De Mortuis by John Collier, 1942
The magic trick:
Using the same cycle of assumption-and-effect twice
It’s comforting somehow to know that even as World War II raged across the globe, The New Yorker was still publishing escapist silliness like this. This is about as pulp as you’re going to find on those hallowed pages. And I say that as someone who enjoyed this story very much.
Still, there is no doubt that the author’s main goal is to create a dramatic irony reveal in the final paragraph. That kind of thing doesn’t exactly lend itself to the character study or slow-plotted thematics you’re probably accustomed to from TNY.
It’s neat to see that the story structure repeats itself in a sense. The first scene shows two guys from town entering their friend’s house. He’s in the basement. They assume, at first, that he isn’t home. They then talk perhaps a little openly about his house.
To review: they make an assumption; their talk based on this assumption inadvertently provides new (and not pleasant) insights to their friend.
We see the exact same thing play out a second time moments later in the story.
It’s almost like the story tries out the format for size at first before unleashing the full-on version.
And that’s quite a trick on Collier’s part.
“Why, Doc! There you are!”
“Didn’t you hear us yelling?”
The Doctor, not too pleased at what he had overhead, nevertheless smiled his rather wooden smile as his two friends made their way down the steps. “I thought I heard someone,” he said.
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