Little Black Book of Stories
The books of English author A. S. Byatt are an acquired taste, like fine wine or caviar, but well worth the effort. Readers are probably most familiar with her novel Babel Tower (1996) or the award-winning Possession: A Romance (1990), although her stories and novellas are held in equally high regard. She loves words and color, and her writing is precise, textured, with a bright palette and a preponderance of lists: “the endless shifts in the colour of the sky, trout-dappled, mackerel-shot, turquoise, sapphire, peridot, hot transparent red.”
Byatt's childhood reading, and her later research for an unfinished dissertation on medieval religious allegory, reinforced her interest in the myths and folklore that appear in much of her work. She is a cerebral writer and yet a fabulist, examining always a collision of worlds: past with present, history with legend, art with science, appearance with reality.
Her collection Little Black Book of Stories adds five more tales to her oeuvre. Her American publisher should be applauded for resisting the temptation to translate the occasional Briticism: for example, “humbugs,” which are actually small candies, or “blue john,” a regional name for fluorite. This volume, its faded black jacket reminiscent of a dusty tome on a forgotten shelf, is indeed small enough to hold comfortably in one hand. Its most disturbing fictions, “The Thing in the Forest” and “A Stone Woman,” were published in The New Yorker and may well become classics in themselves.
“The Thing in the Forest” takes place in England in the 1940's and again forty years later, and like some of Byatt's earlier work evokes memories of World War II, which always serves as an important formative experience for her characters. In the midst of the Blitz (the real world), two little girls are evacuated from an endangered city to the relative safety of the countryside, even as Byatt herself once was. Pale, thin Penny and plump, blond Primrose meet and become friends on the grimy evacuation train that carries them past wartime stations that have carefully blacked out their identification. The children are temporarily billeted in an impressive country house until foster families can arrange to take them.
After a lonely night, the city girls feel an urge to explore the nearby forest, a phenomenon they have never before encountered. A very small child named Alys begs to go with them, but they avoid her by running away. Once in the wood, they hear “a crunching, a crackling, a crushing, a heavy thumping, combined with threshing and thrashing,” and inhale “a liquid smell of putrefaction, the smell of maggoty things” (the world of legend). Terrified, they hide from a ghastly Thing that slowly drags itself past them—a monstrous Worm, its body composed of “rank meat, and decaying vegetation” and a face of “pure misery.” Later, when Alys fails to return to the great house, they realize that she must have followed them into the forest, but they say nothing.
Penny and Primrose are separated and sent to live in different foster homes until the war is over. They silently bear the guilt of another child's fate and their own inability to come to terms with what they have seen (and done). In adult life neither marries, yet both dedicate themselves to helping children—Penny as a psychologist and Primrose as an entertainer and storyteller. Four decades elapse before they meet, by chance, at the country house that is now a museum, where they find in an old book an illustration of the legendary Loathly Worm that once inhabited the area. Still, neither woman is certain that she ever really saw it. Penny admits, “I think there are things that are real—more real than we are—but mostly we don’t cross their paths…. Maybe at very bad times we get into their world, or notice what they are doing in ours.”
Each woman returns alone to the wood. Primrose, largely a creature of emotion, fashions a story out of her walk in the forest to calm herself; she “understood something, and did not know what she had understood.” Penny, however, finds herself there at dusk and watches herself as in a dream (although she suspects that the Worm was no dream), but the creature does not show itself. The next day the women silently meet again at the train station, but this time they are mute. Penny, ordinarily a sensible woman, will go once more into the wood to face her fear, even though it may destroy her....
(The entire section is 1840 words.)