On May 30, 1996, “An Evening with James Reaney & Friends” was held at the G.A. Wheable Adult Education Centre in London, Ontario to celebrate the publication of The Box Social and Other Stories, a collection of James Reaney’s short fiction.
I was a student at the University of Toronto in the last years of the 1950s, and James Reaney — who had been cutting an odd swath there several years before — was still an oral tradition. He was known as an enfant terrible who’d published a scandalous story called “The Box Social,” which dealt with gynecological matters unmentionable at that time, and dealt with them in a shocking fashion. (Inside the box of the title — supposed to contain a lunch — there was a fetus.) Nobody seemed to know where this story could actually be read, so its reputation was in consequence tremendous. (I’m happy to say it has now finally been republished.) Reaney was also remembered as having staged a production of Beowulf in which Beowulf himself turned out to be the monster who was murdering and eating his own faithful followers. The more you think about that, the more plausible it becomes.
I was in the Honours English course, and as a consequence we read almost no Canadian literature; but my older brother was in Honours Biology, which included a Canadian literature course. You may ponder the logic of that — why them and not us? Maybe the biologists took CanLit because it was thought to have a lot of animals in it. However, I was in the habit of reading my brother’s books, and it was in the first Robert Weaver short-story anthology that I came across Reaney’s story “The Bully.” It made a big impression on me — it seemed a way of writing about Canadian reality that did not confine itself to the strict social realism that was mostly the fashion then. I went on to read all of Reaney’s poetry available at the time: here was a fresh, brilliant, and quirky literary landscape in the process of being formed and, I should say, against considerable odds…. [Excerpted from Margaret Atwood, “Remembering James Reaney”, Brick Issue 82 (Winter 2009), page 160.]
Note from Susan Reaney: The event was part of the For the Love of Literacy Writers Festival organized by London educator Win Schell to bring local writers to the school. (James Reaney: Listening to the Wind, a film biography of James Reaney produced by Nancy Johnson of Lockwood Films, was to have had its premiere that night, but had to be delayed to the fall.)
After the introduction by Margaret Atwood, James Reaney had planned to read “The Box Social” for the audience, but decided not to and read “The Bully” instead. We were disappointed that he did not give voice to the long-lost story, but a friend from school days said that “The Bully” was an entirely appropriate story to read in a high school.
“James Reaney’s plays — Colours in the Dark (1969), Baldoon (1976), and The Donnellys (1974-7) — as well as his short stories “The Bully” and “The Box Social” (reprinted in The Box Social and Other Stories in 1996), also assume Gothic elements of the macabre rooted in nightmarish families and uncanny action. […]
What makes this locale so prone to Gothic tales is the failure of communication between family members or social groups. In the absence of communication, strange projections and psychological grotesqueries spring up and rapidly grow to unmanageable proportions. Malevolent fantasies are the source and sustenance of the Gothic tradition.”
— Michael Hurley and Allan Hepburn in The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, pages 593-594. William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.
“The Box Social” was originally published in 1947 in The Undergrad at the University of Toronto, and then in the popular magazine The New Liberty. Here’s what Reaney had to say about why he wrote the story, in an autobiographical piece from 1992:
“Out of the deep past it somehow came to me, I think from my mother talking about the way men treated women in our neighbourhood. They never struck back; well, in my story one of them did.” (James Crerar Reaney, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 15, page 304.)