Thursday 22 March 2012

Strange Stories #9. Tell Me I'll See You Again by Dennis Etchison

Strange Story #9:  Tell Me I'll See You Again
Author: Dennis Etchison
Book of Horrors
Anthologised In: A Book Of Horrors

"This isn't a game."
"Sure it is. We used to play it last summer. Remember?"

I haven't read many stories by Dennis Etchison, but each one I have read has been good enough to make me question why that is. This particular story appeared in A Book Of Horrors, an excellent anthology of stories from which it would be tough to pick a favourite. Etchison's Tell Me I'll See You Again would be in the running though.

Despite the anthology's title, and the grinning skull on the cover I'm not sure this is a horror story though. I don't think 'strange stories' have to be (and the editor Stephen Jones obviously doesn't either). Tell Me I'll See You Again's main mood is one of elegiac melancholy, not horror.

In his comments on the story's inspiration in the book, Etchison says it came from remembering how he and his friends used to stage mock accidents at the side of the road, to freak out passing motorists. The story begins with Sherron and Vincent finding their friend David apparently hit by a truck:

"Not bad." Vincent walked around the crash scene. "I'll give you a seven."

Sherron doesn't score her friend's death; she acts as if it were real. In fact, as if David were dead. She taps his head against the pavement, and his eyes open again.

"I knew he was faking," Vincent said.

But it's not entirely certain who is faking, or what they are faking. The mysterious Sherron also seems to bring back to life a possum, and a dead cricket she put in her shirt pocket. But couldn't the cricket have been alive all the time, and aren't possums well know for playing, well, possum?

The story makes this explicit: Sherron is doing a school project on 'thanatosis' - animals playing dead for defence. It also emerges that David's brother and mother died in a traffic accident, on a trip he was supposed to be on, and that he has been having 'fake deaths' since... or so he and Sherron seem to believe. Can we trust a kid's version of what is happening? And actually, just who is telling this story? (An ambiguity Etchison says in his afterword is deliberate). The first line of the story is:

Say it happened like this:

Hardly the most reassuring opening if we want to be sure that yes, it did happen like this. (It shows how precise Etchison's prose is that just that first word of the sentence subtly changes it's effect on us.)

And then, at a point towards the end of the story, where most authors would offer some kind of explanation, Etchison pulls off the most remarkable trick - after spending most of the story describing events of a few hours at most, he suddenly covers years in just a few paragraphs. It's the literary equivalent of that jump-cut in 2001 A Space Odyssey. You'll end up reading these paragraphs a few times, as the ambiguities of the story seem to grow exponentially. Did David really suffer from fake deaths and come back to life? Did Sherron bring him back or was that coincidence? Was there ever really even a girl called Sherron? Who is telling this story, and why, and who to?

There's no answers, but Echison rewards you a final line which is so perfect and haunting that you'll not care a jot. And then, if you're anything like me, you'll go right back to the start and read this stunning again.

Next Week: Strange Stories #10. Dress Of White Silk by Richard Matheson

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