A good story writer will “play with your mind”. He will make you look at an “O” in such a way that your mind might perceive it as an “O”, a “0”, or the Greek letter “θ” (theta). Why on earth would he do that? Why write in such an ambiguous manner? You know the answer, of course, even if you don’t think you do. It’s to kindle your imagination, to allow your creative mental juices to branch off into multiple directions of thought or possibilities. Writers love ambiguity. But readers often hate it, don’t we? Let me give you a few examples.
Harry Potter and the Mirror of Erised
In the book “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J. K. Rowling, she introduces a magic device called the Mirror of Erised. On it is a cryptic inscription in an ancient language: Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi. Wow. What a cool, ancient language! Is it Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Egyptian hieroglyphics? What? Your eyes strain to understand these mysterious words. You may finally say, “Bah! Just gibberish. It has no meaning at all.”
There are several kinds of “secret code” we all learn when we are young — pig Latin, writing words backward… Hm, writing words backward… Let me check that: “ishow no tyo urfac ebu tyo urhe arts desire“. Wait! “Desire” is a word, and the first few letters look like “I show” but the rest is still gibberish. Let’s eliminate all the spaces: ishownotyourfacebutyourheartsdesire. Whoa, I see more words here. Let’s add some space back into this reversed inscription: I show not your face but your heart’s desire. Voila! This is exactly what this magic mirror did. It came with its own instructions. The writer was playing with us!
Death by Scrabble
Which brings me to my next example. I came across a four-page “science-fictionish” short story called “Death by Scrabble” by Charlie Fish. It was short enough for a quick read, so I read it. Ha. What a pleasant surprise it was. The writer was playing with my mind again. It’s about a husband and wife playing a simple game of Scrabble. How can a writer make a short story about such a simple theme as that? Let me further tell you that this game of Scrabble ends in “death” in two senses of the “word”. Is that playful or what!
Read the story for yourself at the linked title before you continue to read further to avoid a spoiler.
Now that you’ve read the story — you have, haven’t you?– let’s see how the writer played with our minds in this story. There are several approaches we can take. We can (a) take the story at face value as a normal everyday occurrence, (b) assume some sinister forces were at work during this game, or (c) assume that the man became self-delusional and just snapped, and most of the story happened only in his mind, except for the Scrabble game and his death. Those were real. Let’s analyze it from these three viewpoints.
The Mundane Viewpoint
Assuming ordinary circumstances and unbeknownst to his wife, the man begins having hostile thoughts about his wife during the game. He blames her for his boring life and begins thinking about ways to harm her — and yes, even kill her. While pondering all the delicious ways he could bring about her death, he recalls his cousin who died in a bizarre way — a bee flew in his mouth and stung him, which caused his throat to swell and suffocate him. What a ghastly way to go. Now, the husband has a bad habit of chewing on his wooden Scrabble tiles, and in the course of the game, he is chewing on the letter B. As luck would have it, the wooden tile suddenly lodges in his throat, causing him to gag and suffocate right there in front of his wife. If only she had known the Heimlich Maneuver. Maybe she could have saved him, but alas, she had no recourse but to sit there helpless and frantic as he dies right before her eyes in the middle of a violent earthquake.
The Sinister Viewpoint
Now let’s look at the game from another viewpoint. Let’s assume sinister — that is to say, supernatural — forces are at work during this game. Appropriately, he plays the word BEGIN to start the game. His wife plays the word JINXED. Hm, if she were a witch, one might imagine that she had just jinxed the Scrabble game. The husband begins thinking along this line as well. It is a hot day, and he feels hot from the sun shining in through the window, so he plays WARMER. She plays SWEATIER, he plays HUMID. She plays FAN, and he plays ZAPS. She gets up to boil some water in a kettle to make some hot tea. She then moves to turn on the air conditioner and gets a shock from static electricity when she touches it. He sees her get ZAPPED and gets a deep feeling of satisfaction.
She sits back down and fiddles with the wooden letters on her tile rack. Inexplicably, he begins thinking murderous thoughts about his wife. He wishes he could beat her, stab her, slash her, slay her, kill her, murder her! His body trembles and shakes. The feeling is almost overwhelming. Finally, he breathes deeply, and the raging urge to kill passes away. Yet his thoughts linger.
