Bump. Thump. Rattle. A haunting. More psychological than physical. That’s the one that bruises.
Why do some stories stick with us? What is it about a particular book or movie that haunts us, that when we wake up the morning after, we see the world differently? I use the word “haunt” deliberately, because I’ve just had an experience where the characters in a story are – like specters – following me around as I move through the mundane moments of my life, asking questions about my motivations and ambitions. It’s creepy, that words on a page can be formed in such a way as to mold a person who – despite never really existing – can have more impact on our lives than people we’ve known in real life for decades. Such is the power of character, and story.
The book I’m talking about in this case is J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. And, just so we’re clear, this post isn’t mean as an ode to this book. It’s simply the food that spurred the thought. Because – as I mentioned above – since I closed the book Friday night, it’s been tailing me. It’s wormed its way inside, and refuses to leave. And I have a feeling it’s the kind of story that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Obviously, I subscribe to the stories-as-mirrors theory (See the blog post on Hamlet from a few years back). Stories at their best force us to look deep inside, to confront deep-seated apprehensions, fears, dreams, etc. In the case of Vacancy, the things I was forced to confront were deep, dark, graphic, and bleak. This wasn’t so much a journey into my own consciousness, as some of my most memorable reading experiences have been. This was a journey into the dark heart of man, a trip into what a wretched, selfish, lying creature man is. As quoth The Shadow, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man?”
Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t ordinarily favor stories of this kind. I’m fond of telling people, “I know from personal experience how awful people are. I don’t need a story to tell me that.” But this time, it was different. In retrospect, I was probably blindsided, initially, by my own spoiler-free wishes. I honestly thought, J.K. Rowling. Small-town England story. Should be a quaint little trip. So by the time I got to know the narrative’s true colors, I was hooked and it was too late.
But there was something about the characters, the psychological realism combined with the omniscient narrative voice’s underlying sympathy – perhaps even pity – for these twisted, lying people, that burrowed its way in. I saw – as I believe is always the case in successful stories of this nature – far too much of myself in them to dismiss it as sensationalism or darkness for shock value purposes.
In Annie Dillard’s essay, “Total Eclipse,” she describes the experience of witnessing a solar eclipse. The awful realization that the world is being overcome by darkness, combined with the speed at which the daylight gives ground, makes Dillard fall to the ground in sheer terror. It can be bleak, down at the bottom of the well, in the middle of the night. But in this case, that was exactly the experience I needed to take. In this case, the story that showed me a part of life that was completely foreign to my experiences is the one that will stick with me. I’ve had students tell me they experienced this with Ishmael Beah’s Long Way Gone or Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Ben Affleck’s frightening Gone Baby Gone. Heck, even Shawshank had this dynamic at work. May we be so lucky as to find a handful of stories like this in our lives.
What’s the point? I’ll let Samwise Gamgee sum it up:
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.