Yoking the advantages of the familiar in short-short
fiction is essential in creating economical fictions.
As readers of fiction, we know, however, that a work must
contain more than just familiar situations, characters,
endings, and settings. A short fiction quickly becomes
dull if it doesn't contain possibilities, events, feelings,
or characters outside of our everyday experience. We know
intuitively that good creative writing almost always contains
unexpected or unpredictable elements. Like all other fiction,
short-shorts must also have a mix of the familiar and
the unfamiliar. Short-short fiction, however, is unique
in the extent to which it exaggerates their coexistence.
The familiar, by definition, is easy to recognize and
grasp. The unfamiliar, however, tends to defy our attempts
to categorize it. We can begin to discuss the unfamiliar,
however, by examining what critics of Gothic literature
term the "uncanny." In Gothic literature, the
"uncanny" is the element of a fiction which
creates frightening or disturbing effects. In Freud's
essay "The Uncanny," the German words heimlich
and unheimlich are related to our English definition of
uncanny. Heimlich literally translates as "belonging
to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly"
(Freud 222). Unheimlich, its opposite, means "concealed,
kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of
or about it, withheld from others." While Freud's
discussion of the heimlich and unheimlich goes on to complicate
these definitions to the point where he demonstrates that
heimlich can be virtually identical in meaning to its
supposed antonym, his ideas still apply readily to short-short
fiction. Freud says of fiction writing: "In the first
place, a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would
be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place
there are many more means of creating uncanny effects
than there are in real life" (Freud 249). How does
a fiction writer create an uncanny effect? By adding the
unheimlich to his tame, familiar, heimlich fictional world.
Although Freud primarily examines Gothic literature in
"The Uncanny," his discussion can be modified
to apply to fiction as a whole. In Gothic fiction, the
unheimlich produces frightening or repulsive effects.
In fiction as a whole, it is an essential ingredient in
creating tension. The unheimlich alters the reading pattern.
It dislocates the reader, forces him out of the realm
of the familiar, and replaces the ability to predict with
uncertainty. The writer of fiction can employ the unheimlich,
Freud says, because he has the license to "select
his world of representation so that it either coincides
with the realities we are familiar with or departs from
them in what particulars he pleases" (249). Short-short
fiction takes advantage of this license to great effect.
The genre heightens the conflict between what is unknown,
unexpected, or non-native with what is native and familiar.
Lex Willford uses the heimlich and unheimlich in tandem
to produce an effective short-short piece in "Pendergast's
Daughter," for example. His first two paragraph's
sketch out a very familiar situation, a man meeting his
fiancé's parents for the first time:
Leann and I were driving to her father's new A-frame on
Lake Nacogdoches, and I was nervous about meeting her
folks the first time.
Relax, Leann said. Drink a few Old Mils
with Dad, maybe catch a largemouth or two off the dock
Saturday. When I got the nerve Sunday, she said, I could
spring the news on the old man about wanting to marry
his little girl. Then the two of us could get the hell
out, head on back to Dallas. Lighten up, she kept saying.
Few readers would be unable to supply the implications
of this common and recognizable situation. The narrator
is nervous he might not get Leann's parents' approval.
Given the casualness of Leann's reassurance, however,
it seems as if everything will go smoothly. As Baxter
says, "We've seen that before. We know where we are."
Williford, however, quickly alters our sense of the familiar
in his third paragraph:
The lake house was all glass in front
so from the gravel drive we could see Mrs. Pendergast
inside, slapping the old man's face. Once, twice, then
again. She shouted something about him not having any
goddamn imagination, about some girl, twenty-six years
old, young enough to be his goddamn daughter. He took
her flat palms, rigid-faced-just stood there blinking
at her. Then his face fell all apart, and he hit her in
the sternum with his fist. She staggered back through
the open door and up to the balcony rail as he hit her
over and over again.