Cold Reads: A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
Dark and dirty things occur in the Deep South at the dead of night, while the crickets are a-chirping and the big ol' devil moon is smiling down at the earth. I apologize for the folksy intro, but after reading "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner, I can't help but get in the moonshine spirit of things. If the bizarre effect the tale had on me isn't testament enough, I can personally assure you that Faulkner's prose will have you convinced that his town of Jefferson, Mississippi is as real as your own childhood home.
After old Miss Emily Grierson passes away, the town of Jefferson goes into a sense of mourning. The narrator recalls Emily's past, from her family's history to her recent demise. Emily had lived in her house all by herself, the old town biddies always whispering about her plans of marriage. When construction takes place in the town, a handsome foreman named Homer Barron comes down from the North to head the project. Everyone in town likes Homer, and he seems to enjoy everyone else's company, especially that of Miss Emily. The two soon appear to have thoughts of wedding bells with Emily buying Homer clothes and Homer moving into the house. But after a period of time, things become strange and quiet. And after Emily dies, people in the town start complaining of a foul scent emanating from the house...
Faulkner's tale is frightening in its stark realism. He doesn't exaggerate or flaunt any of the characters' eccentricities or manners. Nothing of a supernatural nature invades the town to wreak havoc on its denizens. Instead, the members of the town are prey to their own thoughts, thoughts fueled by the strangeness of the situation involving Miss Emily. One night, in an attempt to put an end to the offensive odor, a group of men sneaks towards the house and sprinkles lime around it. When Emily appears at the window, they scatter into the shadows like some mischievous hoodlums. Fear is the only monster in this story, and it devours the minds of everyone who looks at the edifice of the old Grierson house.
This is not fear unfounded, though. There is certainly something most terrible occurring in Emily's house. But Faulkner never lets on to this with more than a passing phrase. The story is filled with a quiet, brooding sense of dread that sneaks up on you like a hungry shadow. A skin-crawling scene occurs when Emily makes a visit to the town pharmacist to order poison. At first, she does this by asking the old man for his most potent toxin available. When he informs her that it is arsenic, Emily insists on its purchase. The pharmacist kindly tells her that he is regulated to ask for the purpose of the poison's usage before he can sell it. Emily does not respond, but simply stands there staring intently at him. At this moment the pharmacist is aware of the potential danger of the situation. We know as well, but we are just as helpless as he is. Faulkner achieves this same sensation at the story's conclusion. I will not say anything to spoil it for you, other than that the tale's last line will confirm all the fears that the townspeople had (and yours as well) and will allow your mind to imagine the worst and grisliest of implications.
Another aspect that Faulkner excels in is exacting the voice of the South. He gives you the feeling that you are listening to a true account from the member of a real Mississippi town. It has the voice of the old town gossip who lets you in on the town's darkest secrets or even the voice of your own grandfather, sitting on the porch, smoking a pipe, and reminiscing on that nasty business that occurred when he was just a boy and heard from his grandpappy. The term Southern Gothic can most appropriately be applied to this dark tale. It gives you the sense of the fog-shrouded moor or the decaying castle but with the aesthetics of a rural town. We now have misty bayous and rotting plantations, but that feeling of death and evil still lurks in every corner. It creates a palpable and realistic environment for the terror to occur in along with three-dimensional characters whose sins only darken the mood.
"A Rose for Emily" is a beautiful flower in of itself, an enchanting, scarlet blossom set amongst the muted horror of a silent graveyard. This is a tale that I would whole-heartedly advise not to read alone, especially when the wind is whispering through the cypress trees and the birds are singing their night songs. The ending will slowly, oh so slowly, creep up on you. And when you finally turn around to confront it... it will be too late.