Quote of the Moment

"What's Past Is Prologue." - William Shakespeare

Friday, September 03, 2010

Short Story Conventions in "The Funeral"

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read "The Funeral" there are spoilers in this essay.

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Since "The Funeral" was written in the 1950s, it's interesting to compare the conventions used in short stories at that time. Many of the things we're taught to avoid in writing today, like overuse of adjectives, speech tags, and point of view slips, are prevalent in this story by Richard Matheson. Once you get past those changes in style, though, the core of the story is a fun and quirky romp.

The beginning of this short is bogged down with heavy adjective use--things like "placid clasp", "leisured pace", and "flaccid-fingered hand" (254). Those are just a few from the first page. To me, who has learned an overuse of adjectives bog down prose, it was overwhelming. It slowed the start of the story for me, making it hard to slip into right away.

Because the adjective usage is so prevalent, and I had to read the beginning through more slowly than usual, I also noticed a couple other style quirks that writers are warned against today. When you are writing a close third-person story, you're supposed to stay in your narrator's head and not pop out of it. This usually means it's difficult to describe the narrator if they aren't looking at themselves. Matheson doesn't follow this convention, especially in the phrase, "blinking meditation from his liver-colored eyes" (254). The other style quirk I noticed in the first page is a speech tag--the use of which made me flinch when I read it: "'Ah, good evening, sir,' he dulceted" (254).

What this shows is that conventions and tastes change throughout the years. Back in the 1950s, it seems that more of an omniscient approach was favored, over a close, inside-the-character's-head third person. The writing was more flowery and dense, chock full of adjectives. Who knows what will be standard in another fifty years? Perhaps in the future, second-person, adverb-heavy prose will be the big thing--no one can predict.

Although the first couple pages tripped me up initially, once the hook of the story presented itself, it was an enjoyable read. Three pages in, we finally find out that Morton Silkline's customer, Asper, intends to have a funeral for himself because he didn't have a proper one the first time. This was great, and it pulled me in. I wish it wouldn't have taken that many pages to hook me, though. I suppose that's another convention of the times. In today's day and age, a short story needs to pull the reader in on page one, even the first paragraph or sentence. If you have to wait for the hook until page three, there is a great possibility an editor won't even read that far. This could be a reflection of the instant gratification much of society seeks nowadays.

Once at the heart of the story, with the funeral event in full swing and a hodgepodge of monsters all in one room, I ate it up. The characters come alive. Matheson uses his technique as he does in I Am Legend to not reveal too much to the reader, so we can figure some things out for ourselves. Not one monster is labeled, the descriptions and actions the characters take providing enough hints so we can guess which archetypal monsters are at the funeral.

So, in the end, even though some of the devices used are ones I am used to avoiding, "The Funeral" was a fun read. I'll admit it--I wasn't able to figure out all of the monsters. Perhaps I will on a second read-through and a bit of research.

Works Cited

Matheson, Richard. "The Funeral." I Am Legend. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1995. 254-263.


  1. Well said about the language. I noticed that many of the "rules" we're taught are broken in this story. I did like the language though. It was one of the few things that kept me interested in the story.


  2. I like the technique of popping out of a character's head from third person. I think readers in general enjoy it too, but writers studying writing like to say negative things about the technique. Humph.

  3. I agree it broke the rules in many places. But, as the saying goes "you have to know the rules to break them," I think Matheson knows the rules, so I will give him the liberty to break them.