A few weeks ago I was re-reading my favorite short stories in the Shirley Jackson inspired When Things Get Dark anthology. Tiptoe, of course, being one of the top horror short stories I’ve ever read. It’s use of dread, of language, of slippery ambiguity is interesting, and it does so many things that most readers probably won’t notice or pay attention to until it’s too late. And that’s precisely why it’s so brilliant. The story exists on the peripheral vision of the reader, much like the terrors within the story exist on the periphery of the narrator, much like how the story itself is all about predator and prey, and having your head on a swivel.
It builds in such an interesting way, with so many tiny details that might get lost, but are super important at building not just the sense of tension and dread, but also lead brick by brick up into the ending. The narrator needs to be a photographer for so many reasons in this story, the architecture wouldn’t hold up without it. And yet, reading it at first, you might just feel that it’s incidental, that it’s a detail that’s not key to the story. But it is.
Not just because the final image is a reveal within a photograph (a wonderfully creepy image it was, too!). But because of all these other subtle bricks placed inside the narrative, building the wall that closes us in. The narrator has his mother’s eye, for example, and this helps him be a better nature photographer, where he stalks the predators of nature much like how they stalk their own prey. It helps him keep his “head on a swivel” so to speak, so he can see the danger of his father and his brother.
This eye, also, is implied to maybe somehow be psychic. The aunt has visions, she sees things. Maybe even sees the father for what he is. Is that related? Maybe not in a literal sense, but it is another brick leading up to the ending. Without his eye, without the aunt’s visions, and what she sees, the ending wouldn’t land as well. There is so much happening within the edges of the story, the fire that burns down the cabin later, missing children, the father sweaty and with mussed hair during the picnic.
And again, that final image. Everything that comes before that seemed insignificant is changed. The brother at the ending, the hunting, the game of tiptoe being a way of “releasing” the predatory impulse. We even get nested narrative where the father explains the uncanny valley, and how maybe it’s for humans to be wary of some ancient predator who looked like us, but wasn’t.
Sure, there have been other horror stories to use that idea, but nowhere near as effectively as Barron does it here. Because it’s not pointed at, it’s not used to explain what’s happening. Instead, it’s an implication. Another brick, placed in the wall in front of us. All of these subtle things, they’re not exactly clues. But instead, emotional live wires that are meant to feed in this feeling of being hunted, much like how the narrator had been hunted his whole life. Even the reveal near the end, when the mother tells him of what she knew…but also, what we didn’t know, what we couldn’t expect.
Not until we see that image. Spiders, hunting, traps laid. Like a cat, playing with it’s food. It’s so interesting just how every singe scene, every single sentence, everything layers the end reveal so that it hits with maximum impact. All in ways that might never be apparent, but are there, building the sense of dread, until it overwhelms.
Personally, I think you should buy the collection to read the story, since it contains a lot of my favorite stories in the last few years. But you can also read Tiptoe online, as well.
The short story: