“The Moment of Decision” — Perched on the Edge of What Happens Next (by Art Taylor)

This week, as promised, we have a post by Art Taylor, a writer whose reviews and critical essays are regularly featured in magazines and newspapers. The authors whose work he discusses here are some of my favorites (and I hope yours too), including the late, great Stanley Ellin. — Janet Hutchings

My wife and I have recently been working our way through the bulk of Stanley Ellin’s contributions to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, courtesy of The Specialty of the House & Other Stories: The Complete Mystery Tales 1948-78. I read the stories aloud, giving us the chance to savor the sound of Ellin’s style, but as much as we admire that finely honed prose, what has given Ellin such lasting renown in the pantheon of short story writers is surely the precision of his plotting: the clockwork accuracy by which each element of a given tale contributes subtly, effortlessly, inexorably toward some crushing plot turn or crisp final image. Reflecting in the collection’s introduction on the short story writers who influenced him, Ellin himself praised how De Maupassant “reduced stories to their absolute essence” and how his endings, “however unpredictable,” ultimately seemed “as inevitable as doom”—qualities which Ellin emulated and perfected in his own work.

For many reasons, Ellin’s short fiction also calls to mind John Updike’s often-quoted criteria for judging a short story’s success: “I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences,” Updike said, “and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a sensation of completed statement.” Ellin’s finest stories seem to succeed on these terms as well: drawing readers in quickly, turning a clear eye on some aspect of human nature (often the darker recesses of it, admittedly), and regularly bringing a perfect sense of closure to his tales—often with cruel little twists, as in “The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby,” “The Best of Everything,” or “The Betrayers,” for example.

But as I think more about Updike’s criteria and about Ellin’s stories, I find myself stumbling a little over that “completed statement” phrase. While I too feel the sense of rightness about a ultra-tidy, ultra-unified resolution, I can’t help but notice that several of Ellin’s best-known and best-loved works end somewhere shy of telling the full story, instead leaving the reader him- or herself to fill in some of the blanks. “The Specialty of the House,” for example, lays out all the clues behind the culinary masterpieces at Sbirro’s but we readers have to figure out exactly what’s going on back in that kitchen. At the end of “The House Party,” Ellin provides glimpses of the true nature of the festivities but then leaves us uneasily sorting through the larger ramifications. And in that much-reprinted masterpiece “The Moment of Decision,” Ellin brilliantly tightens, tightens, tightens the suspense until an ending where we…. Well, I won’t spoil that ending here, but suffice it to say (to draw on the title of our new blog here) that “Something Is Going To Happen” is both a good definition of how the mystery and suspense story works and perhaps also a good place to end such a story, just on the edge of the something else, something new that might happen next. As EQMM editor Janet Hutchings herself wrote in the inaugural post for this blog, “Usually that important ‘something’ will occur within the pages of the story, though in some cases the story may build toward it and stop before the critical moment, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination.”

Open-ended stories like “The Moment of Decision” can be found across various genres: Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” is a frequently taught example from the annals of science fiction; Raymond Carver’s “The Bath” fits the bill (though not the alternate (original) version of that same storyline, “A Small, Good Thing”); and each time I’ve taught Joyce Carol Oates’ tautly suspenseful “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” my students have left their reading with more questions than answers—but profitably so, I should stress. The unresolved ending isn’t necessarily restricted to short fiction either; one of my favorite novels of recent years, Tana French’s In The Woods, continues to provoke controversy for what’s not explained by the book’s close. (And when I put out a call on Facebook for suggestions of more such stories, I discovered some new ones I haven’t yet read: Frank Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?” and Italo Calvino’s interlinked story collection If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Perhaps readers here could suggest others as well?)

As the few examples above might suggest, darker stories (whatever the genre) perhaps lend themselves more readily to such endings — the pervasive sense of unease in noir, for example, setting the stage for a persistent lack of resolution. And as if in confirmation of that idea, a story I read just a few nights ago, Ed Gorman’s “Out There in the Darkness” from The Best American Noir of the Century, ended with a brilliant and brooding sense of anticipation about what still lies ahead for the narrator:

I look at the empty chairs and think back to summer.
I look at the empty chairs and wait for the phone to ring.
I wait for the phone to ring.

In a similar vein, Daniel Woodrell’s recent short story collection, The Outlaw Album—excerpts of which I just finished teaching for a class on American Noir—offers a couple of examples of how such endings can both resist resolution (or even explanation) and yet still seem complete and satisfying. In “Floriane,” a father struggles to come to terms with his daughter’s disappearance, but while the story offers suspects aplenty, what happened to the girl is never revealed—the narrator’s lingering, inescapable state of suspicion and distrust becoming the point of the story, in fact. And in “Night Stand,” a Vietnam vet named Pelham defends himself and his wife against an intruder who appears at the foot of the couple’s bed in the middle of the night, naked and growling—a man who turns out to have been a vet as well (Gulf War) and the son of one of Pelham’s oldest friends. At story’s end, Pelham himself strips off his own clothes and stands at the back deck, growling toward the perimeter of his own yard—a perfect circle of sorts for the story’s imagery, a fresh balance it seems, except for the fact that Pelham’s actions may likely prove as inexplicable to the reader as they are to his wife, standing just inside the door, watching him. (And yet despite what my students seemed to think, that final scene shouldn’t be inexplicable for an engaged reader, and at least one of the questions the wife asks Pelham toward the story’s close should help point the way toward unraveling what’s going on.)

