Lexicon Valley

Graham Greene’s Vocabulary of Light and Dark Makes This the Scariest Short Story You’ve Never Read

British writer Graham Greene at his home in Nice, France, in May 1982. 

Photo by AFP/AFP/Getty Images

For a story all about being afraid of the dark, the scariest thing in Graham Greene’s “The End of the Party” may just be his lexicon of light.

Greene may be best known for novels such as The Power and the Glory or his screenplay for The Third Man. Though a short, early, and lesser-known work, his 1929 “The End of the Party” still displays the craft that made him a giant of 20th-century English literature. Here, what is most masterful is the way Greene develops a subtle but eerie language of light to illuminate the enveloping and ineffable terror of his story’s dark. The effect is a chilling chiaroscuro in words.

“The End of the Party” features 9-year-old twins, Peter and Francis Morton, on the day of a peer’s birthday party. Peter, we learn, is “the elder, by a matter of minutes, and that brief extra interval of light, while his brother still struggled in pain and darkness, had given him self-reliance and instinct of protection towards the other who was afraid of so many things.” Especially of the dark. 

The story begins with Francis waking from a foreboding dream that he was dead. Psychically in sync with his twin, Peter says Francis dreamed of a “big bird,” “a great swooping bird” whose wings darken the room and his brother’s face. Francis is dreading the birthday party in the evening, which the aptly named neighbor, Mrs. Henne-Falcon, throws each year for her son. The party will culminate in a game of hide-and-seek. Francis will have to hide, alone, in the full clutch of the dreadful dark.

Francis’ fear of the dark, of course, is much more complicated than just that. Like Peter, Greene is keenly sensitive to Francis’ fears—to the fears of the anxious child lost and alone in the grown-up world—which we see him variously confront as the party approaches. Francis recalls the emasculation and humiliation he suffered at last year’s party, scorned by the 11-year-old Warren girls, whose “long pigtails swung superciliously to a masculine stride” and whose very “sex humiliated him.”* Psychosexual undertones continue at the breakfast table, where Francis hides his dread from a distant, mocking, and unknowing mother. The boys’ nurse—a “tall, starched woman”—casually deflects Peter’s attempts to excuse his brother from the event. Certainly further diminished by, though reliant upon, his brother’s defenses, a desperate Francis even futilely prays to God for a sudden injury.

But Francis finds himself marched along to the party, where he is paced through the program of activities. Try, Francis does, to delay the climactic game. Try, Peter does, to plead with an unsympathetic Mrs. Henne-Falcon to exclude his brother, but this only elicits taunts from the other children. Ashamed, Peter steps aside when the lights are turned off and the pair is separated. Drawing on their special geminate bond to locate his brother, Peter removes his shoes so as not to startle his brother. He finds him by feeling his brother’s “flame” of panic, by feeling for his face in the dark. 

Greene pulls us completely into the dark—into the “jump-jump” of Francis’ heart—not only through his narrative suspense, but also through his careful descriptions. We hear the hushed movements of the seekers: “Feet moving on a carpet, hands brushing a wall, a curtain pulled apart, a clicking handle, the opening of a cupboard door.” We, too, rely on touch, seeking with a “groping hand” in the blackness. 

But, above all, what do we see? In the visual matrix of Greene’s story up to this point, we see, with fitting irony, exquisite images of light, which burn like afterimages in the dark: the “central radiance of the chandelier” under which jeering children, whose faces glow with a “vacancy of wide sunflowers” as the game begins. On the chandelier, symbolic bats “have squatted round with hooded wings,” bats that flitted in “dusk-filled gardens” on the boys’ way over to the party. We see, too, the “pool of radiance cast by ten candles on Colin Henne-Falcon’s birthday cake.” The “nurse’s electric torch making a short luminous trail through the darkness,” making a “yellow circle” as the boys walked to the party across the “dimly phosphorescent lawn.” And yet earlier, too, in the silver “first light” of day as the story began, we see the “night-light” that “had guttered into a pool of water.” 

The story’s most vivid and tangible imagery isn’t of darkness. It’s of light. As the story builds to its pitch, it’s as if even the light only forebodes and reveals its own extinction, a shifting and creeping and fluid signal.  

At the end of the game, the lights “burst like a fruit tree into bloom” and Mrs. Henne-Falcon screams:

But she was not the first to notice Francis Morton’s stillness, where he had collapsed against the wall at the touch of his brother’s hand. Peter continued to hold the clenched fingers in an arid and puzzled grief. It was not merely that his brother was dead. His brain, too young to realize the full paradox, yet wondered with an obscure self-pity why it was that the pulse of his brother’s fear went on and on, when Francis was now where he had always been always told there was no more terror and no more darkness. 

In this terrifying conclusion, Peter glimpses that the darkness is more than the mere absence of light. For in Francis’ darkness, in Greene’s darkness, lurks all the cruelty of children, the coldness of adults, the tyranny of social decorum, the confusion of sexual awakening, the anguish of social alienation, the humiliation of inferiority and weakness, the shame suffered upon the dismissal, and mockery of psychological affliction. 

And in the darkness, of course, there is that “spiritual, more unbounded torture”: mortality, that final solitude, swooping in, inexorably approaching, like the great, blacking bird. But—as mirrored in the profound mysteries of the twins’ intersubjectivity—what may ultimately be the greatest torture is not eschatological, but epistemological. It’s knowing that we can do nothing to stop it. Francis’ screams only bring embarrassments. His pleas and prayers fall on deaf ears. His night light, as if false comfort, burns out. In “The End of the Party,” the light—through Greene’s artful and ominous language—only reveals the dark.  

*Correction, Oct. 20, 2015: This post originally misstated that in the story Francis was humiliated by the 11-year-old Mabel girls at the previous year’s party. He had been humiliated by the Warren girls, 11-year-old Joyce and 13-year-old Mabel.