“Through a Title, Darkly” (by Mark Stevens)

Mark Stevens is a former reporter and TV news producer who also spent many years in school public relations before starting his own communications firm. He’s the author of the Allison Coil mystery novels, set in the Colorado Rockies, and was named the 2016 Writer of the Year by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. His Allison Coil series is now five novels strong, but he has so far written very little short fiction. His first short story for EQMM, “A Bitter Thing,” appears in our current issue, May/June 2019. In this post, the author reflects on a title we’ve all seen used to convey suspense.—Janet Hutchings

Head to that big online store and type in Through A Glass, Darkly.

Go ahead, I’ll wait here.

[Drums fingers . . . rearranges sock drawer . . . ]

See what I mean?

That is one popular title, applied to a wide variety of stories:

Through A Glass, Darkly by Thomas H. Meville: “. . . an Iowa farmer who returned from the Korean War to discover that farming no longer held much allure.”

Through A Glass, Darkly by Gilbert Morris: “Recovering from amnesia caused by severe trauma, a man searches for his identity by connecting with the mysterious people who surround him including a woman who triggers in him intense feelings of electricity.”

(Electricity . . . ? That’s a novel I must read.)

The phrase is old.

Really old.

In the Bible (King James Version), The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

Centuries earlier, the philosopher Plato told the last days of Socrates in Phaedo. In Plato’s version, Socrates talks about the dark realities that lie behind all that we see. He said we see true realities, “through a glass darkly.”

There’s some confusion about the literal translation from the Greek in both Plato’s version and the King James Version, but I’m steering clear of all the religious meanings, except to clarify that “glass” in this case means mirror.

I would also point out that there is ample online discussion on the importance and implications of a comma placed (or omitted) after the word “glass.”

I am lumping all titles together as one—comma variations and non-comma variations.

Again, all you Bible experts, help yourself with the religious gleanings. The theme is what’s unknowable—the mystery of faith and one’s self.  Um, maybe? The original full quote, like lots of the Bible to me, isn’t all that clear.

Mystery Writer Helen McCloy published a short story called “Through A Glass Darkly” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1948. She later expanded it into a 1950 novel by the same name. (For a comparison of the two versions, head to the Bloody Murder website.)

Through A Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy: “Gisela von Hohenems joins the teaching staff of an exclusive girls’ school in upstate New York, where she befriends fellow newcomer Faustina Coyle. But a climate of fear surrounds Faustina, and after several strange incidents that defy rational explanation, she is forced to resign.”

Faustina keeps thinking that people are encountering her doppelgänger.

In the novel, she describes this as:

You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly coloured. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture is vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and—you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself only—there is no mirror. So, you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die . . .

Mrs. Lightfoot, the headmistress who forces Faustina to resign, has her own theories:

I was born without faith in religion and I have lost my faith in science. I don’t understand the theories of Messrs Planck and Einstein. But I grasp enough to realize that the world of matter may be a world of appearances—not a world of reality. Everything we see and hear and touch may be as tricky an illusion as the reflection in a mirror or the mirage in a desert.

More mirrors, more reflections, more references about faith . . .

In 1959, the story was adapted into a teleplay as part of the Saturday Playhouse series.

Ingmar Bergman used the title “Through a Glass, Darkly” for a 1961 noir film involving schizophrenia and hearing the voice of God (there we go again). “The film tells the story of a young woman with schizophrenia spending time with her family on a remote island, and having delusions about meeting God, who appears to her in the form of a monstrous spider.” (That’s from Wikipedia.)

The Swedish title’s direction translation is “As In A Mirror.”

Prior to McCloy’s works, Agatha Christie used the variation In A Glass Darkly in a short story: “A man witnesses a murder of a young girl reflected in a bedroom mirror. Unsure whether it was real, he battles with himself about speaking out about this horrific crime. Will he be taken for a fool or save a life?”

Even General George S. Patton, Jr. got in on the act, writing a famous poem with the same title (I’ve seen it both with and without that key comma):

The key stanza:

So as through a glass and darkly
The age long strife I see
Where I fought in many guises,
Many names – but always me.

Patton’s long poem is about reincarnation. (To which I say, “good luck with that.”) Does Patton’s insertion of the word ‘and’ change the meaning? You be the judge.

Despite the earlier references, it seems fair to say it was Helen McCloy’s version that kick-started the trend.

Whether it was the Apostle Paul, Plato, or Helen McCloy herself, the whole through a glass, darkly phrase taps a dark theme about mirror images of oneself and the vast endless questions about all we don’t know about worlds we can’t see and the human behaviors we observe.

It’s tailor-made for crime fiction.

But one thing is for sure.

You never want to run into your doppelgänger—right?

Doing so is a harbinger of doom—right?

Then why is there a website that helps you find yours?

Yes, Twin Strangers.

The system uses facial recognition software.

So, go ahead, upload a photo.

See what pops up.

You might soon be looking through a glass (comma or not) darkly.

Note: Thanks to my mystery writer friend Z.J. Czupor for inspiring this topic. Z.J. presents regularly at chapter meetings of Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers, offering a “Mystery Minute,” exploration into crime-fiction history. In May, Z.J. focused on this title and on Helen McCloy, who also wrote as Helen Clarkson.

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