Limitations are exciting. Rules allow you to bend them - or at least, to push. So while a very short time-frame provides a challenge to a story writer, it also gives you a lot of room to play. Maybe you can’t portray a life from cradle to grave - or at least not literally - that doesn’t mean you can’t sketch a personality, a dynamic, a situation just as richly – in some ways, maybe more. In Donald Antrim’s “Another Manhattan” we get a portrait of a marriage in one disastrous evening, while Hemingway’s classic “Indian Camp” is a coming-of-age in one night.
As in life, when you get a night in a vacuum it’s freeing. Maybe there are no consequences. Maybe you’ll never see someone again. We’ll certainly never see these characters again. Leonard Michaels’s “City Boy” moves from reality into surrealism - or does he? In Davy Rothbart’s “Human Snowball”, a character can meet and love and hate and feud with people he’ll never see again - sad, exciting, a night out of time.
[CLICK TO ENLARGE] Cocktail party at the Paris Review founder George Plimpton’s Upper East Side apartment. Featuring: Gore Vidal, Ralph Ellison, Peter Matthiesen, Sydney Lumet, Mario Puzo, Arthur Penn, and Truman Capote (center on couch).
But a night can also be long – endless even. Consider “The Birds” or “Ringing the Changes” – terrors that feel like they will never end for the characters trapped inside, made possible only by the isolation and darkness of nightfall. Horror, of course, fits naturally into the span of an evening: the ancient fears of the dark - made both literal and figurative in Angela Carter’s “The Werewolf” - matched by the darkness-induced guilty conscience of Poe’s famous “Telltale Heart” narrator.
Other things can only happen at night. Maya Angelou sets her “Reunion” at a nightclub, where an evening’s set list provides a soundtrack for layers of subterranean tensions. Dorothy Parker’s newlyweds have to face the terror of a first night alone together and all it implies. And in Joyce’s “The Dead", a holiday dinner blurs the line between evening and night, love and loyalty, and ghosts real and imagined.
Last of all, we have Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” because it asks the question: what is night, when there’s no nightfall? It’s safe to say, it’s a state of mind as much as anything. An exciting, scary one.
The Paris Review’s List of One-Night Tales
"Ringing the Changes" by Robert Aickman
"Here We Are" by Dorothy Parker
"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe
"The Reunion" by Maya Angelou
"City Boy" by Leonard Michaels
"The Birds" by Daphne du Maurier
"Another Manhattan" by Donald Antrim
"Indian Camp" by Ernest Hemingway
"Human Snowball" by Davy Rothbart
"Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov
"The Werewolf" by Angela Carter
"The Dead" by James Joyce
"The Third Resignation" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez