Monday, December 7, 2009

The Graveyard Reader by Theodore Sturgeon, one of the best short stories that I have ever read.

I came across a collection of short stories called “Author’s choice 2”, where sixteen writers have chosen their favorite short stories and provided them with reviews. I have read a few of them so far and been awed by one, which is mentioned in the title of this post. The story was selected by John Christopher and his introductory review was as intriguing.
The plot starts when the main character, a man whose wife has passed away recently, stumbles upon a stranger near the wife’s grave. The stranger asks permission to ‘read the grave”. The man objects first, but then lets the stranger do so, wanting to see the stranger’s reaction, because he had deliberately left the grave stone blank. Why a blank stone? This quotation will tell you. “…..It was whitish granite that would weather whiter still. It had edges of that crinkly texture like matted hair that nothing sticks to because nothing could possibly want to if it wanted nothing else. Whited sepulchre, that’s what the hell. The stone was its own epitaph, because look: it’s white for ever, white and clean, ergo, here lies nothing clean.
What I always say is, there is a way to say anything in the world if you only think of the way to say it, and I had. I liked this epitaph just fine. There would be no words on this stone, and it has its epitaph….”
So the stranger bends over the grave, and to our man’s surprise, seem to actually read something. The bewildered man demands to know what one could possibly read in a blank grave stone. That’s when the stranger tells that it’s the grave that he reads, not the grave stone. The stranger goes on explaining the very sophisticated art of learning everything one needs to about a dead person by studying and interpreting certain features of that person’s grave. Let’s see how the stranger does his explanation. “….’what you can see of a human being is only the outside of the top part the surface. Now if everything-is there-’he pointed-’to be read-everything-then it follows that you can read far more than the most penetrating analysis of anything living.’ ……’living thing are not finished, you see. Everything they have ever been in contact with, each thought they have had, each person they have known_these things are still at work in them; nothing’s finished.’…..” “…..I asked, ‘What do you read?’…..” “……’A lot of things. The curve of the mound, the encroachment of growth on it_grass, weed, mosses. The kind of vegetation that grows there, and the shape of each stem and leaf, even the veining in them. The flight of insects over it, the shadows they cast, the contours rain rivulets as they form, as they fill, as they dry’….”
Then our man asks the stranger to teach him how to read graves, because…..”at last all the mysteries of that woman would be solved for me, and every sordid, rotten thing she had done kept secret would be illuminated for me….”
So starts a very lengthy, thorough, and exhausting learning process. He studies every other grave in the yard and id finally ready for that of his wife whom he never really new well.
So what does read on her grave? Well, I wouldn’t spoil it for you but rather end this post with a quote from John Christopher’s introductory review.
“…..The Graveyard Reader, in my view, is Sturgeon’s finest story, for fantasy and humanity and what one must call wisdom, and I am immensely grateful for the opportunity of giving it a wider audience. As fantasy it is breath- taking, with a marvelous sting in the tail. As counsel for the sore, self-wounded heart, it is superb….”

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