Robert Rodriguez, a New York teacher and storyteller, wrote to ask if I know a story he likes to tell called "No News." He summarized it like this:
"A man returning home after a few months away is met by his servant, who tells him his dog died from eating burnt horseflesh after the barn burned down from a spark blown from the fire that consumed his house."The house fire started from candles placed around the coffin of his mother-in-law, who died after learning that her daughter ran off with the hired man.
" `Other than that,' the servant said, `there's no news.' "
I'm impressed that an urban raconteur is still telling this old chestnut, a story known to folklorists as "The Climax of Horrors."
Three years ago I replied personally to a query about this tale. But since it's neither urban nor a legend, I have never mentioned it in a column until now.
That question came from a woman in her 70s in Raleigh, N.C., whose great-grandmother told it as a Civil War story.
In her version, the young heir of a Southern family had been hospitalized for some time after the war. A servant sent to bring him home was cautioned not to upset the heir in any way that might endanger his precarious health.
When the young man asked, "Moses, why did you come for me driving this team of old nags?" the servant answered, "These are all we have since the other horses died."
The servant went on to explain that the horses died in the barn fire caused by sparks from the house fire that was started by candles burning at the foot of the heir's father's casket.
These summaries can't do the story justice since its humor depends as much on the style in which it's told as on the absurd placing of the worst news last.
When good storytellers perform "No news," they dramatize the series of questions and answers. That's exactly how the story appeared in "McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader," a schoolbook first published in 1879.
McGuffey's titled it "How to Tell Bad News" and phrased it as a dialogue between Mr. H. and his steward that began:
"Mr. H.: Ha! Steward, how are you, my old boy? How do things go on at home?
"Steward: Bad enough, your honor; the magpie's dead."
It turns out that the bird ate itself to death by consuming the flesh of the horses that died from overwork hauling water to put out the house fire set from torches lit during the funeral of Mr. H.'s mother.
I wonder how schoolchildren a century ago reacted to that gruesome little tale!
There are many other versions of "The Climax of Horrors" that only a folklorist would care to read. Our American versions probably stem from a British original.
I found a rather funny one in a 1958 book by Vance Randolph called "Sticks in the Knapsack and Other Ozark Folktales." Randolph collected "The Loss of Old Bugler" in Fayetteville, Ark., in 1921 but said it had been a common story in the 1880s.
A farmer returning after two weeks in Little Rock asks his cousin if anything important had happened while he was gone. The cousin replies, "Well, I hate to tell you, but old Bugler is dead."
Bugler was the farmer's best hound, and he died from eating too much horse meat. The cousin then explains about the dead horses, the burned barn and house and the wife's funeral.
The Ozark version has a unique ending. When the bereaved man groans, "No wife, no house, no barn, no horses, and three little children on my hands!" the cousin brightens up and reports:
"It ain't quite that bad. You ain't got no motherless children to worry about, since all three of 'em died in the fire, too."
Maybe this is the original "Good News/Bad News" joke, if you can call this sort of story a joke.
(C) 1990 United Feature Syndicate Inc.