (127)"?

It may sound strange to hear this, yet it is just possible that Stine's commentary is at least a bit more insightful than he's letting on.  Let's unpack this one piece at a time, then.  The first thing to note is that Stine tends to zero in on two interrelated aspects of the story.  In doing so, it is just possible that he's gone right to the heart of what makes Horror tick as a genre.  What jumps out a Stine the most is the palpable sense of dread inherent in the story.  A great deal of the effectiveness of that dread stems from the writer's skill in finding just the right words to convey it in the narrative.  Barber seems capable of wielding a sure hand in his use of descriptions.  A good reader should be able to tell this based on just a glance or two at the writer's handling of the language.  It becomes obvious enough if you stop and peruse over the very opening sentence that kicks the action off: "Justin sensed the tiger as soon as he reached the street.  He didn't see it, or hear it.  He simply...sensed it.

"Leaving the warm safety of the Baxters' porch light behind him, he started down the sidewalk that fronted State Street, feeling the night swallow him in a single hungry gulp.  He stopped when he reached the edge of the Baxters' property and looked back wistfully at their front door (129)".  Barber limits his opening setup to just two short paragraphs.  It's the kind of thing that looks simple on paper, and turns out to be a lot harder to put into practice.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the great majority of even the most talented writers find it a struggle to compress the essence of a scene or scenario into just a few words.  Nor does this sound at all out of the ordinary.  Indeed, it might almost be the de facto operating procedure when it comes to the basics of creative writing.  I think a lot of it has to do with the scope of the literary ideas that artists find themselves struggling with.  Some may be just too big to describe all at once.  This doesn't keep a writer from achieving a given amount of brevity as the soul of wit, here and there.  The best examples I know of come from the opening paragraphs of A Tale of Two Cities and The Haunting of Hill House.

Both Dickens and Shirley Jackson manage to convey not just an opening, but also an atmosphere that pulls the reader into the narrative in a heartbeat.  Barber might not be in quite the same league as the two older writers just mentioned.  The good news is that I don't think he needs to be in order to achieve the kind of goals the story is asking for.  A greater awareness of Barber's skill at artistic compression can be discovered when you realize it had its start as one of those old fashioned magazine pieces that used to crop up in the pages of such legendary periodicals like Weird Tales, or The Saturday Evening Post.  Barber's short subject first saw the light of day in a genre centric rag known as The Horror Show (web).  Barber's editor for his first appearance in print is listed as a David B. Silva, a wordsmith whose career has turned out to be a lot more prolific than the first-timer he initially tried to mentor as part of his editorial duties.  The reason I bring it up is because it just makes sense to imagine Silva corresponding with Barber, and telling him just how much column space he had available to devote to the this little supernatural animal fable of his.  If there's any truth to this surmise, then it most likely means that Barber knew he was writing not just under a deadline, but also a limited amount of space.

That means he had to discipline his sense of pacing and description.  Every word and paragraph had to be made to count.  The very fact that Barber is able to grab the reader by the jugular right out of the starting gate has got to demonstrate the case of a writer whose learned his lessons well.  The whole thing is kind of masterpiece of artistic compression.  Barber is able to cram as much as he can into a short travel route without crashing and burning, or losing anything by the side of the road.  Perhaps his greatest achievement comes once more from that opening paragraph.  The whole thing may be considered short, yet it manages not to be constrictive.  Instead, we're treated to the grim and glorious metaphor of the night itself as predatory, living thing that is waiting to eat our protagonist alive.  Somehow Barber was able to find just the right note to start things off with.  He doesn't just leave it at that, either.  He never makes the mistake of coasting on one good metaphor, and then allow things to drift towards a dull and uninteresting halt.  Instead, Barber can be seen applying himself to doing what any self-respecting Horror writer should.  He takes all the time he needs in building up the sense of dread from there.  

