The Burning Baby by Dylan Thomas, 1934
The magic trick:
Maintaining an intensely nightmarish mood
Good lord. Who is this writer? What happened to our childhood Christmas in Wales?
This is hands down the most !$#$ed up story I’ve ever read. It’s dark. Explicitly dark. Incestual. Depraved in the extreme.
Consider the story’s opening sentence: “They said that Rhys was burning his baby when a gorse bush broke into fire on the summit of the hill.” Your brain tries to process this sentence, assuming it’s metaphor. But, no, it really isn’t. I mean, of course it is. But it’s also literally what this narrative is about. Rhys is a devilish soul.
I certainly did not enjoy the story, but I was impressed by its ability to bend and twist the reader’s perception of what was real. It drifts in and out of focus, keeping the reader guessing as to what is actually happening. The nightmare mood remains consistent throughout, building and building until its hellish conclusion releases the reader at last. And that’s quite a trick on Thomas’s part.
But he saw Rhys Rhys stride up the hill, and the bowl of his sister’s head, fixed invisibly above his sheets, crumbled away. Standing straight by the side of a dewy tree, his sister beckoned. Up went Rhys Rhys through the calf-deep heather, the death in the grass, over the boulders and up through the reaching ferns, to where she stood. He took her hand. The two shadows linked hands, and climbed together to the top of the hill. The boy saw them go, and turned his face tot the wall as they vanished, in one dull shadow, over the edge, and down to the dingle at the west foot of the lovers’ alley.
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