A Short Guide to the City
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|"A Short Guide To The City"|
|Genre(s)||Horror short story|
|Published in||Houses Without Doors|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Publication date||November 30, 1990|
"A Short Guide to the City" is a 1990 short story by American horror writer Peter Straub  collected in Houses Without Doors. It blends and fuses two disparate literary forms: a self congratulatory travel brochure published by a city's Chamber of Commerce and a news report about the murderous killing spree of the "viaduct killer."
The omniscient narrator moves through the seemingly idyllic Midwestern town relating the, surprisingly violent, histories of the various sociological groups that populate the metropolis. He speaks as both a representative of the city, definitively summing up the collective views on life of all, and as a biased observer, subtly commenting on those views. In an indictment on small town life, he points out the city's arrogant insularity and refusal to acknowledge the darker elements of the past. While so doing, he also describes the details of and the resulting city wide interest arising from the "viaduct killer's" murders.
In examining the subsections of the city folk, the identity of the killer is hinted at repeatedly. The affluent are a secretive caste laden down with rituals and untold power, subtly afflicted by inbreeding both literal and figurative. The Eastern Europeans have tightly focused households all routinely verging on the precipice of domestic violence or self mutilation. Feral children, organized into warring tribes after abandonment by social services, live in ramshackle tree house like structures constructed from garbage and prey on tourists. And finally those who dwell in the ghetto, the city has purposefully remained ignorant of them. Each group and several smaller groups all have evidence brought forth that could solidify each one as the breeding ground for the much sought after sociopath but the culprit's cultural identity remains unresolved. The final lingering image is of the half completed bridge, "the Broken Span," the iconic symbol of the city.
The "Broken Span" is representative of the gulf between reality and perception in the minds of the citizens and the desire for closure. Their myriad violent outbursts is, as described by the text, a pathway towards that closure. Patricia Moir agrees with this symbolic framework and sees this as a recurring element in all of author Peter Straub's fiction. She describes the central issue as individuals or societies "perhaps understandably, construct barriers of denial to protect themselves from knowledge they do no wish to possess" yet those "who do not confront their invisible realities and somehow integrate them into their lives are doomed to remain forever incomplete." And "in the experience of violence there lies knowledge essential to an understanding of their failures, their fears, their hopes, and most important of all, of the universal fact of their mortality. The secrets of the invisible world must be uncovered, communicated, examined, and acted upon if life as a whole is to have any honest validity."
"A Short Guide to the City" is firmly rooted in the Gothic literature tradition. It goes to extreme lengths to establish the atmosphere, discarding any attempt at a traditional narrative in lieu of overwhelming details about the makeup of the city. The city's discarded buildings, much like the abandoned ghostly castles of yore, give rise to a diversity of emotions inherent in the downfall of man made structures. The arcane and violent rituals of the townsmen also give off a Gothic air, in the past reserved for religious or pagan spectacles. Perhaps more than any other element, the story's fascination with darker elements of the past and their effect on the current events is what steadily places "Guide" in the Gothic tradition.
In the realm of pure literary review, New York Times book critic Walter Kendrick described the piece as Houses Without Doors' "most chilling story" and "its most blatantly artistic one" while fellow New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt found it "a shade too vague and portentous to absorb the reader completely."
References to Other Works
- "Peter Straub". Fantastic Fiction. Archived from the original on 19 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-14.
- Moir, Patricia. "Dispatches from the Invisible World: Trauma and Survival in Peter Straub's "Blue Rose" Stories". In David Ketterer. Flashes of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from "The War of the Worlds" Centennial, Nineteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 167–173.
- Kendrick, Walter (December 30, 1990). "Guts & Brains". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-13.
- Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (December 24, 1990). "Books of the Times; From a Dark World, Stories of the Damaged". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-13.