This is an artistic effect Barber is able to do through his descriptions of both scenery and action.  A good example can be found just by the way the writer lays out the scene of his main character making his way down what should be an ordinary street.  "At the corner, Justin looked both ways, although he knew there wouldn't be many cars out on a night like this.  Then he scanned the hedges along a nearby house, where dappled shadows hung frozen in the branches.  Excellent camouflage for a tiger (131)".  It's an interesting example of how good writing can make the ordinary seem like something out of a storybook.  This is just a piece of the setup however, and it could be argued that Barber let's the reader have a number of payoffs on his way to the story's conclusion.  For instance, take this other sample, a few paragraphs on.  "He was halfway down the block when he saw a shadow slip effortlessly from behind the house two doors up.  It seemed to glide dreamlike across the snow, then disappear behind a car parked in the driveway.  It was just a shadow, but before it had vanished, Justin thought he caught a glimpse of striping (132)".  

There's nothing showy about this description.  Barber has neither the time, nor the interest in pleasing the kind of readers who are drawn to either purple prose, or ornate sophistication in style.  Despite the complaints such readers may make about Barber's style, the truth is everything is in place to let the scenes work.  If the writer has done his job right, the story should be able to take care of itself.  In the space between the first sample provided above and the second, and whole aura of dread should be conjured in the reader's mind, so that when they see that imaginary shadow move behind a car in front of their eyes, their pulse should quicken and their guts tighten just enough to make them uneasy, and desperate to know what happens next.  Will the beast get bested, or feed?  That is the best possible type of effect a good Horror story can achieve, at the end of the day.  Such a tale does not require the sophisticated level of a Henry James in order to do its job right.  Also, just because there is nothing flashy about a story like this, that's not at all the same as claiming that there is not a genuine level of thematic intelligence to be had.  In fact, one claim I've heard made about Barber's story leaves me wondering if maybe there is at least something inherent in Tiger in the Snow that gives it a surprisingly high degree of literary pedigree.

Conclusion: A Beast of Nobel Lineage?

Any Tale of Terror is incomplete without an actual horror to help anchor its narrative.  It's sort of like the one ingredient the genre can't seem to do without.  Even the most basic examples of the literary breed, from the more or less fair to decent enough, almost require that a of bogey, specter, or at least some kind of horrific threat added into the mix.  It's part of what helps to keep the invested reader turning the pages.  It's also what helps grant the genre its very own sense of identity.  Would any of us even be able to recognize a work of Horror without the creature of abomination shambling out of the shadows, or the ghost in its floating sheets?  This isn't to say that the supernatural is always necessary for the horror in a story to be effective.  On the contrary, sometimes authors like Robert Bloch and Alfred Hitchcock have demonstrated plenty of ways in which the real terror comes from the warped sensibilities of the human mind.  In the case of Daniel Wynn Barber's story, however, the line of distinction between natural and unnatural turns out to be a lot less easy to make than you might imagine.

Without giving the game away, I will say that once the story was over, the way the whole thing was written left my mind firing off on all cylinders.  A lot of it was just plain confusion, yet this in itself might not be a bad thing.  It's not the kind of situation that stems from a sense of being cheated by lousy writing.  That sort of thing is dime a dozen enough.  Instead, it was more the sense of open-ended puzzlement that comes from realizing you've just read the sort of story that leaves the door open to all possible kinds of interpretations.  I'm not real sure just how popular this kind of riddle-wrapped-in-an enigma tale is nowadays.  I've think we've reached a point where our preferences (for the moment, at least) seem a lot more straightforward, and so we're inclined to expect more of the same from our tellers of tales.  Even if that's the case, just because something is out of fashion doesn't make it cease to exist.  Nor does there seem to be any real guarantee that there's anything in place to keep such fashions from coming back into style.  Whether a statement like that sounds promising or threatening will depend a great deal on your respective perch on the aesthetic ladder.  The real point here is that Barber has crafted a story with a surprising amount of sophistication to it.  This accomplishment is all the more remarkable for the way it sneaks up on you.  You go in expecting one kind of ending, and while the story does give it to you, it does so in a way that leaves you wondering over the exact nature of what you've just read.  I think only the best stories are capable of doing that.  It's almost like a hidden gem.

