I’m currently working my way through Rags and Bones, an anthology of short stories written by various authors and edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt. Each contributing author was asked to take one of his or her favorite stories, strip it down to the essence—the rags and bones—and use that to write a new story. To date I have read reimaginations of “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster, “The Man who would be King” by Ruyard Kipling, and “Sleeping Beauty”. Actually, I’m not 100 percent sure if that last one was a retelling of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White—Neil Gaiman employs both characters in “The Sleeper and the Spindle”.
One story in particular caught my interest—“The Cold Corner” by Tim Pratt, a distant cousin of “The Jolly Corner” by Henry James. Both stories explore a darker side of my theory that our experiences shape who we are. Instead of focusing on the current person, both James and Pratt focus on the “ghosts” left behind by the decisions we didn’t make and the experiences we never had.
“The Jolly Corner” follows 56-year-old Spencer Brydon as he returns to his childhood home [read “mansion”] in New York City after having spent 33 years abroad. Once home, Brydon begins renovating the larger of his two (yes, two) family mansions into an apartment building. Brydon finds, much to his surprise, that he is actually pretty good at this. He becomes reacquainted with childhood friend Alice Staverton and wonders aloud what he would have been like had he chosen to remain in New York City and become a business man rather than seeing the world. Alice hints that she knows exactly what would have happened—she has seen him in her dreams, but won’t give Brydon details. Brydon becomes obsessed with the idea of who he might have been and begins prowling the Jolly Corner—the smaller boyhood mansion which is not being renovated—at night in an attempt to catch his other self. I won’t give away the ending here, but “The Jolly Corner” is in the public domain and can be downloaded or read online for free.
“The Cold Corner” takes a different approach. Tim Pratt wrote about his adaptation, “It seemed to me that, if it were possible to meet the ghosts of our possible lives, there wouldn’t be just one ghost—there would be dozens, scores, maybe hundreds, sharing some essential qualities, but radically different in other aspects” (Rags & Bones 113). Terry “TJ” Brydon is a “six-foot-three, former-high-school-football-playing, Southern-food-specializing [bisexual] chef” who returns to his small North Carolina hometown after placing fourth (a.k.a. losing) a popular reality TV cooking show in California (Rags & Bones 90). Once home, Terry finds himself face-to-face with himself not just once, but three separate times. Each apparition is slightly different from the “real” Terry—one has a beer belly, one is dressed in a flannel lumberjack shirt, and one has a wife and baby. The third apparition directs Terry to a bar called TJ’s Place. Terry does so and finds a building full of himself: pool player TJs, former pro-footballer TJs, carpenter TJs, even a meth head TJ. Terry finally gets an explanation from the bartender—yet another TJ: this is a place where all the variations of Terry “TJ” Brydon get together, compare notes, and discuss the versions who are either dead are have moved too far away. Get your hands on a copy of Rags and Bones to find out what happens next.
I found the idea of ghost selves intriguing. It also got me to thinking—what would I be like if I had grown up in a different town or attended a different college? What if I had not joined the AmeriCorps or decided to move to Green Bay? How many ghosts of me are there? How many more are to come with choices I make in the future?
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!