The short story can be a magical thing. It’s a breath, a moment, a captured mood — or an entire teeming world packed into a few pages. Maybe, if it’s really great, it’s both. The only trouble with short stories is that not enough people read them. So, in a series to celebrate Short Story Month (and help you add to your reading list), Flavorwire is asking some contemporary masters of the form to talk about the short stories they love. In this installment, Alissa Nutting, author of the disturbing, wonderful and disturbingly wonderful Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls and the forthcoming novel Tampa, shares a favorite.
Nutting: One of my most beloved short stories is E.T.A. Hoffman’s wicked classic “The Sandman.” It is discomforting to the extreme: eyes are threatened with burning pokers. Minds are lost. Freud cited the story as a prime example of the uncanny. If I were a man, any time I got an unwanted erection I would simply think about this story and it would immediately go away. Yes, it is that unsettling.
Despite the fact that “The Sandman” dutifully includes every single one of what I like to call the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Soap Operas — suicide, obsession, unrequited love, a trip to an asylum, a villain with a physical deformity, a death with mysterious circumstances, and a fraught marital engagement — the story largely avoids melodrama, in part due to its eccentric macabre content (it’s far more Tales from the Crypt than General Hospital; in addition, due to the character of Olympia, who is an animatronic woman and the closest early 1800s literature probably came to imagining a sexbot, it’s not a stretch to posit this story as being a horror-show cousin to the movie Lars and the Real Girl). But the real sleight of hand Hoffman performs that keeps the tale’s events from veering into the sensationalistic is a narrative bait-and-switch: the story begins in epistolary letters, including ones written by the troubled main character Nathaniel. But the rest of the story comes from an acquaintance of Nathanial’s, allowing the bizarre scenarios that occur to be told from a removed perspective that seems as even-keeled and rational as they come.
One of my friends once swallowed a Xanax without water and it got stuck, very uncomfortably, in the back of his throat. The physical feeling of this was so distressing that he went to the campus health center. It was ironic to the extreme: in taking a pill that was supposed to calm him down, he ended up experiencing an intense level of panic. Thus is the effect of the objective, journalistic-seeming voice the latter half of “The Sandman” is told in: the more it neglects to consider the oddities that are unfolding, the creepier and more insidious they seem.
Now over two centuries old, I feel like this story is even more of a gem today, when so many of our modern horror stories are devoted to supernatural elements. In playing upon our primitive fears of blindness and persecution, this text proves that even more frightening than ghosts or vampires is our own propensity for delusion (or even scarier still, the possibility that our worst fears actually are coming true and we aren’t delusional at all).