June 23, 2012

Why it Kicks Ass: The Vertical Ladder by William Sansom

Painting done by W. Kozak,
inspired by The Vertical Ladder
(William Sansom)
Welcome, welcome, welcome everybody, to a new section of the Floating Robes Blog! It's called Why it Kicks Ass and will be running alongside the WTF Movie-section, the Story Submissions and the other general hogwash I publish on here.

The inspiration to this wonderful new section and a general inspiration to me as a short story writer, is the great, but little known short story The Vertical Ladder by William Sansom.

Let me give you the low-down (some spoilers, beware):

There's this kid, called Flegg, who is with a couple of other kids around the ages 13-14. As kids do, they hang around an old abandoned factory (glassworks, in this case) with a huge tower. The group consists of some boys and two girls. The boys, as boys do, are daring each other to climb all the way to the top of the storage tower using the vertical ladder that is suspended from the side of the tower. Flegg, not the most eloquent or most boisterous of the group, is singled out as the victim. Not wanting to seem a wuss in front of the girls (as boys do) he grudgingly accepts the challenge.

Long story short, he climbs up the ladder, feeling ever more fearful that he will fall. At one point in the story, the other kids cannot even be heard, so far up he is. His heart pounding, his throat dry, he forces himself up rung by rung. And just when he thinks he can't climb any higher, he witnesses the other boys taking away the wooden ladder, leaving him three meters or so above the ground even if he does decide to climb down.

The other kids leave, arguing with the girls who thought this was an unnecesarily cruel deed. Flegg is trapped on the ladder and decides to climb to the top where he can rest his arms and wait for help. And then the real horror begins for as he finally reaches the top a nasty surprise is waiting for him.

I first came across this in the great Pan Books of Horror Stories (read them now!). And although nothing supernatural happens at any point in the story (no, there is no crazed psychopath waiting for him at the top), it evokes such feelings of dread and fear in the reader that it really classes as a horror story.

And this, my friends, is the sign of the great horror writer. Although, a long time fan of filthy monsters stalking mist-covered swamps, I immediately recognized the truth is Douglas Winter's quote: "Horror is not a genre, it's an emotion." Horror transcends mundane limitations to a 'genre' (it has to have a monster, it has to have faeries, it has to have ...). It can be found in sci-fi settings (Alien, Event Horizon), in fantasy settings (Solomon Kane, some Lovecraft-stories) or, in this case, in the everyday world.

To invent a horrific situation barring any and all supernatural carry-on and still being able to send shivers up and down a reader's spine is, in my book, a tremendous feat! Especially since the horror comes from such a normal situation. I, having been a boy myself at one time, immediately identified with Flegg as I'm sure the bulk of adult males will. This is what they're talking about when they say there are no definite borders between genres. This story could as easily been published in an anthology of general fiction as it did in the horror anthology I found it in.

It is simply, a great story on many levels.

Although not very well known among the general public, Sansom's carreer spanned over 30 years. Starting to write notes while working as London firefighter during the Second World War, he went on to write 15 novels, 9 short story collections, 7 non-fiction works and 2 children's books.  Besides the above-mentioned short story, his best known work is a supernatural horror story called 'A woman seldom found' which keeps appearing in anthologies to this date.

Got curious? Find the story here on Google Books. Or hop over to your local bookstore.


1 comment:

Darcy Irons said...

I know this post is two years old, but I just wanted to thank you for it. I read this story as a child in the '80s, in some anthology whose name I've long since forgotten. It has always stuck with me, and yet I couldn't recall its title. A bit of googling what I remembered of the plot brought me here, and now I have a new author to explore. Many thanks.

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