Short but perfectly formed

  Jane Austen
  William Golding

The preference seems to be for reading novels these days, and the short story comes a distant second in the popularity stakes. A full length novel allows the reader time to enter the writer’s universe and become fully acquainted with the characters, and there will be twists and turns which can keep him or her guessing until the end. The short story, on the other hand, is generally a simpler affair, where a single idea can be worked through to its logical conclusion. What the reader loses in terms of involvement with the characters should be made up for in other ways, which might be the dramatic impact of the ending, or a sustained or heightened sense of mood or place. The one thing the short story should not try to be is a miniature novel.

One way of getting round some of the limitations of the short story, of course, is to write a series of them about the same set of characters, such as Arthur Conan-Doyle did with the Sherlock Holmes stories. The format allowed him to launch straight into each story without having to worry about setting the scene, giving him the freedom to craft the narrative around the solving of the mystery. It was a freedom he used to brilliant effect in the best of the stories, constructing a tangible atmosphere of menace from what seems on the surface to be a collection of incidental details. In addition, the necessary brevity of the piece generally ensures that the tension is not lost until the final denouement. It is interesting to note that, apart from The Hound of the Baskervilles, the full length novels are not of the same standard.

In her short story The Birds Daphne du Maurier also uses the structure of the narrative to increase the claustrophobic sense of fear, with the Hocken family increasingly penned into their fortified cottage, as the world around them collapses. But the structure also brilliantly highlights the similarities between the father, Nat Hocken, and his avian foes. First we see him sitting out on the cliff top watching the world, much like a gull perched before taking flight. Then there are the trips between his cottage and the farm, either shepherding his children to safety or foraging for supplies in the wrecked farmhouse, each occasion reminiscent of a bird cautiously breaking cover only to quickly return to shelter. And finally, of course, we have the cottage itself, stocked with supplies and with him tirelessly watching over it – the epitome of a nest if ever there was one. We are left with the unmistakable message that Nat Hocken is somehow in tune with the birds, and that is the key to him keeping his family alive.

The story is best known, of course, through the Hollywood film which used it as the starting point for its own much extended plot. Rightfully seen as a classic, it is an archetypal Hitchcock thriller which still makes enjoyable viewing even if aspects now seem very dated. We may cringe at the 1950s-style flirting between the two main characters, but the film is still unsettlingly scary in parts. Not, however, as unsettling as the original, probably for the very reasons which made the film such a success – the two glamorous leads with their romantic subplot, and the more reassuring ending.

The Hocken family are distinctly unglamorous, living as they do in their austere Cornish cottage, and Nat is the antithesis of a Hollywood hero. He is not even an example of the ordinary guy who wins through because, as I mention above, he is in many ways a rather curious character. The second reason the original story is more unsettling is to do with the nature of the short story: because the writer has invested less time and effort in creating the characters, there is less concern for what happens to them at the end. If the story demands that they must all meet a grisly fate, well – so be it. In The Birds, of course, it is not the Hocken family who meet such a fate, but possibly the rest of civilisation. All we know for sure is that BBC radio broadcasts have gone off air (there is no TV in the cottage) and Mrs Hocken can find no foreign stations as she tunes the dial. So in the space of a few pages the reader is forced to confront the fact that the Hocken family’s life and death struggle is actually a rare example of human resistance in what has become a global catastrophe. The bleak, sudden and largely unresolved ending is what gives the story its power to unsettle the reader, a quality which could easily be dissipated in a full length novel.

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