I think a lot of the power of this story goes back the issue Stine raised in his introduction.  Is there an actual tiger stalking the main character?  Or is it just his imagination?  Also, what if it's something else, something other?  What then?  This is what I mean when I talk about the thematic richness of certain ambiguous endings.  It's not the sort of thing that's guaranteed to work all the time.  In fact, for most stories I can see how this would be the kiss of death.  However, the tale that Barber has to tell almost demands it by default, which probably explains the nature of its final lines and closing action.  Its to the possible meanings behind the story, and its titular horror, that I now think we have to turn our attentions towards.  I said a moment ago that I have seen just one piece of actual critical commentary on Barber's text.  In it, the Tiger text is paired up with what has now become an English Major icon in Gothic fiction, Shirley Jackson's The Lottery.  It's probably not the most obvious sort of connection for a reader to make.  At the same time, perhaps there is a genuine thread of thematic connectivity there that helps put the Barber text into something approaching a proper perspective.

In some ways, my thinking on the matter is something of a lucky break.  I'd recently stumbled across a thesis length essay that was not just about Jackson's short chiller, but also the anthology collection of which it forms the final part.  It's the claim of scholar Havard Norjordet that Jackson's short story collection is close to being what is known as a story cycle, "similar to such classics of the genre as James Joyce's Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio (16)".  While Norjordet remains uncertain that Jackson's collection warrants such a term, I'd argue the main reason he lists for it as a unified work is convincing enough, and that there's no need to "problematize (18)" such a notion.  Norjordet's main contention (following the lead of critic Joan Wylie Harris) is the unifying element in every single story of Jackson's anthology is "the recurrence of a character called James Harris (18)".  He also stresses the "importance of thematic recurrence", and that "the presence of paratexts and the character James Harris usually serve to add thematic depth, although some structural patterns may also be discerned at times (ibid)".  For someone who is familiar with Jackson's Lottery, in and of itself, Norjordet's claim emerges as something of a revelation.  It helps take a random and unsettling shock story, and somehow manages to give it a greater sense of context, and maybe even purpose.

I think a lot of it is down to the discovery that there is a mysterious, sinister figure lurking in the background of each story in Jackson's collection.  It's a fact which only becomes obvious once the reader is willing to no longer take the collection's title story in isolation.  By itself, Jackson's tale of an unlucky marked slip of paper and its consequences is enough to send a shiver down the spine.  The difference is that once you place it back in line with the other stories in the collection, of which it seems to be have been meant as an ostensible conclusion, then its as if the entire picture and meaning of the piece begins to shift, to take on a greater sense of narrative weight.  It could even be possible to say that the whole might make the beginnings of at least some kind of sense.  The figure of James Harris is nowhere to be seen or heard of in The Lottery if read in isolation.  However, once you place the story of the black box back in its proper context, then it might just be possible to claim he is there in spirit once you add in the epilogue that was originally meant to follow the last story in the collection.  

It's perhaps important to note that the original byline of Jackson's collection was always meant to have the following subtitle, The Adventures of James Harris.  Sure enough, this is sort of what readers will get if they simply learn to take the story of a local town ritual as more a final pay-off, rather than the main course.  The titular Mr. Harris is something of an elusive figure in Ms. Jackson's story cycle.  He remains a seemingly passive background figure, for the most part.  However, it seems that everywhere he goes, or at least in every story in which he is mentioned as having some connection with, however tangential, there is usually a tragedy of some sort or another left at the end of Shirley's little vignettes.  If I'm being honest, the first thing it puts me in mind of is the main villain of Stephen King's The Stand.  I can't say I know how much connection these two figures have to one another.  However it's true enough that King has read, and is intimately familiar with Jackson's story, and seemingly the rest of her work in general.  He also lists the author's Lottery and Others (the later reprint title of the same story collection, which, as pointed out, obscures the book's thematic connective tissue, an overall sense of unity) as a key text that Horror fans need to acquaint themselves with if they want to gain an understanding of the genre, in his non-fiction study, Danse Macabre.

