Peter Straub’s, “A Short Guide to the City,” is a tourist brochure that describes a Midwestern town, but mentions from time to time the viaduct killer. In this pamphlet, he illustrates four areas that possess different kinds of lifestyles. The first one, the East Side, is where all the wealthy people live. Another is The Valley which contains much of the area’s history and the viaduct. Then, there is The South Side or “the city’s heart.” And finally, are the low life areas which are called “children cities” and the ghetto.
This story has many elements of the gothic genre; for example, the city is portrayed in the narrator’s eyes. Everything is based on interpretation. Just like in “Death in the Woods,” the little boy created a made up a life for Mrs. Grimes. The narrator, in this story, states in the beginning, “our society folks keep to themselves, and what we know of them we learn chiefly from the newspapers.” Stories have been passed down from many years ago, which can give a “telephone” effect of what the truth really is.
Another big issue in “A Short Guide to the City” is the citizens lost touch of the imagination. The narrator told a story of how the children witnessed a winged man crawl out of the lake. When they saw him, they chucked some rocks at him because he was eerie and not normal. He was “as cold as cancer-into their bones and bedrooms, which gave them earaches and chilblains, which in the summer bred rats and mosquitoes.” The children were the only ones who saw him as a threat. Maybe this man is the killer of the six murders? Also, the people in the ghetto are considered low lives, but are very artistic people. In this city, it appears that the more ordinary are you, the more accepted you’ll be. This idea is just like the one in “The Lonesome Place.” After the two young boys grew up, they lost sight of their childhood fear. Then, they felt guilty for not saving the fat boy from the “monster” that haunted them.
Segregation is another theme in this story. Even though the narrator says there are no prejudices in the city, it is pretty obvious there is. The neighborhoods are divided into sections. The East Side has the rich, respected citizens. The South Side has the Polish, Estonians, and Lithuanians. Finally, in their decaying dwellings, are the children cities and the ghetto. The narrator could not even comment on the “violent status” of the ghetto area. It seems that if you live in a certain area that is where you stay. The citizens only go and mingle with their own kind. Social separation is also seen in “Death in the Woods.” The townspeople looked down their noses at Mrs. Grimes, even though she was just a fragile woman. In “The Outsider,” when everyone saw the ghost at the party, they all ran away from him. So, in return, he bothered with “ghosts of the night,” or creatures of his own kind. Finally, in “Allal,” Allal never had a friend because he was a bastard child. Everyone is enslaved by their own physical attributes and environments. There really is no unity in this community other than the fact that violence is not tolerated.
In the story, violence parallels a lot of themes. The first one is domestic abjection. Violence is an “internal matter, to be resolved within or exercised upon one’s own body and soul or those of one’s immediate family.” The South Side even goes to the extreme of using a family member as a human sacrifice. “The outsider can only hope to imagine, that the whole family must die-(be sacrificed).” “The Yellow Wallpaper” showed domestic abjection by leaving a mentally sick woman locked in a room to solve her problems instead of getting her the proper care she needed. Violence also was the duality of the city. The people tried so hard to steer away from it, but in the end, there was a nut on the loose that killed people anyways. Violence is good in a sense to the South Side to cleanse evil, but yet violence killed six innocent people. Another duality could be that the narrator is the killer. We are not sure of if, but how he describes his yearnings and what type of people walk across the viaduct just raised questions in my mind. He says, “(mainly men) come with their lunches in paper bags, walking slowly along the cement walkway, not looking down over the edge of the viaduct, looking away, dawdling, finally leaning like fishermen against the railing, waiting until they can no longer delay going to their jobs.” How does he know this? In “Strawberry Springs,” the reader finds out in the end that the narrator was the killer all along. Which strikes the question, do we really know ourselves? In “The Replacements,” the main focus of the story is to keep balance in your life. Stewart’s wife should have given attention to the creature and her husband. Having violence in the world keeps the balance between good and evil. In the city, the people are very judgmental. Like in, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” deals with how people relate to humanity. Having the grandmother say these racist comments without knowing the person is as bad as having the Misfit kill people out of the sense of killing someone. Both characters do not care about humanity. It is just ironic that in “A Short Guide to the City” have citizens that are so judgmental, but cannot be violent. Both acts do not value humanity, so what is the big deal?
The most important theme from this story that is reflected in other stories is how we handle our fears. The community is frightened by violence, but why? What is the secret that makes these citizens scared of a little violence? As the reader, we cannot conclude what aggressive actions took place to cause the community’s precautions. The narrator states that the area is in “denial mode.” The city is known for its modesty-“it cherishes the ordinary, or what it sees as ordinary, which is not.” The unfinished “Broken Span” bridge parallels the cities denial to possess reality. They would rather lie to themselves to be “protected” from the truth. I believe the narrator is yearning to seek realness. He feels that the bridge lacks completion just like his city. Violence may not be the most pleasant way to deal with issues, but at times, it is just a natural instinct, or to him, “sensitivity.” The killer, in the narrator’s eyes, is the one who is revealing how the world really is. In “The Enormous Radio,” the family lived a lifestyle that had to keep up with the Jones. Everything was according to statistics even to the point on how many times the family attended the movies. When the husband bought a radio for the family, strange things began to happen. They could hear conversations of other residence’s lives. She thought everyone else had problems, but her. Actually, her biggest fear, not being perfect, was concealed because of her denial to accept the truth. Another example comes from the short story called “A Rose for Emily.” The question here is, “What is wrong with the South?” (Sorry Dr. Little) Are the people growing for the better or staying at a plateau? In “A Short Guide to the City,” we do not know what happened before violence was forbidden, but what is important is how history affects us in the present time. Last but not least, Stewart, in “The Replacements”, killed an innocent creature because he did not understand what it was. This just goes to show how people kill someone because they are afraid of it. Instead of trying to understand our fears, we destroy it and try to forget about it.