This story was first published in Graham Greene’s debut volume of short stories, The Basement Room (1935). The piece emerged again in 1947 in Nineteen Stories and then again in 1954 in Twenty-One Stories. The Basement Room received a cool response from the critics, and when the collection was republished Greene was apprehensive. In a modest preface he wrote, “I am only too conscious of the defects of these stories. . . . [It] is an exacting form which I have never properly practised.” Yet “A Little Place off the Edgware Road” is a masterly handling of the genre, combining many of Greene’s own spiritual and religious concerns with a stylistic quality akin to that of Edgar Allan Poe at his most powerful.
As Craven wanders the streets of London, he stumbles upon an old theatre, now the “Home of the Silent Film.” Desiring to be “out of the rain,” he buys a ticket and plunges himself into the “dead darkness” of the auditorium. The film does not engage him, and it is the cryptic, somewhat sinister interplay between himself and the bearded man in the seat beside him that forms the crux of Greene’s story. As the man whispers gently in Craven’s ear, it becomes apparent that he is no ordinary filmgoer. His “sticky hands,” his enigmatic references to the “Bayswater Tragedy” and the unpleasant “smear” he leaves on Craven’s hand as he dashes from the cinema bring both the protagonist and reader to the disturbing conclusion that Craven has been sitting beside a murderer. With a final, brutal twist Greene brings the piece to a conclusion as Craven makes a panicked call to the police. His world closes in on him as he is informed that the murderer has been apprehended; it is the corpse that the police still seek, and the reader’s mind is recalled once again to the banner mentioned in the opening paragraphs of the story bearing the message, “The Body shall rise again.”
This story combines many themes recurrent within Greene’s work. The cinema, fundamental to Greene, provides the setting. A sense of despair and the continual battle fought on the peripheries of insanity define Craven in much the same way that Scobie in the novel The Heart of the Matter (1948) or Raven in A Gun for Sale (1935) are characterized. As in many of Greene’s works, the narrator is male and disillusioned and is pursued by a bitter hatred of both himself and the world around him. Similarly, the piece resonates with a distinctly Catholic sense of guilt and disgust for the corporal, the body.
The distinction between the physical and the spiritual suffuses Greene’s writing. The citation from Flaubert that stands as the epigraph to his autobiography, Ways of Escape (1980), makes reference to this pervasive preoccupation within his work: “As my body continues on its journey, my thoughts keep turning back. . . .” For Greene, the body and soul are distinct, separate; throughout the story it is the fear that the physical may finally usurp the spiritual that characterizes what Greene calls “Craven’s obsession.” References to the body punctuate the text and, through Craven’s gaze, the reader is made aware of an overwhelming sense of the physical. The statue of Achilles, supposedly immortal but betrayed by the weakness of a single bodily part, opens the piece. The guardsmen’s bestialized bodies torment Craven and force him to a recognition of his own revolting physicality.
Craven’s experience in the theatre is, in many ways, a foreshadowing of his own death. The very building is reminiscent of a burial chamber, and it is not the murder that so disturbs Craven but rather the continued life of the dead man. The triumph of the physical and the assurance of the resurrection of the body deliver the last blow to Craven’s sanity and finally succeed in overthrowing his mind. He does not fear death but rather shies from a continuance of life, as is suggested by his very name.
“A Little Place off the Edgware Road” is much more than a simple thriller. The piece functions as both a psychological portrait and an exploration of the deeper religious and spiritual concerns that pervade all of Greene’s writing.
Greene, Graham. Collected Stories: 21 Stories. London: Penguin, 1993.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story
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