“Closing Time” and the Truth of the Story

September 1, 2008 § 15 Comments

Now reading: Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman.

First off, an apology to Nosferatu in Love, by Jim Shepard. I did finish it, and it is good — an imaginative biography of F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu among many other classics (I was disappointed that Sunrise was not only not featured, it wasn’t even mentioned). However, I read a lot of it on an airplane, then finished it during a hectic week. It’s got some more interesting things to say, and I especially enjoyed its descriptions of Murnau flying his airplane in WWI, and the experience of being above the clouds targeting the earth, and how that impacted his sense of what cinema could do — but I’m going to have to skip it for now. Onward.

Because Neil Gaiman is a lot of fun to read, and a lot of fun to think about. “Closing Time,” in particular, is a doozy. There are mysteries here, and ambiguity aplenty. And ooh, Narrator Trouble.

(Allow me to digress and bitch for a minute here. The Internet is a marvelous tool, and so is Google, and blogs are marvelous tools themselves. But, see here: a Google search for [“neil gaiman””closing time”] revealed roughly a zillion reviews of one sort or another in the first 100 hits, including reviews in blogs, and zero substantial critical discussions of what’s actually going on in this or any other story. Mechanisms for selling, basically, not thought. Part of the problem is the imprecision of my search, certainly, and my laziness in going through only 100 of the 6000+ hits (although things get more or less off-topic after what I saw, from a skim of later hits). And another part is the Google algorithms, and the fact that Google just doesn’t search everything: there are some discussions of this story on the neilgaiman.com message boards, but they’re buried too deep in the site for Google to recover. (They’re not very good discussions, anyway.) But might I suggest that people move beyond “I liked this,” etc. if they’re going to the trouble of writing about literature in the first place? We have many commercial vendors compiling that sort of information for us. There are already mechanisms for communicating your likes/dislikes to your pals. They’re called e-mail, telephone, and the good ol’ interpersonal conversation. You don’t have to be useful in a pseudo-public setting, but for God’s sake, would it hurt to try?)

So anyway, this is a “club story.” I’m a sucker for this genre, for reasons I can’t necessarily define: I tend to love frame stories of any sort. Something about stories-within-stories gives me a shiver of pleasure. Anyway, here it’s the Diogenes Club (named after the philosopher who famously could not find an honest man), and three young men are trading ghost stories one night. We have a first-person narrator, an “I,” a “young journalist.” (The story, according to Gaiman’s introduction, includes real places, and some real or similar-to-real events, and seems semi-autobiographical.) And we have an “elderly man” drinking by himself in a corner.

When the two named characters, Paul and Martyn, have each had a go at a fairly uninteresting story, we get this: “And then one of us said, ‘I’ll tell you a true story, if you like…. I don’t know if it’s a ghost story. It probably isn’t.'”

Wait… “one of us”? We then get the entire, genuinely creepy story in first person. And when it’s over, both Paul and Martyn comment upon it. So they weren’t the teller, who’s defined as “the storyteller,” separate from our narrator’s “I.” And it becomes evident that the old man wasn’t the teller either. There was also the proprietor, Nora, but she couldn’t have been the teller either, because she doesn’t accompany the four men out at closing time (plus, the storyteller was clearly a boy).

So: what the hell? Is this just a strange affectation of Gaiman’s? Or is it a way of dividing a person as he normally is and that same person as “storyteller”? A way of pointing out the kind of magic circle that’s drawn around a person telling and the people listening, the way they step outside of normal life, even if it’s a “true story” they’re sharing?

Plus, there’s the strangeness of the story itself. It involves a nine-year-old boy (the storyteller) who meets a group of three slightly older boys. (So we have two groups of four: the four in the Diogenes, the four in the story, with similar three-and-one groupings.) These boys show their younger visitor to a “playhouse” in the woods behind “the Swallows,” a manor house. And the door to this playhouse has a “metal knocker… painted crimson… in the shape of some kind of imp, some kind of grinning pixie or demon, hanging by its hands from a hinge.”

Fair enough, and creepy enough. But we’ve been told, four pages earlier, that the storyteller had made in art class “a painting… of a little house with a red door knocker like a devil or an imp.” And yet he gives no impression that he recognized this house, or this knocker, from his own painting. He says: “I found myself wondering what kind of a person would hang something like that on a playhouse door.”