Coming back again to EQMM: One of my favorite authors among the magazine’s regular contributors is David Dean (a widespread assessment apparently, given his frequent appearances on EQMM’s annual readers’ polls), and a couple of Dean’s best stories also come to mind as I’m writing this—both because each of them stops short of the climax and because each echoes with some part of Woodrell’s “Night Stand.” In the very short and very chilling “Awake” (July 2009), the middle of the night becomes a time for memories and menacing sounds and perhaps more. And in “Ibrahim’s Eyes” (June 2007), as crisply structured a story as I know, an ex-Marine working the night shift at the Quik and EZ Mart reflects on his troubled stint in Beirut as he preps to defend the convenience store against a rash of late-night robberies; what happens just beyond the final lines of the story is surely inevitable—as inevitable as doom—and yet I’d argue that the ending is so provocative and so moving precisely because it stops just short of the “what happens next,” requiring us to finish out that last bit of the story ourselves, fill that blank space just beyond the final sentence with our own imagination, our own emotions. (Incidentally, each of these stories has been included as part of EQMM’s podcast series—easy access for interested readers/listeners.)

Finishing the story ourselves—that’s basically how these open endings work. These and other writers don’t just tell us what happened but instead force us to become an active part of the storytelling, at the very least puzzling out the “Why?” and “What if?” and “But suppose…” possibilities, or trying to tie up the loose ends left purposefully dangling, or supplying the emotional responses underplayed by the author, or at the further extreme, having some hefty moral quandaries laid at our doorsteps, as Ellin’s “The Moment of Decision” so expertly does.

In that tale and others mentioned here, the “sensation of completed statement” that Updike praises isn’t necessarily something that’s “given” to us readers. Instead, it’s something that we earn, both along the way and well past the time we turn the final page. — Art Taylor

Art Taylor’s short stories have appeared frequently in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and two of his EQMM stories have won Derringer Awards: “Rearview Mirror” in 2011 and “A Drowning at Snow’s Cut” in 2012. In addition to his short fiction, he is a professor of English at George Mason University, a frequent reviewer of mysteries and thrillers for the Washington Post, and a regular contributor to Mystery Scene. For more information, visit www.arttaylorwriter.com.

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5 Responses to “The Moment of Decision” — Perched on the Edge of What Happens Next (by Art Taylor)

  1. Pingback: Guest Posts, Two Blogs « Art & Literature

  2. Robert Lopresti says:

    I love Ellin. My favorite story of his is “The Payoff.” Part of the genius of this tale is that the fact that the reader will never guess what is going to happen is PRECISELY THE POINT that Ellin and the protagonist are making. “You don’t know anything…”

    I thought my first published story had a perfectly reasonable ending but for a year afterwards every time I ran into a certain acquaintance she would glare at me and ask “What happened NEXT?”

  3. Art, I was really caught by this passage in your blog: “As the few examples above might suggest, darker stories (whatever the genre) perhaps lend themselves more readily to such endings — the pervasive sense of unease in noir, for example, setting the stage for a persistent lack of resolution. And as if in confirmation of that idea, a story I read just a few nights ago, Ed Gorman’s ‘Out There in the Darkness’ . . . ended with a brilliant and brooding sense of anticipation.”

    In the Gorman story, it’s not certain, is it, that this terrible thing anticipated is actually going to happen? That sets it apart from two of the other stories you mentioned, “The Moment of Decision,” in which the clock is ticking down and even inaction will bring about a result, and “Ibrahim’s Eyes,” in which the reader is certain of what comes next, and it’s going to happen in the next instant.

    I’d never thought about noir fiction in quite this way before, but I think I agree with what you seem to be suggesting, that to sustain the brooding mood of a noir piece to the end, there may need to be less resolution than you’d find in other stories. An interesting thought, anyway. . . .

    • Art Taylor says:

      Thanks for the comments here — and yes, it’s the lingering nature of that uncertainty in the Gorman story that haunts a little, to my mind, while in Ellin’s “Moment of Decision,” what persists is (perhaps) a debate about what the protagonist should do in those next anxious moments — a decision we could debate quite a bit, I think, guessing at what’s going on, second-guessing, etc.

      Looking back over my post, I realize (now!) that it could certainly be organized a little more cleanly. I treated the topic in a little bit of a free-form way, but these various endings could be grouped in several ways: endings where the next step is certain (which work on an emotional level, perhaps); endings where something immediate will happen but we don’t know what; and the most open-ended stories where the plot could continue into an indefinite future…. And that’s also just a quick assessment; perhaps many other ways to characterize/organize as well: how different subgenres might treat such an ending; moral versus emotional elements; levels of uncertainty, etc.

      Thinking about it, I’ve actually been considering the idea of fleshing out a more formal essay for someplace…. We’ll see!

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