King has spoken at length, several times over already, about how he came to write his fan-favorite post-apocalyptic masterpiece.  At no point in any of it does he mention Shirley Jackson, or her collection.  However, she does show up in an indirect, albeit very pointed way in the course of the novel itself.  It happens when Nick Andros, one of the heroes of The Stand, is comforting a dying woman.  In the course of her final moments, one of the things she rattles off is about "How she had won an elocution contest in high school, had gone on to the Arkansas state finals, and how her half-slip had fallen down and puddled around her shoes just as she reached the ringing climax of Shirley Jackson's "The Daemon Lover (209)".  The whole thing might read as a vague throwaway, some brief literary allusion, and nothing more.  I can't help wondering, however, if this one of those cases where the author inserts an allusion with a very distinct purpose in mind.  For one thing, if anyone bothers to either look up or read the actual title that King name drops in the course of the action, what you might discover could very well turn out to be an unspoken inspiration for not just the character of Randall Flagg, yet perhaps another figure known as Nadine Cross.  It is also one of the central stories in Jackson's collection to be specifically concerned with the location and actions of the mysterious Mr Harris himself.

This is all fascinating literary history.  However, it all just begs one important question.  What's this got to do with the story of a kid walking home through the snow, while being stalked by what might be a tiger, or something else?  In order to answer that question, we're going to have double back once more to that anonymous essay writer who first caught a glimpse of possible thematic similarities between Barber's tale and the Jackson story.  I've never been able to find out who wrote the essay, yet they're owed a debt of gratitude.  I think they've stumbled across a real thematic connection between one story and another.  Not only that, I'd argue bringing in Norjordet's full-length thesis helps us to dig up and unearth the riches contained in the fossil disclosed by Barber's narrative.  I started this article with the ultimate goal of trying to figure out the nature of Barber's titular Big Cat, mainly on a thematic level, yet also a literal one if any proper doorway could be found.  I think Norjordet unintentionally provides us with just that door.     

This is the most speculative part of the whole article, so everyone will just have to bear with me on this.  This whole thing was started in order to find out if there is any kind of straightforward or symbolic significance to the way a certain type of trope, or literary figure was being used.  In the case of Barber, that entails asking what his story's title character is, or what it could mean?  There are two ways of answering that question, believe it or not.  Nor do I think that both are contradictory, or cancel each other out.  Technically there might three ways of looking at this particular scenario, and it all hinges on the ending Barber was able to dig up for his tale.  The trick lies in knowing how to discuss it without entering spoiler territory.  What I think I can say is that it's the sort of thing might leave some in the audience shaking their head, though with any luck they'll be doing that in a good way.  The first thing about the ending that jumped out what not so much the final gut punch, but rather the way the main character acted in response to it.  I remember thinking that's not how any sane person acts.  Instead, a normal version of these events would be a lot more noisy and graphic.  A second thing that gave me pause was the strangely inattentive reaction from a handful of secondary characters in the story.  They're on for just snippet of literary screen time, and yet in that handful of seconds, Barber shows his economy with narrative description and dialogue.  The curious part is how even this can be unsettling in its normalcy.

I keep asking myself logical questions, such as wouldn't any group of people be aware of strange noises coming from their house?  Wouldn't they go and investigate, and then run like hell?  In which case, wouldn't the ending have played out in an entirely different manner.  Wouldn't it have ended up instead one of those out-of-left-field pieces that sometimes crop up on the evening news?  By all rights the main character should have found himself walking into a gathering crowd the closer he gets to home (or whatever is left of it).  It's the most logical scenario for a remarkable event which would turn things either into a private tragedy made public, or else a lucky escape which, maybe someday, can be looked back on with some semblance of humor.  None of that is what happens.  Instead, the group of secondary characters just alluded to seem to show no awareness of anything drastic happening.  Indeed, it seems like just another quiet evening gathering.  I'm sorry, there's just no way that group would carry on as if nothing was happening if Justin's worst fears were being realized.  It goes against all the laws of rationality, especially where dangerous wildlife is concerned.  The fact that no one else seems to be aware of anything out of the ordinary might be the real clue to what's going on with the ending.