She plays READY, gets up, fixes a cup of hot tea, offers him a cup. “No thanks,” he says. While she has her back turned to him while fixing her tea, he takes that opportunity to cheat by secretly exchanging some letters from the letter bag. When she sits back down, she looks at him suspiciously. He plays CHEATING, perhaps challenging her with a subtle response — What are you going to do about it, huh? She plays IGNORE and continues playing as if she can beat him anyway, cheating or not. Her steaming cup of hot tea makes him feel even hotter!
He plays SLEEP and is envious at how she can sleep through all kinds of noise while he lies awake and unable to sleep. He plays EXPLODES. (Did he just cheat again and play twice, skipping her turn?) At that moment, the air conditioner EXPLODES, which is going to make him even hotter. It suddenly occurs to him that his Scrabble words seem to be affecting reality. Whatever he plays, happens in the real world… He begins to think the game may be JINXED.
His wife plays SIGN. Is she giving him some kind of SIGN that the game is indeed JINXED? He feels a need to test his theory. He plays FLY and waits for his body to levitate up from his chair. Nothing happens, and disappointment sinks in. He hears only a buzzing sound and opens his eyes… to see… a FLY flying around the table. Nah, coincidence. There are always flies buzzing around in the heat. His wife plays CAUTION. Is she warning him to be careful about something?
He plays QUAKE. He suddenly has an awe-spiring feeling of power pulsing through his veins. She plays DEATH just as the building starts to shake from an earth QUAKE. He gasps — at the same time that he happens to be unfortuitously chewing on a wooden letter B tile. The B lodges in his throat. He struggles to breathe but his air passage is blocked. The QUAKE shakes the building violently, just before he dies — just like his cousin did — from a “B” in his throat. His last sight is that of his wife, just sitting there motionless, watching him draw his last dying breath with a smug look on her face…
The Delusional Paranoia Viewpoint
Now let’s look at it from one more point of view — delusional paranoia. The man suddenly snaps and goes insane. He begins to see events as ordained by God or manipulated or instigated by Fate when in reality they are simply random or coincidental occurrences or figments of his own overactive imagination. The wife is oblivious to all these machinations going on in his twisted mind. She’s simply playing Scrabble and getting a cup of tea. Everything else happens only in the man’s self-deluding mind.
He begins the game by blaming his wife for his disillusionment with life. All of his woes are “her” fault. If not for “her” keeping him in the home all the time, he would be talking to many interesting people, he’d be a famous mountain climber, a movie star, an adventurous traveler sailing around the world in his own expensive yacht. He was meant for greatness but “she” has held him back from achieving it. Upon seeing the word JINXED being played, he fancies that “she” has jinxed him and the game. His mind begins dwelling on how much he hates her and how he would like to hurt her over and over, slashing, cutting, and — ultimately — killing her with murderous intent.
He looks at her and “she” is oblivious to his thoughts, peacefully arranging her letters on her tile rack, turning on the air conditioner, fixing a cup of tea, sighing heavily. He meanwhile begins seeing providence in every Scrabble word. They begin predicting and manifesting in the reality around him. He is manipulating the very fabric of the universe, so powerful is his mind and intellect.
The sound of buzzing insects brings bees to mind, which in turn brings his deceased cousin to mind, which in turn brings death to mind. This strange associative linkage threading its way through his mind is because his cousin once swallowed a bee, had an allergic reaction, got a swollen throat, and died from asphyxiation as a result of this bizarre sequence of events.
Playing the game, he gradually convinces himself that his “wife” is sending him subliminal clues using her Scrabble words — “she” JINXED the game, made him get SWEATIER, offered him a FAN, chose to IGNORE his CHEATING, gave him a SIGN that he was reading correctly all the foreboding, ominous SIGNs that he was “seeing”, told him to exercise CAUTION because “she” could recognize that he was playing with powerful and dangerous forces. And finally, just as “she” (coincidentally?) played the word DEATH, his own vivid imagination triggered a sequence of events that he has previously been contemplating that very day — a “bee” (albeit a letter B) getting stuck in his throat, asphyxiating, and killing him in the same manner that that other bee killed his cousin. Perhaps “she” had even arranged for his cousin to die in that horrible way. Though his wife may have been frantically trying to save him, his twisted mind saw only that “she” was sitting there quietly, smiling at his ongoing, imminent, and ultimate death. Did “she” really do all this? Or was it all just a “mind game” brought on (caused) by his own vivid imagination?