It’s strange which moments stick with you. I don’t typically remember my first viewing of a movie unless it becomes an instant favorite, but I do remember, quite distinctly, the first time I saw Jane Eyre. It was the 1943 version with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, I was probably seven or eight years old, and I was watching it with my mom. Or rather, my mom was watching it while I was in the room; I don’t recall being particularly interested in it myself, since I had no taste as a child. Maybe I was paying more attention than I remember, though, or maybe the foreshadowing is simply too obvious to miss (admittedly, it’s been several years since I saw that version). It’s even possible that at some prior point in my life, I had heard something somewhere about Jane Eyre that had, for whatever obscure reason, lodged itself in my unconscious. Whatever the reason, at one point fairly early in the movie, I turned to my mom and asked—much to her surprise—whether Mr. Rochester’s secret had anything to do with a hidden first wife.
Two things about this. First, it’s probably a little sad that even in my childhood memories I’m discussing 19th-century literature. Second, and more importantly for the purposes of this post, it just goes to show that at the age of eight, I was apparently already too jaded to be surprised by one of the most famous plot twists in Western literature.
I don’t remember feeling especially let down by this at the time; if anything, the fact that I remember the episode at all probably means that I spent the rest of the evening pluming myself on my cleverness. Ever since then, though, I’ve felt as if I’ve been constantly searching for a truly unpredictable twist, with mostly disappointing results. I’m sure there have been some surprises (literally) along the way, but what I mostly remember are the times I’ve stuck with books largely because of dusk jackets promising explosive secrets and mind-bending revelations, only to be left wanting more. My taste in thrillers in particular has gotten progressively darker and weirder over the years—not (I’d like to think) because there is anything especially dark or weird about me, but simply because the more outré a novel is, the more likely it seems that it will truly shock me. All the same, I can’t help but feel that it’s a little worrisome when I have strong suspicions halfway through about the ultimate destination of a novel like Dr. Haggard’s Disease—a novel variously described as “morbid,” “macabre,” and “perverse.” Yes, McGrath drops hints along the way, but it’s still hard to shake the feeling that I’ve simply read too many books, when a novel like McGrath’s has me thinking, “been there, read (something like) that.”
This is, of course, an incredibly reductive way to judge a writer of McGrath’s caliber, and there’s a large part of me that can’t help but feel that my preoccupation with shock value is a sign of readerly immaturity; if I were a truly discerning reader, surely I’d only care about whether or not a novel was good. In fairness to myself, though, I’m generally able to separate my enjoyment of a book in its entirety from the degree to which I’m able to predict its ending. Dr. Haggard’s Disease is a good example. Haggard himself is so amazing a feat of ventriloquy—evasive, manipulative, and ultimately deranged, but not without a certain air of gentlemanly wit and charm—that the novel is plenty gripping and disturbing regardless of whether or not you know where it’s heading. Or, for a less obviously “literary” example, take Bernard Beckett’s Genesis, and its absolutely blindsiding ending—blindsiding not for the twist itself (that has been subtly foreshadowed) but for the speed and brutality with which events play out, as well as for the sheer starkness of Beckett’s prose. Prepared as you may be, the ending simply knocks the breath out of you.
Arguably, of course, neither of these novels intends to catch the reader entirely off guard; both, as I’ve mentioned, make extensive use of foreshadowing, albeit in a deftly blink-and-miss-it sort of way. And of course, there’s a certain pleasure to be found both in piecing together clues and in feeling that you’ve outwitted a novel by staying two steps ahead of the plot. But with all that said and acknowledged, I’d still like to find a novel that manages to truly bowl me over with an unexpected ending.
I’m starting to think, though, that that may not be possible. In saying that, I don’t mean to imply that I’m particularly well read or clever—just that the kind of twist I’m looking for probably doesn’t exist.
You see, I had a minor epiphany the other day while reading Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?”—a 19th-century horror story that begins, more or less, with two men discussing the possibility of a “great and ruling embodiment of fear,—a King of Terrors, to which all others must succumb.”
Now, I may be difficult to surprise, but I’m certainly not difficult to scare; as a kid, I once spent a mostly sleepless night nervously eying some houseplants after seeing a school production of Little Shop of Horrors—you know, the musical comedy? That said, I was not expecting O’Brien’s take on a “King of Terrors” to be quite as tame as it proves to be. For a few pages, it looks as though O’Brien will play it safe by leaving the nature of the narrator’s invisible nighttime assailant entirely to the reader’s imagination. Ultimately, though, the narrator manages to discover what his attacker looks like (if not precisely what it is), and we are given the following description:
It was shaped like a man,—distorted, uncouth, and horrible, but still a man. It was small, not over four feet and some inches in height, and its limbs revealed a muscular development that was unparalleled. Its face surpassed in hideousness anything I had ever seen…It was the physiognomy of what I should fancy a ghoul might be. It looked as if it was capable of feeding on human flesh.
While I don’t exactly relish the thought of a cannibalistic monster, I have to say that I found this ending anticlimactic. Given the story’s hook, I was expecting—at a minimum—existential, Lovecraftian horror. But while I can think of scarier directions in which the story might have gone, I also have to admit that that opening hook sets the bar impossibly high; the narrator and his friend are attempting to imagine a “terror greater than anything yet conceived by the human mind;—something combining in fearful and unnatural amalgamation hitherto supposed incompatible elements.” They are attempting, in other words, to imagine something that is by its very definition unimaginable.
Which brings me back to my larger point about twist endings. While I had never quite put it in those terms, it struck me, while reading O’Brien’s story, that I’m looking for something similar to his “King of Terrors”—a twist that is so surprising that it is literally impossible to conceive of. Of course, this kind of twist couldn’t possibly exist. No one could dream it up in the first place, and even if someone could, it would be self-defeating; a twist you can’t imagine is also, I assume, one you can’t grasp as a reader.
Even knowing that, though, I’m sure I’ll still keep looking for my ideal twist—and I’m always open to suggestions for further reading.