Here’s a post from the road, and happy holidays to everyone! Today I’ll be writing about Graham Greene’s short story “The End of the Party”. It’s a non-horror story but it might as well be.
Since I’m pretty well caught up on most of my horror story collections back in the city and I’m eagerly awaiting a package of more than enough new books from Dark Regions Press, I thought I would take the opportunity to do a little bit of cross-reading. It’s a piece of advice that frequently comes up – writers should read outside their genre. There are, of course, technical benefits (such as getting outside perspective on how to structure plot, characterization, dialogue, etc. ), but perhaps more fundamentally important is the fact that there is so much good literature out there, you should cast your net as wide as possible.
Anyway, in an article extolling the virtues of cross-reading, Joe R. Lansdale mentioned that he learned a lot from Graham Greene . While having an awareness of the author and, of course, the song by John Cale,I had never actually read anything by Greene. So I resolved to change that.
The oft-quoted Kids in the Hall routine about Greatest Hits albums aside (they’re for “old ladies and little girls“), I’m a sucker for an omnibus when it comes to getting a toe-hold in an oeuvre that I know nothing about. Therefore, both preference and convenience compelled me to purchase Penguin’s Portable Graham Greene from Barnes and Noble while I finished my Christmas shopping.
Of special note, I really want to highlight the first story in the fiction section, “The End of the Party.” It’s a particularly well-polished and clever little tale, but I think it gets some excellent use out of a few horror tropes and one particularly nasty bit that makes it worth special mention here at Grizzly Spectacles.
It was apparently written in 1929, when Greene would have been around 25 and well on the early side of his career. In that, it’s missing some elements that particularly came to be Greene’s hallmarks. By this I mean in particular the low-key choice of protagonists and settings (twin brothers and a children’s birthday party), as well as the fact that merely flipping a few pages forward to his later work will highlight the dearth of dialogue (although what is there, particularly the first log exchange between Francis and Peter, is very good at revealing the characters without ever becoming merely expository). That said, The End of the Party has particularly nice elements of tone, foreshadowing, and, I think, a particularly chilling ending.
It’s hard to discuss without giving too much away, so I’ll give you a link (read it here). Once you’ve read it, I can point out what I like in non-spoiler-ish ways.
Overall, the most effective and important tonal element is the deathly seriousness of children. While children are usually either paragons if innocence or (particularly in horror) cyphers of alien malevolence, Greene does an excellent job of reminding me of how children can be almost ridiculously solemn at times. I think youth is time of extremes, and while theres some humor that comes from hearing young Francis proclaim that he’ll absolutely die if he has to go the party, the solemnity of his oath on the Bible, his feeling of weakness before 12 year old Mabel who of course is old enough to be out without her nurse, or Peter’s deep concern for protecting his brother while a the same time trying to avoid embarrassing him in front of the kids who call him “Cowardy Cowardy custard.” Much of this story seem like a drawing room drama enacted by preteens, which is amusing but also highlighted by some interesting choices of tone and diction, including some delightfully wry descriptions. Of course, by the end, the humor is gone . . .
Against this heightened emotional backdrop, there are a few tonal accents that I think appropriately guide the overall aesthetic and set up and ending that is quietly devastating, but not unforeseen. Although I could try to explicate them more fully, I’ll content myself with just listing them: the foreshadowing of Francis’s dream; the “dark bird” imagery (contrasted with the mentions of egg and spoon races? Is there something about fragility and new life threatened by childish games, or us that merely a bit of local color that I read too much into?); the description of children moving around in the dark room (which doesn’t so much seem sinister or tense, which is odd in a game of hide and seek, but rather that the children are lost and fumbling through the darkness, where it may actually be worse to find someone you know than to remain hidden between the oak bookcase and the leather settee).
There is also an interesting element in that Francis’s embarrassment at last year’s party came at the hands of Joyce and Mabel Warren, otherwise peripheral characters. I hesitate to read too much into it, but I’m sure a reader could mine a lot of thematic material (rightly or wrongly) from the 10th paragraph re: Mabel Warren. For my part, I’ve already done too much speculating about egg-and-spoon races.
Finally, I will say that the last sentence is heartbreaking and spiritually tragic. It elevates what could have been a run-of-the-mill twist in the final paragraph to something that really stands out. Hidden depths of tension that the reader wasn’t aware had been building throughout the story are at once let loose. But now, this is the end, and with no answers to be had, the reader is as alone as either Peter or Francis Morton.