Strange Story #12: The Long Sheet
Author: William Sansom
Collected In: not sure, sorry. It doesn't appear to be in the Faber reissued Stories
Anthologised In: The Weird
Such, then, was the task of the captives...
There's a little sub-genre of the weird tale (or sub-sub-genre - like Inception I'm not quite sure how many layers down I am any more) where the story seems like a allegory or parable. I say seems, for the key point is that unlike a straight-forward allegory such as Animal Farm, exactly what the allegory or fable means or represents isn't quite clear. Instead, the reader is left with an undefinable sense that there must be more significance to the tale being told, over and above the literal interpretation of what has happened, but quite what that significance is just beyond reach.
Kafka is the obvious example; in fact so obvious that this blog post was going to be about In The Penal Colony, which is a classic example of what I am thinking of here. But it seemed a bit too obvious so I've been putting off writing about it... and then I read the story The Long Sheet by William Sansom in the anthology The Weird.
Have you ever wrung dry a wet cloth? Wrung it bone white dry - with only the grip of your fingers and the muscles of your arms?
Those are the opening lines, and I was immediately intrigued. The story tells of the clear and unusual punishment facing groups of prisoners, who have to wring dry - bone dry- a vast, long sheet in damp, dreadful conditions. They are promised freedom if they ever succeed. The prisoners are divided into teams and put into separate rooms of the jail to complete their task, and the story largely tells of the different approaches and attitudes each group of people has to the Herculean task...
For anyone who's read any Kafka, the style will seem familiar - the attention to mundane detail and routine, the lack of any real characterisation or world-building beyond the bare minimum, the odd, ritualistic details that are never quite explained... and perhaps most chillingly the idea that everyone has long since forgot why the strange punishment is being enacted, but still it is.
However, Sansom wrote this story before the English translations of Kafka, making it all the more remarkable. Sadly I didn't find the other Sansom story in The Weird as interesting or as good as this one - it seemed more a poor-man's version of The Swords by Robert Aickman, although again it was written before that. However The Long Sheet definitely interested me enough to make me want to read more of this author, who I'd not come across before.
It finishes on a suitable ambiguous note - it seems at first glance like the 'moral' of a traditional allegory, but is it? Is there any universal meaning here, or is it just the guards having a good joke? Or are the guards themselves just part of the vast system of the long sheet, where people's creativity, and faith, and work-ethic, lead to such manifestly pointless results?
The story is told in the form of a fable, but is that form just a hollowed-out shell, containing no deeper meaning, for all our efforts at interpretation? Is reading it an empty ritual, much like the twisting, and twisting of the wet sheet? But all those little, precise details - it must all mean something, surely?
I don't know.
Next Week: Strange Stories #12. Smoke Ghost by Fritz Leiber