If that's the case, then maybe the story itself has left a door open to a more symbolic, less literal reading of its final events.  The two ways that can happen is if we view the whole thing through one of two, maybe three lenses.  The simplest non-literal perspective is to claim we're dealing with one of those "It's - all - your - head" type deals.  This is not the most illogical explanation for what the reader will find if they decide to page through Barber's work, and it has the added bonus of claiming that we were dealing with a story of psychological horror this whole time.  Nothing wrong with that, of course.  In the hands of a real skilled professional, that type of story can be just as spine-chilling as one with ghosts in the walls and monsters under the bed.  What gives me pause in leaving it at just that has to do more with the kind of aura that gets built up around the title antagonist.  The descriptions we're given of Justin's tiger, real or otherwise, makes it seem less like an escaped cat from captivity, and more like some archetypal idea of threat, menace, and perhaps just the faintest hint of nobility, albiet of the deadly variety.  If it's real, that's no ordinary Big Cat.  It's more like this refugee from a Dali painting that's escaped its canvas, and is now running amok in the neighborhood.  All of which is to say the tiger in Barber's story seems to have a bit too much invested in it to be dismissed as any mere animal.   

It leads to a question some may not even think to ask.  What if R.L. Stine is right when he posed his question?  What's if it's not a tiger that's stalking Justin, or at least not "just" a tiger.  What if it's something else, or a bit more than average jungle cat?  This is where I'm sort of indebted to Norjordet's thesis, at least for this part of my thinking on Barber's story.  In his essay, Norjordet mentions the ancient concept "middle spirits", a kind of elemental being which occupies a sort of imaginary, mythological, liminal ground between humans and, say, angels (28).  It's a throwaway line, and it gets mentioned just once in Norjordet's study.  However, the real point here is that I think the scholar might have done us a bit of a favor.  By giving us the word "middle spirit", it is just possible that Norjordet has given us a neat (albeit unintentional) lens from which to view the actions and of Barber's Big Cat.  I have asked whether it might be possible that this imaginary animal shares thematic resemblances, if not outright similarities, with a similar character in an earlier story by Philippa Pearce.  Both narratives center around seemingly ordinary main characters who each encounter, or are haunted by things or ideas that manifest in the form of wild, feline predators.  

The fact that neither author treats this predatory "thing" on a naturalistic level should be a tell-tale sign.  Neither Pearce or Barber is content to let a Big Cat be a mere cat.  In both stories, the titular image of the cat is taken and given an outsized, almost symbolical importance.  This is even more true of Barber's feline, yet even in her own story, Pearce is able to imbue her character with a sense of power, menace, and above all a human intelligence.  Barber's cat may or might not be lacking in this last quality.  It's very hard to tell the way his story is written.  However, whatever Justin's tiger may lack in social graces, it more than makes up for in the level of resonant significance that remains attached to it.  

When the ending roles around, and its time for Barber to bring his title character out of the shadows, and onto the stage, his greatest achievement in these closing pages is that he doesn't play the wrong hand when it counts the most.  Instead, his descriptions do all the necessary heavy lifting.  It allows us to gain a sense of Justin's greatest fears in a way that combines the obligatory genre element of terror with a welcome and compatible ingredient of awe.  Whether or not there really is a monster in this story, or even if it manages to feed at all, what remains certain is that the story itself is interested in a lot more than just a mere jungle dwelling, four legged hunter.  There just seems to be too much power and purpose happening on the page to leave the whole thing at that.  This might also be where Barber's text gets its sense of compelling narrative power.  It's what helps keep the story alive in the mind of the reader, long after they've come to the last page.  It might also be why it rewards coming back to time and again.

Bear in mind, this is all just theorizing on my part.  And I'm not sure how very good I've been at it.  Nevertheless, this examination is far from closed.  There is still a lot more to unpack in this concept of otherworldly animals.  So far we've viewed the whole thing from both a positive and negative light.  One belonged to a children's fantasy written by Philippa Pearce.  This one, however, is a straight-up Horror version of the idea.  That's also sort of the the way things will remain for the last two explorations of this ideas.  That's not a misprint, by the way.  

After giving it some thought, I've decided to see if it isn't possible to examine this concept we've been examining from another angle.  Technically this counts as more like a side-quest excursion.  The next story I'm thinking of can be accused of breaking the rules here.  It doesn't have one of the key features we've been discussing here to the point of having established it as a general theme for the moment.  The main reason for this side-trip at all is because the one thing it does share in common with the other two tales we've been exploring is the concept of an ordinary person having a chance encounter with an otherworldly being, or creature, as he makes his way on an otherwise normal task.  Or is there anything normal about it?  That, however, will have to be a question for another time.


