Saturday, January 31, 2009

January 31 - "The Woods Be Dark"

“The Woods Be Dark”
by Bentley Little
The Collection (2002)

* * * (Good) Supernatural

After her brother begins to return each night from death, Beth is forced to venture into the dark woods to complete the ritual. Having fulfilled the ritual once before, she now hesitates to revisit the deep woods.

Written with an attention to realistic speech, it takes a moment to acclimate yourself to the colloquial Southern dialogue. But once you do, these characters – especially the narrator, Beth – feel all the more real. And the supernatural circumstances and superstitions surrounding them become all the more startling. However, the “ritual” was nothing new and fairly routine. There were moments and settings (the ruins and the shack) that could, and should, have been explored more deeply. In his introduction to the story, Little mentions that at the time he was working on a “slew of interconnected Southern Gothic stories,” and it is my hope that these neglected moments are explored further in other tales. Tales in this same collection would fantastic.

Friday, January 30, 2009

January 30 - "Brant Bites Back"

“Brant Bites Back”
by Ken Bruen
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * (Okay) Crime

Roberts reluctantly teams up with the irascible Sergeant Brant to track down the mysterious bloke beating - and biting - local women.

This story was trucking along fine until the last quarter of a page. After a perfectly succinct, snarky, and memorable ending, a tacked on postscript changed the character dynamics that worked so well throughout the story, and tossed in an unnecessary – and out of the blue – final revelation. Aside from the ending, I did rather enjoy Bruen’s realistic foreign dialogue and use of expression. I’m aware Bruen has written other popular mysteries, and would not be surprised if Brant appears in those; he’s the type of damaged character you enjoy spending time with.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

January 29 - "Maps and Legends"

“Maps and Legends”
by Michael Chabon
Maps and Legends (2008)

* * * * (Great) Memoir

The birth of a supposed utopian suburban society can be a magical thing to a young child. Armed with a map of the proposed city of Columbia, Maryland, in the late 1960’s, Chabon recalls exploring the developing community designed around high promise and whimsical ambition.

I am a suburban boy, through and through. I can see the appeal of moving to a city in its infancy, watching as buildings and lives and the eventual community, expand and prosper. I enjoy reading Chabon for both his thoughts and his prose. His lengthy sentences are well constructed and are enjoyable to read, and reread. There’s a real balance to his sentences that appeals to my persnickety nature.
“The City was a discredited idea in those days, burnt and poisoned and abandoned to rot, but James Rouse felt strongly that it could be reimagined, rebuilt, renewed.”
Here is an example of some great imagery juxtaposed with the thesis of the essay.
“Our neighborhood of Longfellow was relatively complete, with fresh-rolled sod lawns and spindly little foal-legged trees, but just beyond its edges my friend and I could ride our bikes clear off the edge of the Known World, into that unexplored blank of bulldozed clay and ribboned stakes where, one day, houses and lives would blossom.”
It all works together to offer an exciting glimpse into the early life of both author and community.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

January 28 - "The Red Fox Fur Coat"

“The Red Fox Fur Coat”
by Teolinda Gersao
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * (Great) Parable

A bank clerk notices an amazing red fox fur coat in the furrier shop on her way home from work one evening. So taken with the coat she returns the next day to examine it more closely. Deciding to put the coat on layaway, the bank clerk begins a transformation as she squirrels away her money until the moment the coat is finally hers.

I began to question myself over whether this was a fable or a parable or what. I settled on parable because of its indirect use of comparison. It’s this comparison between woman and fox that lends the story its strength. It’s always difficult to determine how much of the word play is a result of the translator, and what impact the prose would have if I was able to read it in its original language (this was also the case with “Other Persons”). Regardless, this story is very well crafted, with my only complaint being the too obvious of parallels between creature and woman.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

January 27 - "The Raft"

“The Raft”
by Peter Orner
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * (Okay) Realistic

The narrator’s grandfather has a story he wants to tell - a story he has never told anyone - again. It is the story of a raft his destroyer came across one night in the ocean during WWII, and the decision he made as commander of the ship.

