“It’s a terribly powerful story”

Meanwhile There Are LettersI’ve been reading the correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald in Meanwhile There Are Letters, edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan.

Letter books can be big and tedious, running north of 400 pages and lacking the richness of plot. Put another way, rarely do you read “compelling” and “intriguing” in reviews of such books; however, the intimate voice of letter writing can drive seductive page-turning, at least for me. After that, it’s the time period and then, typically, a celebrity life that can create drama from daily details. For Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, there is much more due to a unique, wondrous connection between them — the southern writer and the crime novelist, the one a Pulitzer Prize winner (for The Optimist’s Daughter) and the other a recipient of the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America (the MWA’s highest honor recognizing lifetime achievement). This connection is from literature, but it builds into deep affection and love, making the reading far from “big and tedious.” Their letters are filled with references about books and the writing life, and underlying their words is an intimacy from companionable souls. Chapter titles reveal some of what I’m saying:

  • “If one of your letters could be rotten there’d be nothing sound left in heaven or on earth.”
  • “I dreamed I was sending you the dream I was dreaming.”
  • “Our friendship blesses my life and I wish life could be longer for it.”
  • “What we need is one another.”

Now, here is the point I want to get to: the sharing of a short story that came to my attention within the letters.

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Patrick O'BrianIn the summer of 1973, Macdonald’s editor asked him to put together a mystery and suspense anthology, “a fairly thick one comprising novels, novellas, and short stories.” Macdonald and Welty swapped ideas of possible inclusions, and I went in search of one of them — “The Walker” by Patrick O’Brian, a short story — because of what they said about it. Welty sent a copy of it to Macdonald who responded, “It’s a terribly powerful story — one of those stories that stays with you forever, I suspect, like a terribly bad dream — and I hope to use it.”  Welty then remarked that the story had stayed with her for years and, in another letter, wrote: “What you say about ‘The Walker’ & the reader’s being trapped with complicity expresses or explains the awful hold it has, which I could not have put my finger on, or never had.”

I had to read this story to experience and discover what they were saying about it, but The Walker and Other Stories by Patrick O’Brian is out of print. Nevertheless, I found the story at the library in another collection written by Patrick O’Brian, The Rendezvous and Other Stories. Only 10 pages, “The Walker” is everything Welty and Macdonald said about it — that awful hold it has. It is indeed terribly powerful, chilling and unforgettable, and a few days later I read it again.