Text to Tale

All these other storytellers had grannies or other aged relatives who filled their ears with Living Heritage. My Dad read me Noddy, until I knew it by heart and corrected him when he read it wrong, so [as the Rogers legend has it] he put the book into my hands, saying, “You can read the bl***y thing yourself, then!” And I could! [I was certainly a completely fluent reader well before I went to school…]

Anyway, I always keep my eyes open for stories that will benefit from being told as opposed to simply being read aloud. For one thing, you have eye-contact with your audience. Somewhen around 2000 I did a couple of gigs at The Talking Heads pub in Southampton where I read my own ghost stories aloud to an audience of mostly students, quite a few of whom knew me personally and had brought their friends along – I had the text on a music-stand, below eye-level, and I could snatch three or four lines at a glance and deliver them as if I were actually telling. The stories [check them out here] were generally written as if being spoken aloud, which helped.

I have told stories first and then written them down, but I always feel the difference between telling and writing is the difference between knitting and lace-making. The written text is much more precise because it can be – no circumstances to disrupt its flow. You can drop the pebbles of knowledge in one by one, calculating precisely when the water of realisation in the jug will overflow – which is dangerous when you have a live audience which may be more or less clever than the one you had in mind.

Masque_of_the_Red_Death_by_Shattan-1Top of my list for Text to Tale is Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Any storyteller worth their salt can invent the scenes of destruction outside the Prince’s castle, and the arrangement of the coloured rooms within, with the big, ticking clock in the last, black, one, is an absolute gift. It is visible structure, which you unfold in your first description and reprise as the tasteless imitator of the Horrid Plague is chased by the guards from room to room, and the disease then follows the same course… But you should never depart from Poe’s sublime last line: And darkness, and decay, and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

I love Saki, and The Open Window is one of my favourites. I have used it as a [mock] ghost story template in school, and the results were excellent. Telling it, one can suppress all the phrases that would be incomprehensible to ordinary listeners and concentrate on the structure, which is so impressive. But here I would ditch Saki’s last line, good as it is: Romance at short notice was her speciality in favour of She was, after all, like me, a storyteller!

At Christmas, I usually tell Dancing Dan’s Christmas, by Damon Runyon, and again, by telling I can remove all the incomprehensible bits. I have also successfully adapted three stories from Gottfried Keller’s Sieben Legenden, one for Christmas and two for other purposes [here’s the English]. Kleist’s Der Zweikampf tells well, and J.P.Hebel’s Kannitverstan has become, as Mr Wodjersay, my signature story [German original, English translation, collection of Hebel stories – re-reading the original, I am suddenly aware of how far I have departed from the letter, while retaining the spirit]. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Bergwerke zu Falun also lent itself to radical adaptation.

One of my ambitions is to do Heart of Darkness as a monologue…


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