(Here’s an essay written by Personville editor Robert Nagle for Boxes of Time, the 2024 story collection by Ohio author Jack Matthews)
Every time I prepare another ebook by author Jack Matthews (1925-2013), I face the same two dilemmas: 1)should I write something for the ebook and 2)should I put it at the beginning of the ebook or the end?
So why a book preface? I want to explain how the book came about and talk about recurring themes. As the primary force behind this ebook’s publication, I can explain why this particular collection is so interesting.
Before doing that, I want to point you to two earlier ebooks. In 2012 Jack Matthews prepared a free story sampler called Three Times Time which is downloadable from the author’s ghostlypopulations.com website and at most ebook stores. I’m also very pleased with a Jack Matthews story collection I put together in 2021 called The Second Death of E.A. Poe. I admit that I was afraid that this collection wouldn’t measure up to Second Death and might be a letdown for readers and myself.
Happily I can report this not to be the case. Stories in Boxes of Time (mostly from 1961-1981) are shorter and darker and deal with damaged individuals and messy relationships. Characters come from all walks of life; these stories are less about conveying ideas or an intellectual attitude and more about depicting ordinary people. In an autobiographical essay,Matthews mentions that he only started teaching at University of Ohio in 1964. Before that he served in the U.S. Coast Guard, worked on the loading docks at Big Bear Warehouse and even did a stint as private detective to investigate insurance fraud. Then he did various sales jobs (some of them door-to-door). Matthews sold encyclopedias, Fuller Brush products and even pianos (“I sold virtually nothing at Lyon and Healy’s although I remember reading Milton while I was seated at my desk trying to look knowledgeable about pianos.”) After that he worked at the U.S. Post Office for nine years while pursuing a master’s degree and writing on the side. During the 1960s, when he was writing and publishing at a furious pace, Matthews was busy raising three children with his wife Barbara (whom he married in 1947). By the time Matthews started publishing in literary magazines in the 1960s, he had enough lived experiences under his belt to write about for decades.
During my 2012 visit to Ohio, Mr. Matthews and I agreed to publish four story collections, and this is the fourth. For that end Mr. Matthews handed me a huge stack of stories and miscellaneous writings. Matthews titled the fourth collection Boxes of Time because he felt these stories provided snapshots of times and places which would probably feel remote to the contemporary reader (and not merely because of lack of Internet or cell phones).
Although in the early 1970s Matthews published three contemporary novels, by the mid-seventies, his novels started exploring historical themes. That included books like Tales of the Ohio Land (1978), Sassafras (1983), Gambler’s Nephew (2011), Schopenhauer’s Will: Das Testament (2015) and Soldier Boys (2016). Historical themes also feature prominently in earlier story collections like Ghostly Populations (1987). Some of his interest in historical fiction stemmed from finding old books at estate sales and garage sales. Matthews especially loved oddball privately-published books (and wrote enthusiastically about them in his essay collections). Boxes of Time includes two historical fantasies that are more Borgesian than genuine historical fiction (“Last Voyage of Columbus,” “Ponce De Leon”). One story that exists in a forlorn historical landscape (Russia during the French invasion in 1812) is “Comrades,” which could have come straight out of a Samuel Beckett play. “How the Trees Were Cursed” starts with letters found in an attic which lead the reader to seek plausible explanations of the past. While later novels by Matthews vividly bring the past to life (even in such absurd picaresque works like Sassafras), it is clear that the actions and morality of some characters would seem alien and even shocking to contemporary readers. Matthews does not sugarcoat history.
I hemmed and hawwed about whether to include “Gravity,” a horrifying story that captures the superstitious sensibility of an earlier era. Two weeks before this ebook was ready to come out, I typed the main character’s name (Enoch Fleece) into a search engine and was flabbergasted to learn that Fleece was a historical figure and that the events described in the story are close to what actually happened. (Check the author’s home page at ghostlypopulations.com for more info.) In the introductory essay to Tales of an Ohio Land, Matthews writes:
Historical events have not only been remembered, they have shown the power to last – somewhat enduring in symbol and memory. Old events have a depth in time, and our own distance from them gives us a perspective that we cannot hope to attain in the study of things that are happening all around us, at the present moment. Such a perspective, such depth, is part of the fascination and charm of the Past, along with the additional advantage (not at all a negligible one, although the charges of “escapism” may have more point here), of witnessing that event in the arena of time well-separated from the present. The interest we have in reading about a battle long ago no doubt comes partly from the fact that we are out of firing range; but it also derives from the fact that we are occupying a place far more advantageous than that of the participants for seeing and understanding all that was happening.Matthews, Jack, “Book Introduction.” Tales of the Ohio Land (Stories). Columbus, Ohio Historical Society, (1978). Pages x-xi.
The distance and dimensionality of the Past are essential to myth and legend. In the turmoil and imperfection of the present moment there is little that we can think of as mythic or legendary; most of what we have to cope with is too familiar, and often lamentably imperfect, petty, trivial, even grubby. No doubt all past times were like this, too, before the enchantment of the years began to transform them into something more vague, more exalted, more legendary, perhaps even nobler. We need such idealized images as stalwart pioneers and idealistic philosophers forging a constitution. Here, history and story, myth and legend, all come together, and they can indeed provide a kind of escape from the brier patch of today’s problems; but they can also provide a larger perspective and a sense of continuity, without which we would be deprived of both civilization and human purpose.
By far, most stories in Boxes of Time offer realistic portrayals of families and individuals in Midwest towns during the 1950s and 1960s. Some individuals are seriously messed up (“The Knife”, “How Everything will be All Right”, “Dream of Four Women”), while at other times the couple is out of sync with the rest of society (“Swift as the Shadow of the Falling, Ah Wave”, “The Walnut Tree”). While later fiction by Matthews is more introspective and poetic, the stories in Boxes of Time focus more on external situations and conflict. Motivations are simpler, and sometimes characters conform to a type (“A Slightly Different World”, “Gift from a Silent Lover”). There’s also a lot more melodrama and sentiment. Even though “Night and a Fire on the Hill” has a lot of activity, it has no real dramatic tension except the protagonist’s realization that this night will be important in memory. Later stories have more satire and wit —something not really found in Boxes of Time. If anything, whenever characters try to inject levity into a situation (“Truth of Holcomb Street,” “When the Shark, Babe,” or “The Walnut Tree,”) it comes off as awkward or inappropriate or annoying.
Humor and satire are important aspects of Matthews’ later fiction (especially Sassafras, Second Death of E.A. Poe and The Gambler’s Nephew). His essays on book collecting always sparkle with wit and mordant observations. It is therefore strange that so many stories in Boxes of Time should be earnest and serious. Perhaps Matthews hadn’t quite figured out what to do with his sense of humor or feared that his humorous stories wouldn’t be taken seriously by literary magazines. Certainly the amount of humor in a story is determined by the subject matter and plot. But it’s refreshing that Matthews’ early stories focused on personality and emotional authenticity rather than comic effect.
I couldn’t quite figure out when the last story “Wisdom of the Fingers” was written. It was never published, and my best guess is that it was written in the 1980s. It’s a bizarre and even preposterous story concept. By the end it should be apparent that this story is just as much about the physical act of typing words as playing the piano. Perhaps the story implies that the act of typing stories is an automatic process that the writer cannot help do (just as the concert pianist might feel a restless need to release the musical energy stored in his fingers). The stories in Boxes of Time might not all be masterpieces, but they reveal a restless energy of an author who was finding lots of story material everywhere and doing his best to capture it.
This introduction can be shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) license.
Robert Nagle is editor of Personville Press who lives in Houston, Texas. He runs the idiotprogrammer weblog, and his first essay collection NONCRAPPY THINGS FROM MY BLOG will be published in 2025.