The Vertical Ladder by William Sansom, 1960
The magic trick:
Focusing nearly every sentence on the man’s climb
I’m scared of heights. Pretty bad. I get vertigo quickly and I can’t control the images my brain starts producing. Bridges, balconies, and especially airplanes. It’s ugly.
So with that said I’m probably not the toughest reader out there to impress with this story. Still, it’s not everyday that a story can make you feel dizzy and send the sweat glands in your palms into a frenzy. Bravo, Mr. Sansom, you almost gave me a panic attack.
How? Well, obviously, it helps that his audience – me – was susceptible to this kind of fear. But it’s more than that. Sansom is relentless with the action, and he really doesn’t devote much time here to anything but the action. We get no backstory, very little context, even less in the way of characterizations. It’s just boom – young man is climbing an old gas tower and he starts to panic halfway up. That’s it.
It might sound simple, but that kind of focus is rare. Literally, every sentence, once the young man starts up the vertical ladder, is about the climb. He considers every detail of both the climb itself and the sensations the experience is rendering within our climber. I’m getting kind of anxious just recapping right here, no joke. And that’s quite a trick on Sansom’s part.
Here for a moment Flegg had paused. He had rested his knees up against the last three steps of the safely slanting wooden ladder, he had grasped the two side supports of the rusted iron that led so straightly upwards. His knees then clung to the motherly wood, his hands felt the iron cold and gritty. The rust powdered off and smeared him with its red dust; one large scrap flaked off and fell on to his face as he looked upwards. He wanted to brush this away from his eye, but the impulse was, to his surprise, much less powerful than the vice-like will that clutched his hands to the iron support. His hand remained firmly gripping the iron, he had to shake off the rust-flake with a jerk of his head. Even then this sharp movement nearly unbalanced him, and his stomach gulped coldly with sudden shock.