Counting Tennessee Williams’ preface, this collection contains 50 stories, some of which serve as precursors to several of Williams’ plays. When comparing the two, in essence, I do prefer the style of his plays to that of these stories. The stories are more explicit and uncensored, graphically depicting the harshness and ugliness of life. At times, they made me feel as if I was looking at a piece of expressionistic art or listening to a piece of expressionistic music… picture being trapped in a room staring at a work of Edvard Munch (I’m particularly thinking of The Scream
) paired with listening to the atonal discordant chords of an Aronld Schoenberg piece.
Looking at the stories as a whole, it almost becomes an exercise that provides a glimpse into an author’s writing process. A lot of these stories are variations of the same theme… Williams rewriting the same story over and over again, each time exposing more of society’s harsh realities—how over time, the stories become more naked, raw and sordid in their portrayals. The stories “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” and “Hard Candy” are a good example. Essentially, both are the same story down to the setting, the situation and the conclusion. But picking the stories apart, they’re definitely different. “Hard Candy” is the darker story in tone, depicting desire as a needy fix. It’s more brutal and cruel.
Other stories were so brutal and cruel they left me with such a creepy feeling afterwards that I had to abandon the collection for long stretches of time. In particular, “The Inventory at Fontana Bella,” which is a little too macabre and perverse for my sensibilities and “Desire and the Black Masseur,” which I think is one of the worst stories I’ve ever read, with its mixture of sadism, masochism and cannibalism. I was surprised this latter story was published in one of his early collections. The themes Williams describes actually fall more in place with his later works published during the latter part of his career, namely “Mother Yaws” and “The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen.”
It was interesting to see the early drafts of his plays/screenplays in these stories. Some were quite good, like “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton,” the basis for Baby Doll
and “Three Players of a Summer Game,” the basis for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
. Others, in my opinion though fine, are not as good as their play counterparts, namely “The Night of the Iguana”—which is missing the slightly amusing interactive chemistry between Rev. Shannon and Maxine which I love. On the whole though, I prefer Williams’ plays to his short stories because of their subtle suggestive nature. I actually think Williams says more through his use of suggestion than through that forceful, explicit and harsh tone he uses in the majority of the stories.
I think the best stories in the collection are the autobiographical ones: “The Man in the Overstuffed Chair” (about Williams’ father) “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” (about his sister and basis for The Glass Menagerie
) and “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin.” For me, they evoked the clearest images in my mind’s eye—images that are long lasting—looking back from reading them three months ago.
One story in particular I think needs a special mention is “Something by Tolstoi.” It’s the one story in the collection that stands alone and has it’s own particular voice that’s truly unlike Williams’ more traditional Southern style of writing. Perhaps I consider it as one of the best because with its ironic ending it’s reminiscent of those 19th Century novels I love so much.
As a side note: I paired this collection with Gore Vidal’s collection of short stories titled, Clouds and Eclipses: The Collected Short Stories. Looking at the collections together, the similarities in the writing styles and the images that are evoked are striking. I couldn’t believe the number of déjà vu moments I had. (e.g. Consider the description of Helen and her Xmas card in Vidal’s “Pages from an Abandoned Journal” and the description of Sue’s Xmas card in “The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen” in this collection. ) Interestingly, the Williams stories where I noticed the similarities were written and published well after Vidal’s stories.