Now, my wife Jaime (who read the story a few months ago) originally suggested that the three boys in the story were ghosts. The ending makes this difficult to accept, though, at least for all three of the boys. We went back and forth a bit on it, and settled on thinking that perhaps they were a kind of ghost of the living: memories made flesh, or the essence of childhoods lost. A kind of ambiguous, indefinable, deeply interesting non-being. This seems to fit best with the chronology of the story.

But that painting; and the weird handling of the narrator; what is going on here? I suspect that what Gaiman is doing here is something like constructing a “true” ghost story: the story of a haunting. (The story right before “Closing Time” is an avowedly “true” ghost story, called “The Flints of Memory Lane,” and some of the details in it echo in strange ways in “Closing Time.”) The “true” story is of this nine-year-old boy whose school closes down and who takes his strange painting back from its abandoned halls. He’s got a melancholy air about him. He seems, in a word, haunted, as does his landscape of “old houses and estates” about to be torn down to make way for “blandly identical landscapes of desirable modern residences.” And the rest of this story, the meeting of these boys, their strange hiding place, the playhouse, and the ambiguous evil they’ve undergone: it’s a way, also but differently “true,” of giving life to the haunting the boy feels, of explaining “what kind of person,” indeed, “would hang something like that on a playhouse door.” (Some answers: an imaginative person. A cruel person. A young boy. Neil Gaiman. And maybe you could also say that we, the readers, are the kind of people who “would hang something like that.” It’s what gives the story its shiver, after all, that door-knocker. And we like our shiver, whatever it might mean for the characters in the story we’re reading.) It’s a way, I expect, of dramatizing how we’re captured by story, and by memory, in thrall to them. They can make us do, and relive, awful things, wonderful things.

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§ 15 Responses to “Closing Time” and the Truth of the Story

  • Timothy says:

    Yours is an old post but I came across it same as you mention. By Google-ing this story I just read that confused me. Still does. I didn’t come across anybody who admittedly didn’t understand the story’s end.
    Some points I would like to make – and forgive me if you made them in your post and I missed them –

    In the beginning of the “storyteller’s” tale, he says he met three boys trying to gather a torn porn magazine (and an old one at that). Then he says that he joined in the paper chase. “Together, the three of us retrieved almost a whole copy…”. But including himself, weren’t there four? Is this possibly a typo?

    The storyteller retrieved his painting from the closed school. He met the boys while the school was still open. Therefore, he painted it from memory?

    The “storyteller” is not the narrator. I’m not even sure if the storyteller is flesh and bone.

    The old man is Simon.

    The “storyteller” met the three boys after the Swallows had been closed up. At the end of the story we learn that Douglas closed the place up. The storyteller’s father had told him that the Swallows had been owned by the Earl of Tenterden and was closed by his son upon the Earl’s death.
    Douglas was the new Earl. Therefore the young version of the boys were phantasms of sorts. Douglas was still alive along with Simon but Jamie died “not long after father did”.

    Even with those things “figured out”, I don’t get it. Who or what is the storyteller?

    • B.H says:

      Three boys’ father who owned the house after his father’s, the Earl of Tenterden’s death, and closed it up. It’s not contradictory. They have the same last name, isn’t it? So, in my opinion, it’s not some kind of confusing time circle.

  • José says:

    I assumed that the story was about child abuse and the lost of innocence. We have three boys (brothers, if I am not mistaken) entering a house their father told them not to go but built for some unespecific reason; I thought the house may represent the idyllic childhood days and the inside something dark that lies beneath, like child molestation and how they spent their whole life trying to forget about it.

  • Phil says:

    I believe Timothy was right about the time frame in reference to the painting, although I first read it like you did and was confused.

  • REBECCA says:

    I found the story confusing as well, but maybe some things have been figured out:

    I think Jose is right: the story was about child abuse and loss of innocence. There were four people left after the end of the story: the original narrator, a man named Martyn, the old man who is really Simon, and the storyteller himself, who has no name(but is real). The three boys, Jamie, Douglas, and of course Simon were real, and that this is a story about their father who was quite possibly a child molester that brought his victims to the playhouse (remember the line that Simon said at the end: “Father had his own games”) Also, there were some “rusting metal cages” that the 3 brothers were locked up in as punishment.

    Timothy is right about the painting: it was done AFTER the time the storyteller met the boys. That is why the storyteller does not mention it when the boys showed him the playhouse. He painted it later.

    It is also possible the “storyteller” is Neil Gaiman himself; the author states in the introduction of the book under this story that “As I write this I find myself wondering whether that little playhouse still exists” and so on. Gaiman also says that “some of the people and events are true, truer that one might imagine”. So it could be him. Just a thought.

