Another weird one, but this time in a good way. “In at the Birth” tells the story of elderly Miss Efoss, who begins babysitting for a neighborhood couple named the Dutts. Their baby, Mickey, is “nervous” and kept upstairs, away from Miss Efoss, who is instructed to call Mrs. Dutts at whatever dinner or party they’re attending if Mickey ever begins crying. Miss Efoss never meets Mickey, things become weird and suspect, and one night she climbs the stairs to find—terrifyingly—a very old man in the child’s room. Understandably, Miss Efoss stops babysitting for the Dutts, but when she encounters them a year later, they tell her their “baby” has died, as their babies always eventually do. Miss Efoss, having become truly old in the interim, begins selling her possessions off and at the end moves into the upstairs room at the Dutts’ house, to serve as their newest child.
One does not typically think “magical realism” when one thinks of William Trevor, but I found this story to be a remarkably solid representative of the form. Although magical realism may not quite capture it—the story rides a line between magical realism, fairy tale, allegory, and horror. The writing is of a better class, it reminds me of some of Roald Dahl’s best stories, the comingling of genres to produce a kind of unsettling light comic-horror.
It also reminds me of a certain genre of fiction, often short stories, popular in the 1990s and aughts, sometimes described as weird fiction, and exemplified by writers like Kelly Link and J. Robert Lennon. This is, of course, in a lineage of short story that plays with the stability of reality, and in the 20th century includes writers as disparate as postmodernists like Robert Coover, Garcia Marquez and the magical realists, and mid-century American masters like Bernard Malamud and John Cheever. Weird fiction, if you’ll accept my calling it that, was/is characterized by uncanny narratives marked by increasingly bizarre events and a narrator or protagonist slowly registering—or not registering—they are no longer in the “real” world. Often part of the truly unnerving quality of this type of story is the way the narrator or protagonist seems to ultimately accept her new reality, become absorbed into it.
“In at the Birth” employs this kind of weird fictional tactic. Upon finding the elderly man, she quits her “baby”-sitting job and leaves London for Devon. But upon reencountering the Dutts and learning of Mickey’s death, she seems inexorably drawn toward the second-floor nursery. There is a horror for the reader, as Miss Efoss seems to abandon her reason and free will, and submit to the designs of the Dutts—and the narrative itself.
Weird fiction often operates in this way. There is some magnetic force in the story drawing the character in, and the story itself—or rather, the ineluctability of the story and its logic—often becomes a kind of large-scale metaphor for the ineluctability of the main character’s deepest desire. The opening of “In at the Birth”—the story begins “Once upon a time…”—signals we are reading a fairy tale of sorts, as we are told that Miss Efoss once, long ago, had a child that died of pneumonia, a fact she seems to have made peace with. We are told, “In retrospect, Miss Efoss considered that she had run the gamut of human emotions. She settled down to the lively superficiality of the everyday existence she had mapped out for herself. She was quite content with it.” Of course, she is not, on some fundamental level, content with her childlessness—thus appear the Dutts, and thus does the story’s apparent realism begin to warp and deform. The Dutts are suffering, over and over in a hideous farce, the tragedy she has suffered once—the power of her loss is such that her ultimate fate is to leave the Dutts, and the world, the same way her baby disappeared decades before.
In this sort of weird fictional universe, there is no dependable reality, but emotional logic remains absolutely stable and coherent. Perhaps the ne plus ultra of this genre is Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” which follows Neddy Merrill on a quest to swim the Lucinda River, a series of nearly connected swimming pools in his Westchester neighborhood. During the journey, the seasons seem to change, and Neddy finds himself aged and shunned by his neighbors, arriving home to find it abandoned. It is impossible, but it feels real, or perhaps “true,” because it represents the truth of Neddy’s failing marriage. Actually, Cheever employed this tactic all the time, often to subtler effect, something I wrote about in this essay.
Thank you for reading, and please join me next Tuesday, when I’ll be discussing the significantly more ground-bound tale, “The Introspections of J.P. Powers.”