‘And Later, His Ghost’, by Sarah Hall
Read it here in about 30 minutes.
Thinking about imagery as plot…
I recently read Hall’s short story collection Madame Zero, in which this story features. It’s an unusual collection; the first and last stories seem to be about the same characters and event, but one takes a magical realism perspective, while the other uses realism. This story stands out, because its plot comes through imagery rather than action.
By ‘plot’, I mean the events that are presented to the reader, and the order they’re presented in.
The action: a man crosses a dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape in order to find a book to gift to a woman (like something from Greek mythology).
The plot: the opening of this story features a great deal of imagery relating to the destructive force of the weather – we have negative feelings (‘cold’, ‘sore’, ‘damp’), ominous sounds (‘creaking and hawing’, ‘sang and moaned’), noisy and violent verbs (‘lash’, ‘topple’, ‘splintered’). Even the imagery in the protagonist’s dream reflects the weather outside the house (‘Helene being swept away’). The inside of the house, in comparison, is hardly mentioned; all the focus is on the weather, outside.
The strength of the weather is beyond normal – this is obvious from its behaviour, and the effect it’s had on the protagonist and Helene. We’re not told what’s happened to create this apocalyptic setting – it’s only hinted at, through the imagery (stockpiling supplies, the town physically destroyed, people dying).
As the story progresses, we go outside. Here, our protagonist meets our antagonist: the wind. The dangers he faces are many – shrapnel flying though the air and injuring him, stone walls falling and crushing him, being picked up by a gust and thrown against the ground or a building. He must protect his hands and eyes, at all costs, because without them he’ll die.
Throughout the story, the ramifications of this terrifying new world are alluded to, and built up over time; not just in terms of physical danger, but through the changes to the characters, within their desperate circumstances. For example, the protagonist used to live in the same abandoned building as a man called Craig, but ‘Things had turned bad. He [the protagonist] got out as soon as he could and wasn’t sorry.’ Later, we’re told Craig died of a broken skull. And Helene was found by the protagonist next to two dead men in a cathedral, but ‘She wasn’t praying or crying.’
The character change is reflected in the final paragraph. Our protagonist has been lucky today; he made it into town, hunted high and low, and finally found a house with some intact books in its library, as well as the rotted corpse of the house’s owner. Before leaving, our protagonist looks in a mirror and wonders if he’s still human, before returning to Helene with the book he found.