  • REBECCA says:

    Let me correct what I said previously: the four that were left at the end of the story was the original narrator, Paul, Martyn, and the old man Simon. The storyteller himself already had left. These four were the last to leave that night. Sometimes one has to read a story again to figure things out, especially Neil Gaiman, whose stories are mostly symbolic.

  • Georgia says:

    I just found your post while googing Gaiman Closing Time.

    Gaiman really like to make things confusing.

    The painting was done after he met the boys, he mentioned retriving it after he left the school, but he met the boys while he was in the school.

    What was creepy about the story itself was that the boys disappeared…how big was the playhouse?

    I just KNOW that surprise!pedophilia is involved though, since this was bundled up with “Fragile Things”.

    The narrator that told us about the club is the narrator who tells us about the playhouse, he said, “then one of us”, and that could include him. In the end, he reveals that it wasn’t just three people he was with in the club, it was four, and the fourth, the old man, was Simon, one of the boys, Simon, Jamie, Douglas.

    The cages, the references to true, I remember a story, I can’t remember if it was True Crime, about a man, or two, who were exposed as horrific child molestors who kept boys in chickenwire cages outside of town.

    Something drove Douglas to suicide. Either the three boys were molested by the ‘father’ directly, OR they saw something in the playhouse that scarred them, like, the nature of the ‘his own games’.

    It’s possible that the three boys have been unknowingly luring boys like the narrator to the playhouse for quite some time, and that was the first time they found out what for.

    This tale really got to me. My father is a sexist who likes to tell rape jokes and look at teenage girls. He never touched /me/, but, I have never introduced any of my friends to my parents, ever. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I just, have this /sense/, and if Starling is right about one in 60 being a rapist…(and not knowing that they count as a rapist).

  • C says:

    This is a very old post, and I too stumbled across this while googling. It’s quite magical, in a way… rather like seeing a wizarding ad in the papers, and answering it.

    Anyway, I just wanted to add to this:

    I feel like the storyteller is either the narrator, forcibly dissociating himself with the story/his past, or some other supernatural force. In the case of the latter, Gaiman might be employing that trope in horror fiction where the group of humans somehow cannot focus on the “extra member” of the group. Nora adds to the evidence for this theory with her comment: “This place is haunted”.

    As for the first theory, if we follow a vague timeline, the narrator is listening to ghost stories in the 80s or 90s, and the storyteller was a boy of 9 in the late 1960s. Gaiman was indeed a young journalist in London in the 80s/90s who would have been 9 in 1969, and this would make the narrator of Closing Time a kind of modified self-insert, much like Bret Easton Ellis used in Lunar Park.

    A third possibility that emerges is this: maybe it’s some mix of the two? Old Simon’s (the old man being Simon is literally the only fact we’re all quite clear about…) words seems to suggest that the young teens could not have been real people. For a start, Simon cannot be older than 13 in the story. And yet the old man is described as being ambiguously old, when he should be, at the most, in his late thirties. He also says, “Those cages you mentioned, … [by] the driveway. I haven’t thought of them in fifty years.” Furthermore, from Simon’s brief explanations and the storyteller’s own note that the Swallows had been closed by the one-time owner’s son, the boys are clearly men by the time the house has been closed off. Effectively: Jamie, Douglas, and Simon could not possibly have been 15 and under in the late 1960s when the Swallows had already been abandoned for a decent length of time, but given that Simon is alive in the modern day, they can’t be the spirits of dead men either. (A side note: even if Simon IS dead, it doesn’t explain why his spirit is a young boy in the storyteller’s tale, but an exceedingly old man in the story.)

    It makes sense (“Father had his own games”) that these are the ghosts of the men as children; abuse “kills” them so that they become irreparably different. I don’t know how far this is intentional, but Jamie and Douglas are also far more active in the story than Simon is. Simon says literally one line in the whole of the storyteller’s story, and mostly participates in group actions (“the boys”). Since Jamie dies mysteriously shortly after the Earl’s death and Douglas kills himself and Simon ends up institutionalised, it seems like the severity of the abuse diminished with each sibling. It makes sense that Jamie’s “ghost” would therefore be the strongest or most (counter-intuitively) “alive”. It might also explain the kind of ambiguity about how many boys there were, because Simon was only partly there. Hence the THREE boys chasing down magazine pages.

    The playhouse is probably a typical haunted house, in that it’s a mix of the memory of pain and horror and an actual existing building. If their father took them there to abuse them, then it would be the place of “death” for the three boy-ghosts. The way they go in and disappear would then fit in with the record-loop nature of most ghosts in horror writing; they leave their place of death but must always return to it, and disappear when they return to it.