  1. (1) That story about the guy in the coat and hoodie is not terribly dissimilar to Wes Craven's story about the inspiration for Freddy Kruger's look! Pretty creepy, too. I figure, listen to dogs; they know what they're talking about.

    (2) It stands to reason that there are bound to be a legion of good stories in the world whose authors were, essentially, one-hit wonders. It's a bummer in some ways to consider that they are more or less lost to time, but it's kind of cool in another way -- it's like they've left behind these intriguing one-offs scattered around for the random person to discover once in a while. It's obscurity, but it's an appealing sort of obscurity.

    Anyway, I never read Barber's story, but it sounds like it's fun.

    (3) I've certainly read King's, though. It's not one of my favorites, necessarily, but that's elite company; no shame to not make it onto that list. I like the story fine, and probably get closer to loving it than to not.

    Interestingly, I just last night watched a Dollar Baby adaptation of it which changed the tone from semi-mythical to ominous and troubled, and to better results than I'd have expected. The main character in this is a girl, and she needs to go to the restroom because she's just had her first period. So there's a Carrie-esque layer of bullying tacked on; this worked better than I'd have expected, too.

    Since it was an amateur film, the "tiger" is dealt with in interesting fashion. I don't really know what to make of it, but that experience seems to have been accounted for in some way. As she's going to the bathroom, she walks past a bunch of art-project animal masks on the wall. One is missing, and in the bathroom, we see a tiger mask lying there rather than a tiger itself. When the other student goes around the corner, though, we hear sounds of her being eaten; same thing happens to the teacher.

    After that, we see the main kid walking back to class wearing the tiger mask, and when she goes inside all the other kids are wearing masks, too; but of different animals. What's it mean? Beats me, but it's kind of creepy, and that sense of illogical menace kind of works itself around to being similar to the story's go-for-broke illogic.

    (4) It's kind of awful, but I love the cover for that paperback edition of "The Lottery." Well, both of them, actually. I need to read more of her stuff one of these days; all I have ever read is "Hill House," and that only via audiobook.

    (5) Ooh, that's an interesting point about "The Stand."

    1. (1) I was really blending fact with fiction on this one, and the result is still kind of surprising, yet also maybe somewhat gratifying. The funny thing is that it's possible to say I got lucky. Craven, on the other hand? Not so much. Well, okay, it's like yes, he got lucky too. From what I recall of that more famous encounter, it was almost touch and go there for a while.

      And now I'm left to wonder if it wasn't thoughts about this sort of subject might not have been the author's inspiration for the story. Or maybe it's like there are some autobiographical elements to the Barber story. Maybe not as exact and threatening as Craven's, just more that it wouldn't surprise me to learn a lot of the story is really the writer exorcising some old childhood fears that involved imagining bad things waiting for him on walks home as a kid. It just makes me reiterate what I said above, what sane person walks alone at night, let alone lets their freakin' kids do it! That's just sick if you ask me. Who knows, maybe Barber shares (shared?) the sentiment.

      (2) While I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it the ultimate kind of fame, it's probably something that's like, pretty high up there. There's probably needs to be some anthology dedicated to these sorts of writers.

      (3) Hmm, that sounds interesting, at the very least. I guess I never thought of that one as filmable. Then again, anything is possible, I guess.

      From the description, it all sounds like an adolescent, symbolist revenge fantasy. Where did you see this Dollar Film, exactly?

      (4) I's also urge your to read the Norjordet essay cited above, this time just or its own merits. What I like is how it can help clarify not just Jackson, yet also a few (if perhaps not all) things about King's approaches toe writing, especially in relation to Jackson. It's got to be one of the few recommendable pieces of English Major work out there.

      (5) You could also extrapolate further from there, and argue that maybe all Peter Straub did with a novel like "Ghost Story" is to give the trope a gender flip and a change of costume. Trade in the red suit and horns for a sheet and voila! The Ghost Lover (which sounds like a bad V.C. Andrews parody, although hopefully the point doesn't get lost in the irony)!


    2. (3) It was part of that online Dollar Baby film festival which was held in April. I had to miss that, but an acquaintance had me covered with most of them. It's a shame some of these are not available to people, but I guess that's just how Dollar Babies work.

    3. (3) Still sounds like an interesting surrealist puzzle, anyway.