One of my favorite short stories, especially from a writer’s point of view but also as a reader, is You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead, by Flannery O’Conner. I love this story for a number of reasons: It’s darkly funny, original and surprising in its arc, and philosophically ambitious. But it also pulls off a clever, writerly trick that not only serves that narrative, but also the greater spiritual point of the story. The story is about why human beings should or shouldn’t do anything for each other, and the character taking the con case, as it were, is the devil. Of course, O’Conner doesn’t call him the devil, but we will. I’m not going to pull it apart sentence by sentence, but the devil begins as the protagonist’s own voice that sounds like “a stranger’s voice.” Eventually this “stranger”—which was only a description of the protagonist, remember—cleverly shifts into an actual character, “a stranger”, and then the stranger is eventually described as a “new friend.” The devil literally begins as a thought and morphs into an insidious companion.
Yet like the best writing, all of this happens without drawing attention to itself. In fact, I didn’t realize what she had done until I had gone back and broken the story down because I was going to have to give a little presentation on it. As it should be. Drawing attention to itself would defeat the purpose. I turned this thought of a stranger into an actual character right along with the protagonist without ever noticing I was doing it.
The voice we fear always begins as our own, and yet by the time we come to fear it we have forgotten its origin. This strangeness makes the voice all the more menacing, just as we might fear the stranger on the street, in whom, should we choose, we can imbue all the guile of a killer without ever sharing a word. What O’Conner, a devoted Christian, did in this story was reveal the devil for what he always has been—a thought. Believe that thought, and it is as real as the chair you are sitting in. Disbelieve it, ignore it, release it, and it is as if it never existed—which it didn’t.