31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 27: “The Angle of Horror” by Cristina Fernandez Cubas; Emily Davis, trans.
From A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction
“Cristina Fernández Cubas is part of the lineage of female writers with a special gift for the short story,” writes Valerie Miles, editor of the anthology A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. “Far from more popular forms,” Miles continues, “Fernández Cubas stuck, from the beginning, to the genre of the short story to show her vision of the world: an estranged look in the face of the thing that reality, so alien and changeable, presents on a daily basis.”
In her own introduction to the selections reproduced in the anthology, Fernández Cubas writes, “For a long time, the short story wasn’t highly respected in Spain. Or, wrongly, it was considered an apprenticeship, a stepping-stone to the novel.” One might add that this phenomenon is not unique to Spain; Canadian publishers, looking at the dismal sales figures for short-story collections, frequently sign debuts on the understanding that the follow-up will be a novel, and their hearts tend to sink when an established veteran (at least one whose surname isn’t Munro) turns in a short-fiction manuscript as their next book.
Fernández Cubas elaborates on the relatively depressed state of the short story as a fictional genre, and the possible reasons for this:
If I were to reread the interviews I did in 1980, when I published my first book, I imagine I would be surprised by two things: the insistence on asking me when I was going to write a novel, and my stubbornness (of which I’m more than proud) in defending the short story and making it clear that it is a genre in and of itself. … And I’ll mention something that lots of people overlook and that might clarify the reason the short story still isn’t as popular and as widespread as the novel. The reader. The marvelous reader of stories. An accomplice. Because it’s a very special reader who appreciates intensity more than length, who isn’t lazy, and above all – contrary to what people believe – who isn’t hurried. A reader who doesn’t mind going back to the beginning if something isn’t entirely clear, who doesn’t mind meditating a while upon reaching the end. In sum, an active reader.
Fernández Cubas concludes that “there are more and more readers like that” and “there are more and more writers cultivating the genre. Now there are a lot of us. And that suggests that the short story is in excellent health.” The second part of her assertion – that writers continue to focus on short fiction – is true enough, though the success of the genre at the cash register, at least in North America, would argue against the genre’s health, at least relative to the novel or other robust genres, such as memoir or cookbooks.
And part of the reason for this has to be, as Fernández Cubas posits, the difficulty stories present for the reader. It is frequently assumed that because stories are short, they are therefore easy to consume, but precisely the opposite is true in the vast majority of cases. Stories are more closely related to poetry than to the novel, and they make many of the same demands on a reader. The concentration of language, far from allowing a casual perusal, means that a reader must remain attentive to every word, because every word is working toward what Poe referred to as the single effect the story is attempting to create. And stories are often more mysterious than novels: their meanings are more difficult to tease out, and their tactics – what is left out is frequently as important as, if not more important than, what gets put in – make demands that readers are not always comfortable with.
Certainly Fernández Cubas herself is a demanding writer. “The Angle of Horror” borrows tropes from genre fiction, but is more closely aligned with a kind of metaphysical writing, a philosophical interrogation of the nature of existence, and a meditation on death as a part of the human condition. “I like to move in everyday scenarios,” the author says, “where, suddenly, a disruptive element barges in. I don’t know if it can be considered a ‘fantastic’ technique, or if, on the contrary, it constitutes something just as real as life itself.”
The disruptive element in “The Angle of Horror” follows on the return of Carlos to his family home after an extended stay in Brighton. Carlos returns on September 2 (Fernández Cubas is very specific about the date), and he appears a “little skinnier, quite a bit taller, and much paler.” He immediately locks himself in his room and refuses to emerge except for meals. His mother thinks that he has fallen in love and is feeling pangs of separation, but his sister, Julia, thinks there must be more to his strange condition.
Fernández Cubas calls “The Angle of Horror” one of her coldest stories, but says that “it’s also the best reflection of my poetics, of the importance I give to something so inseparable from the genre as perspective. In ‘The Angle of Horror’ everything is perspective.” She means this quite literally. When Julia finally gets Carlos to confide in her, he confesses that when he returned, he was struck by something uncanny to do with the family home; because of “some strange gift or curse” he is able to see the home “from an unusual angle,” which he characterizes as “a strange angle that horrifies [him] but doesn’t stop being real.”
Two elements of perspective are at work here: on the level of the story, there is the literal element of the “angle” that Carlos sees, a tilt or fracture that appears frightening but completely real and inexplicable. But there is also the technical matter of perspective in the story’s narration. Significantly, the story is not told from the perspective of Carlos, but at one remove, from Julia’s point of view. This provides a kind of psychic distance, and allows the reader a stand-in, someone who experiences Carlos’s existential terror from the outside. Julia acts as the reader’s surrogate, which allows Fernández Cubas to pull a bait-and-switch in the final stages of the story, implicating the reader in the story’s philosophical implications.
“The Angle of Horror” is an example of the difficulty stories can pose, but it is also an example of how much a talented writer can cram into a brief space. The story may appear on the surface to be a simple tale of existential dread – the author cites Poe and Kafka as influences – but there is much more going on at the level of implication, which is ultimately what makes the story so unsettling. It is not what happens to Carlos that disturbs us when we’ve finished reading. It is what has happened to us.