WHEN WE KILLED THOMPSON: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 12

If you haven’t been following along with this series of posts looking in detail at a single issue of Weird Tales, a classic pulp fiction magazine from 1925 that we can all read online, you can go back to the beginning and start here. If you do this, your life will be transformed!

Or, well… you know.

In any case, please feel free to jump in with…

This is a short one—by my estimate only about 2500 words—which is a bit refreshing after a couple of longer stories. It’s interesting to see the variation in length in this magazine. This tends to be true of the majority of pulp fiction magazines of the era, though there were a few single-character magazines that featured (short) novel-length stories of Doc Savage, the Spider, or the Shadow, with maybe a few short stories dropped in as filler. So far we’ve read a novelette, a portion of a serialized novel, and a few short stories of varying length. To me, it’s the variety of experiences within a sometimes loose definition of a single genre or a grouping of related genres, that make these magazines so interesting—that, and the variety of voices.

That said, onward into the short story “When We Killed Thompson”…

Here was my initial reaction to the first line from the earlier post “First Sentences in Detail”:

My, how I used to lie awake nights, staring into the darkness of the attic, wishing we hadn’t done it!

Ah, the classic opener in which we’re told up front that something went terribly wrong then the story circles back to show that play out. This is a bit old fashioned by today’s standards and could be read as a spoiler. Now we know that the as yet unnamed narrator will live to regret what’s about to happen, so at least we know that things won’t work out well in the end—but the bigger spoiler, for my money, is that now we know the end of his/her emotional arc as well. Whatever happens, it ends in regret.

Or that’s what I thought last July—now we get to see if my initial reaction made any sense at all. But first, I’ll try not to vent all of the rage caused by the second paragraph:

By staring a long time with eyes stretched wide, I could see the rafters; and hanging to the rafters near the little partition that turned part of the attic into a room, were his pants—brown-striped they showed in the daylight—and his white shirt.

What in the name of all that’s holy went wrong there?

Lots of things. I need to break that down, but first a little context so you don’t think I’m beating up on Strickland Gillilan. This magazine was published in 1925 and the language has changed quite a bit since then. What we expect in terms of lean sentence structure was not “the norm” in the 20s. And also, authors were paid by the word and were trying to make a living—I know we touched on that before in this series—so maybe Strickland Gillilan was trying to pad a bit.

Deep breaths.

First, I’ll add links to previous Fantasy Author’s Handbook posts that address concerns:

By staring a long time with eyes stretched wide, I could see the rafters; and hanging to the rafters near the little partition that turned part of the attic into a room, were his pants—brown-striped they showed in the daylight—and his white shirt.

Start with movement—when possible. I could see should be I saw most, but not all of the time. And a little while ago I posted a tweet that said:

There are ones of proper uses for semi-colons and millions and millions of people who think they know what those are. Unless you’re 100% sure, just don’t. You don’t need them and your editor will appreciate having to drop a couple in rather than remove dozens and dozens.

…and I stand behind that. We’ll forgive Mr. Gillilan, who was writing many decades ago, but no one who is writing right now.

Is this better?

I stared for a long time with my eyes stretched wide open before I saw, hanging from the rafters near the little partition that turned part of the attic into a room, a pair of brown-striped pants and his white shirt.

I don’t know… better? It’s still kind of a monster sentence. That all said, I’ll now try not to pick every nit out of every sentence of this story.

In the third paragraph, the narrator refers to “he,” and because we’ve read the title we know, or at least have reason to believe, that “he” refers to Thompson. This brings up an interesting point about titles. Was the author consciously referring back to the title? I have no way of knowing, but it does effect my understanding of the story. So then, what does the title of your last short story bring to your readers’ experience of the tale itself? Interesting to ponder at the very least.

This tickled me:

So I held my peace. With the exception, of course, of the one night at supper when I blurted, out of a dead and oppressive silence, “I wish we hadn’t killed Thompson.”

Everyone stopped eating and looked wildly at me. They had not expected me to say this, evidently.

I forgive the author his previous transgressions. What a fun moment.

The first column of the first page sets up that a murder occurred and the first person narrator is guilty about it—a story, with conflict, has begun.

