copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Although it isn’t a horror story--at least not in the conventional sense--Ihara Saikaku’s short story, “What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac Maker,” a tale of adultery as a literally fatal attraction (based, it might be added, on a true story) offers a technique not seen often, if at all, in typical horror novels, but one which provides a simple, but interesting and effective, way of creating and maintaining suspense and of driving the story forward.
True, Saikaku’s choice of a true story as the basis for his story, his use of foreshadowing, and the situation itself, involving participants in an illicit affair against a background of sexual licentiousness and the concern of the protagonist’s society with superficial rather than meaningful matters create interest and suspense as well, but these are techniques already known to, and used by, writers of Western literature (by the use of which term, no, we do not intend to reference cowboy stories--or not only cowboy stories).
The technique we’re interested in is his use of cryptic, apt, and sometimes rather poetic titles for the segments--they are too short to be labeled chapters--of his story. Divided into five sections, these divisions are named:
- The Beauty Contest
- The Sleeper Who Slipped Up
- The Lake Which Took People In
- The Teahouse Which Had Not Heard of Gold Pieces
- The Eavesdropper Whose Ears Were Burned
Western writers have named the chapters in their novels. That’s nothing new. However, such titles have more often than not been straightforward. (A memorable one that is both cryptic, appropriate, and somewhat poetic is the title of chapter thirteen of Ian Fleming’s novel, Live and Let Die, in which James Bond’s CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter, encounters a shark in a swimming pool: “He Disagreed With Something That Ate Him.” However, it is Fleming’s habit to extract a phrase or, more rarely, a sentence from the chapter and to let it stand as the chapter’s title. The title of chapter thirteen of Live and Let Die, for instance, appears, in the chapter itself, on a note attached to Leiter’s body.).
The key to the use of intriguing (as opposed to straightforward) chapter titles is to make the title both cryptic and poetic but apt. It should hint at, rather than directly state, the chapter’s plot, theme, or significance, and it should do so in a figurative, metaphorical, or symbolic manner. For example, the title of the third division of “What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac Maker” alludes to a lake in which the protagonist, Osan, and her illicit paramour, Moemon, pretend to drown themselves. Therefore, it alludes to the central point of the narrative segment, using the literary devices of (an apparent) personification and a play on words to do so. Read literally, as people are wont to read anything they peruse, “The Lake Which Took People In” suggests that a body of water will deceive someone, that it will take him or her or them in, or con them. The absurdity of such an idea, in turn, alerts the reader that he or she has misread the title, and that it should be understood differently. As it turns out, the reader will discover that the lake literally takes in people--those who enter its waters, to swim or, as Osan and Moemon pretend, to drown. Therefore, the title is appropriate. It is descriptive of the action that the story segment contains, and it also suggests the subterfuge of the characters who perform the actions, for it is by pretending to have drowned in the lake that Osan and Moemon intend to “take in,” or deceive Osan’s husband and others.
The chapter of the final section of the story, “5. The Eavesdropper Whose Ears Were Burned,” is also intriguing (as opposed to straightforward)--that is, cryptic, poetic, and apt. It suggests that a particular type of person, an “eavesdropper,” will be punished--in a fitting manner, by having his ears burned. In this case, the eavesdropper is Moemon, who, during a nostalgic return to his hometown, while disguised, overhears people insulting him. His ears, metaphorically, are burned. However, when he, Osan, and the servant who had served as an intermediary between them, helping them to cuckold Osan’s husband, the culprits are “burned” in quite a different manner. After being paraded before the townspeople, as a warning of the punishment that comes to adulterers, they are executed, dying “like dewdrops from a blade of grass.”
As a way of practicing this technique, one might name or rename the chapters of various horror novels or segments of horror movies, selecting titles which meet the three requirements we’ve identified as belonging to intriguing headings, so that the results are once cryptic, poetic, and apt. A good intriguing title takes some effort, but it should pay dividends in being another means by which to create and maintain narrative suspense and of driving one’s horror story forward, toward its inevitable crisis, its possible catastrophe, and its satisfying resolution.
By the way, these are the titles of the Live and Let Die chapters; note that, on the basis of our analysis, most are straightforward rather than intriguing:
- The Red Carpet
- Interview with M
- A Visiting Card
- The Big Switchboard
- Nigger Heaven
- Table Z
- Mister Big
- No Sensayuma
- True of False?
- The Silver Phantom
- The Everglades
- He Disagreed With Something That Ate Him
- Death of a Pelican
- Midnight Among the Worms
- The Jamaica Version
- The Undertaker’s Wind
- Beau Desert
- Valley of Shadows
- Bloody Morgan’s Cave
- Good Night to You Both
- Terror By Sea
- Passionate Leave