"Come Closer" (The Magazine of Horror, 1965), though I'm sure many people would disagree and be perfectly right for themselves, is for me not much more than a good, solid triviality of a ghost story. It gives the ordinary uncomfortable pleasures of the typical ghost story; it emerges out of the kind of repressed social realities that ghost stories typically emerge out of (here, the silence and misdirected blame surrounding the oppression of children); in the usual ghost-story way it fails (or is not interested or refuses) to resolve or even say much about this reality beyond (and this is not nothing, it is far from nothing) insisting that it exists. Those for whom ghost stories are more central to life than they are for me will no doubt have stances on the import and ethics of all this; I am unresolved and am OK with remaining that way. What interests me enough to write about it — and gives me the ability to write about it (as I was not similarly interested and/or able to write about the four variously decent-to-excellent stories between it and the last one I wrote about, wow, almost a year and a half ago) — is a very small thing in the story's opening sentence.
By coincidence, immediately before reading "Come Closer" I had read Dambudzo Marechera's short story "Burning in the Rain" (in the collection The House of Hunger). Marechera's story is written in what I'm coming (in this early stage of my acquaintance with his work) to recognize as his characteristically horrifying language, adjectives clashing violently with their nouns, similes leading the mind so far astray that it is only with wrenching effort that it can find its way back to what is putatively being narrated — and having done so find it, and the act of telling it, dramatically transformed. Apart from this (if there can be said to be an "apart from this") it is, or would be, a fairly typical story, if atypical in its perspective, of individual mental/emotional states, to which the third-person narrator has fantastical and somehow uncontroversial access — a completely ordinary tactic in contemporary fiction, but one which I increasingly find difficult to submit myself to, increasingly find ethically questionable (or maybe better to say, I'm increasingly giving myself permission to acknowledge to myself that I feel this way and to take the feeling seriously).
But the first sentence of Marechera's story is: "The mirror, I suppose, was at the heart of it." In addition to promising an "it" that the story will be about and a "heart of it" that the story will attempt to get at (promises that will not be broken) this sentence also gives us an "I" — a perspective, a vantage point, an origin (albeit one that explains nothing, a point of instability itself in seek of an origin) — an I that, unlike the mirror and the heart of it, will never return. But this is no mere throat-clearing, no mere covering-of-the-bases hoping to excuse coming misbehavior but having no effect on it. This opening I and its act of supposing cast themselves over the entire rest of the story; every time it tells us that he or she did or felt or thought this or that in this language and structure that impart meaning and lead us to interpretation, we remember, or sense, that it is all the action of an I that is supposing. Which is not to say that the story then melts into subjective nothingness: rather that it does not let us forget that is not the revealed transcendental truth but rather a truth of experience and life, and the story is all the more urgent and necessary for it.
The grammar of Russ's story is almost the inverse of Marechera's. Here it is at the surface of the events more than in the revealing language used to describe them that there is violent juxtaposition; here an I gives us only what it (she) saw and thought, only its limited perspective, and any suppositions it makes are those of the familiar processes of inductive and deductive reasoning in the face of information and event. And here the opening sentence gives us an it — very much the same kind of it that we saw in the opening of "Burning in the Rain" — an it and its action that, unlike Marechera's it and like his I, never return: "Well, I'll tell you, it began the day I was out on the Jewett Ridge looking for Sarah Howe's little boy that had got lost."
It began — began, indeed, on the very day that we are about to hear about. But this is doubly false, or at least doubly perplexing. The first reason is inherent in the fact that this is, after all, a ghost story, hence by its nature about the ongoing presence of the past: of course "it began" earlier than at the beginning. And the second is that a beginning implies a continuation, and not only does our narrator here (one Mrs. Mill) give us no real clue as to what "it" is that she thinks "began" on that day, she also gives us no way of knowing in what sense it then went on. Does she mean the destruction of the house, which she tells us she thinks is necessary (or rather, tells us that she said it was necessary)? Does she mean her efforts to convince people that this is necessary (which she gives us one example of, on the same day that she says it began, and no indication of whether or not such efforts were in fact ongoing)? Were there further incidents like the one of Sarah Howe's little boy (the nature of which she heavily implies but never actually tells*)?
*Unless you take the final sentence, five words forming their own isolated paragraph, as this telling. For me they are unnecessary, a drawing-back from the nature of the story that had preceded them in much the same way as the final sentence/paragraph of "Nor Custom Stale" — which I see looking back that I refrained, perhaps disingenuously, from quoting in my post about it.
This misleading or perplexing opening — which for its narrator if not for the story we read is a throat-clearing, an ordinary way of beginning an anecdote — echoes through the whole story, unseating the authority of what the (in general a bit oblivious) narrator tells us, leading us to anticipate a something that never comes; the way it emphasizes the beginning-ness of the story as a whole (i.e., emphasizing the absence of ongoingness in what we're told) may even suggest that at this early date Russ is already wondering why it is that her beloved horror stories tend only to suggest politics rather than possessing and acting on them. At the same time it brings us back to many of those interrelated matters which, as I've been circling around in this series of posts, run through almost all of her work: the gathering up of past and future into the present (or rearrange that as appropriate); the refusal of fraudulent certainties without abandoning — indeed in order to allow — material action against oppression; and with that "I'll tell you, it began" — so similar to and so different from the "I suppose" of Marechera — the foregrounding of the acts of telling and creating, and of the responsibilities that come with them.