In the second column of the first page we fall farther back in time and get to know how our narrator came to meet Thompson. This is a rather oft-used device, especially in short stories, and in novels, too, though in novels it most often comes in the form of a prologue—and you know I’ve spoken in support of prologues before and still do—so don’t let the fact that this has been a common device for at least ninety-four years stop you from using it if it makes as much sense in your story as it does here.

In the description of the house:

…the gun hanging over the doorway to the living room…

Holy crap, it’s literally Chekhov’s Gun! Let’s see if it ever gets fired! Let’s see, actually, how much, if any, of the description of the inside of the house actually matters as the story unfolds. Here’s my mental inventory:

an old stove in the corner

stairway to the attic near stove

Chekhov’s Gun

big fireplace in living room

back door to porch

firewood

boys’ bedroom

“Rock of Ages” chromo (there’s one to Google as well)

I didn’t focus on the food, which I’m assuming is simply an example of how fine a table they set. And then his description of his mother churning butter is brought back around to the matter at hand:

She wasn’t the sort of woman one would pick out as a conspirator in taking human life, however. But how can one tell? One knows so little of the inner workings even of those with whom one is most intimate.

Was that the author stating the theme of this story, in so many words? Maybe.

If you find the word “imaginarily” in anything I’ve ever written, please… please… kill it with fire.

(Oops—I accidentally sounded like a book critic right then, but still. Kill it. With fire.)

This story is all reading a bit—more than a bit, honestly—like an info dump, but here we see one way around that, or at least, one way to make it less clunky:

He referred to the fact that Thompson and Lewis were two very common names. I thought a great deal about that. It has stuck in my mind through all these years as if there were something really significant or important in the statement.

This could be described as foreshadowing, I suppose, or a specific cue that this detail will or does matter—but in this context, in terms of redeeming an info dump—we get a sense of the emotional or even intellectual reaction on the part of the first person narrator to a set of details, or as in the earlier description of his father as “a great pumper,” the source of or reason for the details. It’s not just a list of bullet points, all this is revealing something of the characters (read: people) involved.

At the end of this page we learn that forty years has passed since the fateful visit of Mr. Thompson. Add that to my mental inventory!

This came as a surprise:

We never saw Thompson again.

A twist—I like it! I thought Thompson was the victim of a family murder plot—and he did leave his pants behind when he went to Jackson… Hmm… This is good! I’m wondering what’s going to happen next.

So then now it seems as if the kid—our narrator—is only assuming Thompson was killed and that because he and his family were the last to see him, they might be suspected of a murder he doesn’t actually know happened. This story really flipped upside down and I love that. I take back all of what I worried about with the first line being a spoiler. This is what you want to do, yes? What we all want to do: surprise our readers!

Why is this now reminding me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?

It is.

Oh, and Making a Murderer

So then what of my mental inventory:

an old stove in the corner

stairway to the attic near stove

Chekhov’s Gun

big fireplace in living room

back door to porch

firewood

boys’ bedroom

“Rock of Ages” chromo

Not a single one of these things ever came into play. Just the pants and shirt hanging in the attic.

But here’s where the whole Chekhov’s Gun thing gets tricky: The whole first half of this story was a red herring set-up for the reveal that no one in this family actually killed Thompson.That means all of these details, some of which were clearly intentionally meant to suggest their part in a murder: a gun, the stove at the bottom of the stairs that Thompson could have fallen down and hit his head on, firewood that could be used to clobber him or burn his body in the big fireplace… the religious picture that explains our young narrator’s guilty conscience… The fact that none of these potential murder weapons or crime scenes paid off is not just explained by the revelation that there was no murder in the first place but that hanging mental inventory makes that twist all the more surprising and effective.

This was such a clever twist… unfortunately blow to smithereens by the everything-turns-out-okay-in-the-end ending, which is a bit out of character for Weird Tales. Strickland Gillilan really had me there for a minute, I wish he’d left it with me still on the hook.

Still, though, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this story and Strickland Gillilan, though known as a poet, had some “weird” murder mystery skills. I found an interesting bio of Strickland Gillilan online, but the accompanying list of stories makes no mention of “When We Killed Thompson.”

If this exercise helps anyone rediscover Strickland Gillilan, that would make me happy.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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