Nottingham based author JH Everington is responsible for some of the most unsettling short stories I have ever read, the kind of poised and elegant tales which turn the everyday world inside out, finding wells of darkness in unexpected places and imbuing the commonplace with chilly unease. His latest collection, Falling Over, is out today, and James has been kind enough to join me to talk about one of the influences on his work. Over to JH…
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning…
First off, let’s all agree that this is one of the best opening lines to any book, even in translation. Just stand back and read it again: it seems to sum up The Trial in just twenty-one words. And the reason it manages to do this, of course, is that despite all we go on to read, we never find out anything more about why Josef K. was arrested. And neither does he.
As a writer, describing yourself as being influenced by Kafka is a dangerous business, because of that word: ‘Kafkaesque‘. It’s come to be a shorthand for something that isn’t quite Kafka; doesn’t quite describe the combination of surrealism and clarity, of despair and jet-black humour found in his best writing. It implies, too, that Kafka’s style and themes are easy to imitate, easy to copy, when the truth is anything but. So I won’t claim any of my stories are ‘Kafkaesque’ but I do want to talk about one theme of his that has been a major influence: that of a protagonist caught up in a plot over which they have no control.
This, of course, goes against the grain of the majority of fiction written today. Characters are meant to influence and shape the events of the story; in many stories the decisions of the central characters are the plot. Nor is this a new thing: the action of a play like Hamlet is driven by Hamlet’s personality; if he hadn’t have been so introspective and indecisive things would have turned out quite differently.
But if Josef K. had a different personality, would the outcome of The Trial be any different? It’s hard to see how. This feature of Kafka’s writing is a key influence over many of my stories, but most consciously and deliberately onPublic Interest Story. The story begins with the central character, Joel, seeing a photograph of himself in a tabloid newspaper. Events follow on from there and as in The Trial, I don’t believe Joel could have influenced his fate one whit.
You often hear writers say, nowadays, that they love those moments in writing when the characters seem to come alive, and move the story onwards in a way different to the writer had been planning. Not Kafka – he often started his stories at the end and worked backwards. Maybe his characters had limited freedom of movement, like cattle in a field, but they can’t alter their eventual destination. The original manuscript of The Trial had to be pieced together by Max Brod after Kafka’s death because, aside from the start and end chapters, it was partially unclear which chapters were meant to follow on from each. The structure of the novel is episodic and it’s easy to imagine events occurring in a different order, bookended by that brilliant opening line and Josef K.’s final cry of “Like a dog!” at the inevitable end.
The inevitable end – as a horror writer, I can’t think of much scarier than that.
Falling Over is published by Infinity Plus and is out now. Ten stories of unease, fear and the weird.
Find out more at Scattershot Writing.