    Based on all of that, I thought it was possible that the storyteller was also a kind of living ghost. It cannot be young Simon because he is separate from the three brothers, so it must be one of the three young men. The most likely candidate is the narrator because the other two actually speak to the storyteller, and he doesn’t. But there is no mention by the narrator of any sort of trauma in his life that could have caused this splitting of spirit.

    So… no idea, really. But that’s all I’ve got, haha. Cheers.

    • Em says:

      Okay so I also found this post via Google search and love how it evolved!
      There are also the stories all three men in the bar tell about the hitchhiking female ghosts who ask people to drive them home and on the next day ‘home’ turns out to be a graveyard. The storyteller also basically walks the boys home.
      This was just a little addition, I’m excited who stumbles over this post next!

  • K says:

    Has anyone considered that the old man is the person behind the door that our storyteller refuses to enter?

  • reikelian says:

    A couple points to add to this interesting discussion. I’m convinced the storyteller must be one of the four men who leave the club and are outside, because of this: “There were four of us, not, three, out on the street long after closing time. I should have mentioned that before. There was still one of us who had not spoken, the elderly man…”. Outside, the storyteller has spoken, as have Paul and Martyn. The easiest explanation is that storyteller = narrator. The other thought I have is that the original narrator has disappeared, and whoever the storyteller is has taken over the narrative. I haven’t thought much on this, but I wonder if this storyteller is in the story in the narrator’s head, and simply doesn’t disappear after his story. This would make a dual haunting – boys haunt storyteller, storyteller haunts narrator.

    Secondly, I’m curious about the sexual content to this story. I chose not to mentally explore the father’s “own games”, but most of the previous commenters have jumped to sexual abuse. I read this story in McSweeney’s (2002) and not Gaiman’s own collection (2006), which I’ll guess it was originally written for. This meant it was isolated for me and not linked to Gaiman’s others stories or molestation that may occur in them. I noticed in “Closing Time” that the boys refer to sexual things kind of a lot: the porn mag (ALSO, this magazine is very old when they find it. A long time for something like that to hang about outside, and why would someone be destroying it so long after it’s publication? Does this timeline add up?), their peeing and penis games, and dirty jokes that we know including the word “fuck”. I wondered what this could mean; boyhood discovery, a sign of too-early sexual awakening, or a sign of their not being sexually abused because they seem to have fun with sexual content??

    I hope someone else has a jab at these questions! This story frustrates me, but Gaiman’s good enough to get me interested nonetheless.

  • Kaiser says:

    I had to read this story twice because it was very good and very creepy but confusing.

    My take on the narrative structure is different than any of the above. I think the storyteller is one of the men in the bar, probably the overall narrator. One of the four men outside the bar at the end has to be him, after all. I think he unwittingly tells Simon’s real-life story. This is similar to the trope of a storyteller bringing a narrative ‘to life’, or revealing that it actually happened once upon a time, but in this case, it is someone else’s. He mixes up the dates, relating it as though it took place when he was a child in 1969, when in reality the events he recounts involve another child who was with Simon and his brothers decades earlier. He tells the story as if the brothers are not members of the family that lives on the property, because again, it is not really ‘his’ story.

    Since it is clear that child abuse happened on the grounds, with the cages, it is implied to have happened in the playhouse – but not to Peter, Simon or Douglas, because Simon specifically says that none of them were allowed where “Father had his own games.” Obviously some other horror to children or adults takes place in the playhouse, but in the story it seems to be empty when the children enter it. I think rather the empty playhouse is possessed by the evil that Simon’s father is up to at other times, and drives the children to madness while they are trapped inside.

    A less literal reading could obviously mean that the playhouse symbolizes how the children were treated horribly by their father while growing up, and in the story they never actually go into it. But that would not really fit with my more straightforward interpretation of what happens (at least, as far as this story goes).

    The story is ambiguous enough to be chillingly memorable and not so much that it is too hard to follow or too silly to take seriously. In my opinion this is the standout tale in the Fragile Things collection.

  • Kaiser says:

    I had to read this story twice because it was very good and very creepy but confusing.

