When The Door Closed, It Was Dark by Alison Moore, 2010
The magic trick:
Building tension in traditional ways, while also confusing the reader’s sense of the narrative timeline to add an extra layer of anxiety
When the door closes on this story, it is very dark indeed. Definitely not a story you want to read to lift your spirits.
We have an au pair staying with a family in an unnamed “foreign” country. Foreign in that they don’t all speak English and she does. It’s not a particularly welcoming situation, and things soon go from bad to worse.
The traditional tension builds here work very well. The family strikes the au pair as odd. She is scared to take baths. There are no locks on the doors. She thinks she feels their presence watching her, even when they’re not there. They say things that could be interpreted as threatening.
And then when they actually do something tangibly bad – taking her passport and money – it only seems to confirm the previous suspicions.
But that’s not what makes the story special.
The extra push over the cliff here is the subtle way Moore plays with the narrative timeline. It’s now showy or extreme. It’s so subtle in fact that you often don’t notice the shifts. But that’s what makes it so devious. Did we start at the end? Do we end at the start? We sometimes leave scenes suddenly and get sentences that seem to synthesize weeks at a time, only to jump right back into the present.
I don’t think it’s crucial to understand every single change, though the confusion does certainly invite repeat readings to puzzle it all out. The main point is that it disorients the reader just enough to make those more traditional methods of building tension start to swirl into what becomes a very anxious read.
And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.
Grandmother turned to the man wit the pig and said, ‘Uncle.’ He looked at Tina, looked her in the eye, but did not smile. He returned his attention to the pig squirming between his legs, picked up a large knife, and then he smiled. He wrestled the pig out of the kitchen and across the unlit hallway into a bathroom, and closed the door. The squealing got louder, and then stopped.
As always, join the conversation in the comments section below, on SSMT Facebook or on Twitter @ShortStoryMT.
Subscribe to the Short Story Magic Tricks Monthly Newsletter to get the latest short story news, contests and fun.