Monday, 17 June 2013

Tininess and unease: the miniature in short stories for adults

Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb, up to no good

I loved stories about tiny things when I was growing up – The Borrowers, anything involving fairies, and mice behaving like tiny people in the Brambly Hedge books, or in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. I always thought of miniature people as being the subject of stories for children, The History of Tom Thumb and The Borrowers being classic examples, but I have recently read two short stories very definitely aimed at adult readers that use tiny people to chilling effect. One of these, available free online here in the New England Review, is ‘No Others Before Me’ by Maria Hummel. The second is ‘The End of the Line’ by Aimee Bender, which appears in her collection Willful Creatures, a book full of shocking, unnerving and fantastical tales that changed my understanding of what short stories can do.

Both of these stories are disturbing, Bender’s deeply so. It begins, “The man went to the pet store to buy himself a little man to keep him company,” a simple statement reminiscent of the opening of a children’s story. The little man is in a cage, with a tiny sofa and a television. The first sign of trouble is when his owner adds antihistamine to the cage’s water-drip to make the little man drowsy. From then on his abuse of his ‘pet’ escalates, and he subjects him to all kinds of tortures, putting him in the fridge and in the toaster, physically and later sexually abusing him. When the little man is finally broken, expecting death, the owner relents and agrees to send him back to his family.

In Hummel’s ‘No Others Before Me’ a normal woman’s pregnancy produces an entire village of tiny people: “Laura’s labor was long and difficult, not because it was hard to squeeze the villagers out, but because several of them tried to climb back in.” Told from the point of view of Laura’s husband, an uncomprehending and reluctant father to the villagers, we see him struggling to support his wife in her desire to be a good mother. There is humour as well as unease at first – the first ultrasound scan where they see first a bulldozer, and then the whole village in his wife’s belly; the image of the tiny adult villagers drinking milk from Laura’s breasts. But when things go wrong the result is sickening, for both the narrator and the reader.

In both these tales I felt that the sense of horror was created by the knowledge of the sheer power of the human and the perfect vulnerability of the miniature person. We are aware that there is absolutely nothing the tiny people can do if the human decides to assert their power. They made me think about situations in the real world where one party is disempowered and the awful things that happen sometimes in those situations.

After reading these stories I also read a chapter on the miniature in Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space. Discussing miniature people, and in particular Tom Thumb, he says, “tininess is the habitat of greatness,” and points out the extraordinary powers of Tom Thumb, able to control a plough from inside a horse’s ear – “this tiny creature, exerting influence upon the large one”. This did not fit with my memory of Hummel’s and Bender’s stories, but when I reread them, I found that in the end, this is exactly what happens in both. When the human releases the tortured tiny man in ‘The End of the Line’, he is desperate to be accepted by the community of tiny people: ““I don’t want to harm you!” he said out loud. “I just want to be part of your society.”” The tiny people are hiding, and one of them, a girl whose hat the human has found and balanced ridiculously on top of his head, “could not understand the size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart.” The human is rendered pathetic and ridiculous, and the tiny people exert their power by refusing to let him in.

In ‘No Others Before Me,’ likewise, it is the villagers whose actions profoundly affect both the human parents, and despite the sense of potential threat – as the story opens the villagers have been packed into a glass jar and left on the work top – at the end the narrator is overcome with emotion when he responds to their fear and finally feels paternal love.

I’ve found it intriguing that, along with these stories, those I have found for adults that involve the miniature almost always invoke unease, or a sense of the uncanny; Claire Massey also has a few examples, including 'Stone Sea', and 'Growing Cities', and when I tried to write one myself the result was not quite so dark as the ones discussed here, but was certainly a bit creepy. I am on the lookout now for contemporary stories for adults in which tiny people appear but do not disturb in this way. Is this even possible in adult fiction without it feeling cute, or childish?

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