    My take on the narrative structure is different than any of the above. I think the storyteller is one of the men in the bar, probably the overall narrator. One of the four men outside the bar at the end has to be him, after all. I think he unwittingly tells Simon’s real-life story. This is similar to the trope of a storyteller bringing a narrative ‘to life’, or revealing that it actually happened once upon a time, but in this case, it is someone else’s. He mixes up the dates, relating it as though it took place when he was a child in 1969, when in reality the events he recounts involve another child who was with Simon and his brothers decades earlier. He tells the story as if the brothers are not members of the family that lives on the property, because again, it is not really ‘his’ story.

    Since it is clear that child abuse happened on the grounds, with the cages, it is implied to have happened in the playhouse – but not to Peter, Simon or Douglas, because Simon specifically says that none of them were allowed where “Father had his own games.” Obviously some other horror to children or adults takes place in the playhouse, but in the story it seems to be empty when the children enter it. I think rather the empty playhouse is possessed by the evil that Simon’s father is up to at other times, and drives the children to madness while they are trapped inside.

    A less literal reading could obviously mean that the playhouse symbolizes how the children were treated horribly by their father while growing up, and in the story they never actually go into it. But that would not really fit with my more straightforward interpretation of what happens (at least, as far as this story goes).

    The story is ambiguous enough to be chillingly memorable and not so much that it is too hard to follow or too silly to take seriously. In my opinion it is the standout tale in the Fragile Things collection.

  • utsukushuudreamer says:

    I can’t help but think, after encountering this tale for the first time today, that the true story here is of an author who begins writing one kind of tale and then finds themself carried away with the spontaneity of the creative process and ideas as they happened and ends up with a different kind of story, a whole that contradicts the sum of its parts; it could also be thought of as a story that needed an editor to question the internal logic of the narrative.

    I’m not intentionally being down on this but having recently seen the television adaptation for Gaiman’s Likely Stories, it’s telling that a lot of the details that seem to give rise to inconsistency in the prose are fixed firmly in the visual presentation of the tale – the narrator is the storyteller, there are four boys who visit the playhouse.

    Despite discourse, I genuinely – and somewhat sadly – believe this is simply a tale that ran away with itself.

  • Leonel says:

    I’ve googled this story and found this discussion, like you others in the past. It’s amazing it’s been 8 years since this discussion started and people are still reading Fragile Things and getting confused by it. “Closing Time” is such a complex and incredible story and I think many of you offer a fairly good interpretation of it, but I would like to make some comments on what might have been overlooked.

    First of all, this is a story about telling stories: it has a spiral structure, much like One Thousand and One Nights, and it is a proof of Gaiman’s exceptional writing that, in the end, the spiral sorts of “collapses” in itself, as the past (Simon as an old man) and the present (the three other men in Diogenes Club) meet.

    Being a story about telling stories, we have to consider not only its main telling, that of the Swallows, but also the two other ones. It is ironic that the story given by the narrator, the “I”, a young journalist whose job is to tell stories in a rather logical form, was the one considered most “problematic” (I believe the only one?). It has a failing logic: how could the boys who died tell of the Green Hand apparition if they are set mute by it? If they couldn’t, how did people know that they died from seeing the Green Hand? The story fails because the experience is not passed on to others. The story fails because the boys, even though they have white wair – a symbol of a long life, of having seen things, of wisdom – and that is definitely weird for schoolboys, can’t pass their ghostly experience on. I believe Gaiman is telling us about the old human art of telling stories, about how one of the many meanings of life is to teach, to tell, to get your stories on: the experience dies with yourself and life loses meaning, unless the experience becomes a story. The fact that the silence of the boys is the problem appointed by others in this narration has something of the magic, fun and brilliance of Gaiman’s writing itself.

    The second story is very different. Paul tells a story about ghost-women hitchhikers, and both Martyn and the narrator “I” relate to it. Since all the three men share their experience, this story is deemed valid and not pointed out as problematic by anyone, even though they wonder why ghost hitchhikers are doing all over England. The acceptance of this story by the circle of narrators is made due to sharing experiences, and the rejection of the narrator’s first story is due to silence, to a point of the narrative where the flow of telling is interrupted.

    The third story is the most complete and complex one and is a typical ghost story. It could be validated by its good “structure” (the other narratos don’t find a logical hole in it or anything), but Martyn doesn’t believe in a word of it. But old Simon comes in and, by sharing his grim take on the story, makes it true, or at least partially true. He comes in and say “it’s not only true, but that and that happened”. The story is validated through what Simon has to share (but we do not know if Martyn’s view on the storyteller narration is changed).

    I believe it is a story about child abuse, as many of you pointed it out. I would just like to share my view on what is another major point of it: the power of words (like fuck) and the power of stories.

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