A Short Story Month continues, Masters Review editors Kim Winternheimer and Sadye Teiser discuss the parts animals play in some of their favorite stories.
Animals make an appearance in a lot of the story submissions we receive. Bunnies are maimed and killed. Dogs behave mischievously. Alligators threaten to attack. The truth is, many short story writers include animals in their tales, for different reasons. Many times, in our contests for emerging writers, an author will use a mangled or dead animal as a (seemingly) direct symbol for the loss of innocence, a dysfunctional family dynamic, or the end of a relationship. In other cases, the animal is not a direct symbol but merely a story element that interacts in a pleasing way with the rest of the narrative structure. Animals can add a level of tension or mystery to a story, they can drive the plot, or they can simply add texture. Though they can (often) be cute, animals are powerful presences in a story, and it’s interesting to consider the many different ways that they add to tales by contemporary writers. What are some of your favorite stories in which animals play a significant role? How do you feel the animals are being used in them?
As a big animal lover, any time animals appear in stories my interest piques. Animals are just as varied as people, and we feel so strongly about them, it’s easy to understand why they take on numerous roles in fiction. I think this speaks to the magic animals occupy in our minds. When they appear, we are automatically drawn to them. One of my favorite short stories is “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury. In this piece, animals are used as a plot device. Two children build an African grassland in their wallpaper and populate it with dangerous wildlife. Without the animals, the story would have no conclusion. The same is true for another favorite of mine, “The Price” by Neil Gaiman (although this story is arguably true and centers entirely on animals). In “The Price” a house cat takes on an extraordinary burden for the sake of its people. Both stories involve cats, and in both stories animals are crucial to the narrative—they fulfill a need for the characters by solving a problem. “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell is another wonderful piece. It is a story about a pack of wolf-girls sent away to live with nuns so they can transition into normal young women. I think Russell uses animals in this story as a symbol for the wildness in young people and how there is an expectation, especially for girls, to abandon rough or wild behavior as they mature. It is about societal pressure, but it is also about the kinship people feel toward animals, and similarly the divide between animal and human that we can never traverse. Pulling from this set of examples, what are some of your favorite short stories and in what ways are animals used in them? Similar to “St. Lucy’s…” are there any stories you enjoy where people transform into or out of an animal form?
It is interesting that you mention “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” because one of my all-time favorite stories, “Dear Amelia” by Anne Valente, explores a similar transformation in reverse. The story is narrated by a group of girls that is turning into Maine black bears, a secret that they keep to themselves. To me, this story is so much about the private discovery of the self as you come of age, an experience that is at once mysterious and magical. What better way to enact that than through this literal transformation?
In another one of my absolute favorite stories, “The Rememberer” by Aimee Bender, the narrator’s lover is literally de-evolving, becoming an ape, a sea turtle, and eventually a salamander. It’s a very short story, but it’s so powerful because of this transformation and what it evokes. I interviewed Aimee Bender about this story and she said it was about “what loss is and what it means to lose someone.” In this case, the “reverse evolution” enacts a type of loss. I remember very clearly the first transformation in that story, when the narrator’s lover has turned into an ape but she can still tell, right away, that it is him. Animals inherently contain a sense of mystery, and so I think it makes sense that we would use literal transformations into animals in stories to talk about parts of ourselves and our relationships that are difficult—or impossible—to explain.
Our fascination with animals comes, in a large part, from their foreignness, which can seem like a type of magic. In Abby Geni’s story “Terror Birds,” a boy growing up on an ostrich farm says: “Monsters are endlessly comforting to a troubled boy. I was never interested in human superheroes, which offered nothing more than a pipe dream. Their powers were just a pale imitation of what already existed in the natural world. X-ray vision was an amalgamation of a dolphin’s sonar and a snake’s ability to see in infrared.” Many of the characters in Geni’s stories are fascinated by the animals close to them.
We have talked a lot about stories in which animals help to propel the plot, but what about animals that are included at the fringes of stories? What does the presence of an animal add to a given narrative, and in what ways do you think authors use animals as a part of the story’s texture: to set a scene or evoke a certain tone?
This makes me think of “Dog Heaven” by Stephanie Vaughn. It’s one of my favorite stories, and in spite of the title, the dog isn’t the main focus at all. The story is narrated by Gemma, a woman looking back on the last three months her family spent at Fort Niagara when she was young. The story’s flow is punctuated by the presence of the family dog, Duke, who: “knows where the [Niagara] backwater ends and the current begins” and who stole: “a pound of butter off the commissary loading dock and brought it to us in his soft bird dog’s mouth without a tooth mark on the package.” But the story is primarily about Gemma and her friend Sparky. How they navigate running for a student-council election, how they attempt to fit in with civilian students, and, as military kids, how they interpret the public perception of military action.
The dog’s death is foreshadowed from the story’s title and the first line: “Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again.” But Vaughn uses the dog as a red herring of sorts. Duke’s presence generates tension and anxiety for readers whenever he is in the scene as a result of the foreshadowing, but the story concludes in a way that is unexpected, though it comes with a huge payoff when you realize all the Easter eggs Vaughn planted. While this is a pretty specific example, it is a good model for a story that has an essential and unforgettable animal character that isn’t a part of the story’s climax or central focus.
I do think animals evoke a tone within a story automatically, simply by their presence. Each species has its own characterizations based on what we know about their behavior. If a character is walking in the woods, for example, the presence of a deer evokes something different than say, a wolf, or bald eagle, or something totally unexpected like . . . an elephant. At a reading of Jasper Fforde’s he once said that crabs are funnier than lobsters, and that he wasn’t sure why, but he felt strongly that they were. We all have generalized associations with animals, and writers use those associations to drive an emotional reaction in their scenes. In the novel The Sisters Brothers, both protagonists have different relationships with their horses, treat and speak to them differently, and it reflects a great deal about who these characters are, what they value, how much empathy they have, and how relatable they are. In myriad ways, the presence of animals in stories enhances what we know about a character, foreshadows an event to come, or gives the scene mood and texture.
I would love to explore this more. There seems to be a lot of psychology behind how we associate with animals, in life and in stories. But for the sake of time, I’ll end it with this just because I’m curious: What is your favorite animal story or novel from different times in your life. Childhood? Teenage years? Adulthood?
Those are all really good points about the way that animals are used to set a tone and create a mood in stories. Just the mention of an animal can do so much to change the texture of a narrative. We have automatic, instinctual associations with certain animals, and I also really enjoy it when an author plays against them. Children’s stories often use animals as their main characters, very blatantly, but not in the ways that you would expect. My favorite book growing up was Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte, the spider, is the book’s real heroine and when she died it was the first time I ever thought about mortality, as grim as that sounds. Now, I love the work of writers like Laura van den Berg, Abby Geni, and Karen Russell, who use animals and other elements of the natural world in their stories. A lot of their work plays with the tension between the strange and the familiar, and I think this says a lot about the way we relate to animals: we want to understand them, but they will always be a little bit unknowable to us. Animals play so many different roles in stories it would be impossible to discuss them all here, but one interesting trend we’ve touched on in this discussion is how the line between the “human” and the “animal” is often blurred in fiction, with animals taking on human roles and humans, literally, assuming animal form.
What are some of your favorite animal stories? Tell us in the comments.