Serendipity is how I would describe the way I came across what I can firmly say is my very favourite short story ever. To say I have loved it since my youth would not be over stating things.
Many many years ago as I was wandering through my local town centre I saw a box of $1 bargain books outside a nondescript shop . Not being able to resist I had a nosey through to see if there was anything of interest. Around this time I was going through a phase of reading horror so when I came across a collection called ‘11 Great Horror Stories’ I was delighted. It contained works by names such as H. P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe … a real treasure trove of well known names in the genre. I dutifully handed over a $1 note (it was still a paper denomination then) and went happily on my way.
As it turned out, it was none of the works by the aforementioned literary titans that would win my heart.
It was story number two that captured my imagination and earned my undying devotion – ‘The Love Letter’ by Jack Finney.
Now when I look back I realise how lucky I was to find the story as I would never class it as part of the horror genre. In fact, if I had been assembling the publication I would never have included it. It’s what I suppose you would call a romantic time travelling love story.
It is set in New York (I mean that was a good sign from the outset) in 1959 (which was when the story was published originally). A young man, Jake, purchases a desk from a second hand store. The proprietor tells him that it has come from an old mid Victorian house that was being torn down not too far away. He gets the desk home and after looking it over he finds three secret drawers, one of which contains a stash of old envelopes and an unsent letter written in 1882 from the former owner of the desk, a young woman called Helen.
What possesses him he doesn’t know, but Jake pens a very reply (with special paper, ink and a stamp) and on a whim posts it in the dead of night in an old postal substation in the area of New York in which Helen lived. Becoming more than a little interested he does research trying to find any information on the author of the letter and her life. As he goes through this process he forms a connection to the mysterious Helen, a woman separated from him by 77 years.
A week after posting the letter the same compulsion that has been driving Jake thus far pushes him further and he opens the second of the secret drawers to find that Helen has replied to him.
Jake realises he has fallen in love with Helen and writes back to her confessing this truth. But he also knows that there is only one more secret drawer left to open and then they will be separated forever. He pours his feelings into his last communication to her and dutifully posts it yet again at the old postal substation in the middle of the night.
After an agonising wait Jake opens the final secret drawer and receives Helen’s reply – a photo of herself with the words ‘I will never forget’ inscribed on it. He mourns a little and then gets on with his life, not realising till much later that Helen can send him one final message. He locates her burial spot and upon her headstone are chiseled the words …. ‘I never forgot’.
Sorry but swoon! And then swoon again!
This synopsis doesn’t do the story justice but it gives you a glimpse of the tale’s magic plot. And one thing is for sure … horror it most certainly is not!
The author weaves such a charming and romantic tale that I am captivated anew every time I revisit the story. It is a little under 6000 words long but Mr Finney manages to create characters and a world that spans many years and yet fill them with feeling, heart and emotion. As I reread again and again I like to stop and close my eyes, letting my mind be led by the author’s words back in time (twice) into the brief and impossible love affair of Helen and Jake. There is something so enticing about tales of relationships that cannot be. Sometimes it is disapproving family, class barriers or tragedy of some sort that keeps the pair from being together. In this instance it is nothing as dramatic but perhaps in a way more mysterious … time and fate.
Love. Romance. Mystery. History. A whiff of the supernatural. It truly has everything and more if you enjoy reading such tales. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but for me it is just about perfect. A story that you read as you curl up in a comfy chair on a rainy afternoon or consume by lamplight after darkness has fallen or seated on a park bench on a sunny summer’s day.
And despite the fact that it has been out of print for many years luck struck again. I did a quick internet search and was delighted to discover that the Wayback Machine captured an electronic copy of this wonderful story, so thanks to copy, paste and some technical magic, I can now read it on my Kindle too! I should point out that I do still own the $1 copy I bought all those years ago. I just like to keep it safe and I wanted to be able to indulge in The Love Letter on a whim which for me means an ecopy.
I can say with my hand firmly on my heart that whatever way you choose to read it, I would recommend you track down a copy and treat yourself. I am sure you won’t regret it.
Like Jake and Helen I guess some things are just meant to be.
PS. If anyone does want an electronic copy and can’t locate it, let me know and I will forward on the pdf version I have.
(Header Image: Negative Space)