In Cold Blood is one of the most horrific nonfiction novels ever written. Its frank, unsparing depiction of a small town torn apart by a pointless murder reveals awful truths about the nature of violence, and our terror of its senselessness. Knowing the brutality he describes actually occurred makes it all the more overwhelming. Capote didn’t need to draw from fact to terrify, however. Some of his short stories are equally as nightmarish as his nonfiction masterpiece, and perhaps more haunting for their liminality—often what’s real and unreal becomes indistinguishable.
Much like his more famous tales of nostalgia, such as “A Christmas Memory” or “A Jug of Silver,” Capote’s macabre pieces explore dreams or memory in a fantastical manner. The uncanny or supernatural often dances along the edges of the story—is this something phantasmal, demonic, or just insane? Where his nostalgic reveries look at charming characters who seem born of a fairy tale simply because of their innocence and their mental purity, his darker fiction creates figures of mundane myth, humans who are just slightly too strange—too horrid—to be real.
Perhaps his most recognizably Gothic story is “Miriam,” one of the most chilling spins on the adorable-child-turns-evil sub-genre that I’ve ever encountered. We begin as an amiable widow befriends a mysterious but charming child at a movie theater. The woman appreciates the child’s company, until she realizes the girl refuses to leave her house. She attempts to exorcise the girl, but her fear of loneliness may overcome the cruelty she suffers during the child’s visits.
This theme runs through several of his stories. “Master Misery” depicts a New York City where lonely people, desperate for freedom or oblivion in vice, stoop to selling their dreams for petty cash. The beneficiary of these dreams is an unknown man, endlessly wealthy, but possibly dying. When the protagonist realizes she has no dreams left to sell, she also discovers that she can’t take them back, and what remains for her? As in “Miriam,” the supernatural elements are ambiguous here; perhaps the unknown man really is the devil, stealing innocent people’s dreams, or he just cashes in on their desire for meaning. The enigmatic nature of the story is what makes it so unnerving, too. We’ll never know where the dreams went.
These stories are tonally opposite of Capote’s more famous nostalgic work, but they’re substantially very similar. Capote continually writes about the loss of innocence: a young man who must watch his quirky childhood heroes fade away in The Grass Harp, a town realizing monsters live amongst them in In Cold Blood. His macabre works also witness the loss of purity or happiness, such as in “A Tree of Night,” in which grotesque sideshow performers manipulate a young woman into panic on an overnight train; or when a young girl mesmerizes her neighborhood boys, while inciting the jealousy of the girls, in “Children on their Birthdays.” Just like the victims of loneliness in “Miriam” and “Master Misery,” these characters lose themselves in landscapes of the bizarre, the empty. The reader is left to wonder whether they make it out or not on their own, and Capote doesn’t provide answers.
Capote isn’t a genre writer, necessarily—his stories span an impressive range of tone, character, and location—but his darker works display a devilish ability to craft an atmosphere of dread. He uses this to explore lost youth, characters conned by their dreams and desires, left lonely in a liminal world. It’s striking to note the similarities between these tales and his more upbeat fiction, which is hardly less poignant or tragic than the horror of In Cold Blood. His narrators still end up without their innocence once their story has passed. His writing can be warm, nostalgic, or eerily surreal, but his attention is always turned toward the confused, the lonely, those who see their environment in strange ways. And Capote reminds us, we cannot stay children forever—we must face the emptiness of our world at some time.