This is an example of a story that could have used just a bit more information, a bit more length. The problem with some sudden fiction is that it might not include the magic that can occur in those few extra pages. It felt almost like an outline for a greater tale. Coincidentally, this story has another of those moments that makes me question how I’d act in a similar situation (see yesterday). There was also some nice work done with the dialogue between the grandfather and narrator. I simply wanted more.

Monday, January 26, 2009

January 26 - "Girl of My Dreams"

“Girl of My Dreams”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * (Okay) Supernatural

Carrie has nightmares, and Greg wouldn’t have it any other way. A particularly gruesome nightmare leads the couple into the more wealthy part of town, and Greg decides after this last scheme he may no longer need the company of a woman he finds so disgusting.

A little dated (originally published in 1961), this story still has some spooky elements that resonate even now, years later. I enjoy stories that make me question how I’d react in a specific situation. Greg, however, is not a nice character. It’s difficult to enjoy a story where the lead is so despicable. The ending is fitting, but there was simply too much of Greg’s evil personality that the story lost some of its impact through my utter dislike of the main character. If the idea were only presented in a different manner – from a different point of view? – it might have worked better for me.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

January 25 - "Dolan's Cadillac"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Dolan’s Cadillac”
by Stephen King
Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993)

* * * * (Great) Suspense

Dolan killed Robinson’s wife with eight sticks of dynamite wired to her car to keep her from testifying against him. In the years since her death, there has been only one voice demanding, one thought heavy on his mind: revenge. The plan – patient and perfect – forms after trailing Dolan in his Cadillac on one of his routine trips between California and Las Vegas. Robinson will take care of Dolan - Cadillac and all - once and for all, even if it kills him trying.

I enjoy stories in which characters undergo transformations. Robinson transforms himself from a lumpy, soft schoolteacher into a cold, hard angel of revenge. The meticulousness of his plot doesn’t bog down the story; the writing drives along at a quick pace. As with most of King’s characters, you understand the pain and motives that drive Robinson to the deeds done, and you sympathize with him. Brutal as revenge can be, you are right there with Robinson, willingly and eagerly carrying out the plan against the untouchable Dolan.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

January 24 - "Chivalry"

by Neil Gaiman
Smoke and Mirrors (1998)

* * * * (Great) Fantasy

Mrs. Whitaker, in her weekly visit to the secondhand shop near the post office where she collects her pension check, discovers the Holy Grail among the multitude of used objects. Taking it home, cleaning the age from the cup, she then places the Grail on her mantelpiece between a small china basset hound and a photo of her late husband. One day not long after she brings the Grail home, a mysterious visitor on a quest arrives at her front door.

Once again Gaiman does not disappoint. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine Mrs. Whitaker and her weekly routines. This allows the reader to feel an active part of the story as it unfolds. The fantastical elements of the tale aren’t heavy-handed – they seamlessly blend into the ordinary world, feeling only slightly off, slightly magical. Not a huge fan of fantasy fiction, I prefer when the rudiments of fantasy appear unobtrusively in the real world, such as they do here in this bittersweet story.

Friday, January 23, 2009

January 23 - "A History of Everything, Including You"

“A History of Everything, Including You”
by Jenny Hollowell
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

The title of the story says it all: this is a history of everything. From the spark of creation until the narrator’s last flickering moments with the love of her life, this story examines the world around us.

These three pages of perfection blew me away. For an author’s first published story, this is pretty impressive. What makes this story sing are its sentences. Each sentence has a rhythm – a styling – that makes it both unique and absolutely necessary to the overall picture being created. In clumsier hands this very well could have turned out to be one boring list after another. Instead, each word has been thoughtfully – artfully – placed, packing each sentence with the power that makes this story so remarkable. These two paragraphs are excellent examples of Hollowell’s prose styling:
“Life evolved or was created. Cells trembled and divided and gasped and found dry land. Soon they grew legs and fins and hands and antennae and mouths and ears and wings and eyes – eyes that opened wide to take all of it in: the creeping, growing, soaring, swimming, crawling, stampeding universe. Eyes opened and closed and opened again; we called it blinking.”
“Above us shone a star that we called the Sun and we called the ground the Earth. So we named everything, including ourselves. We were man and woman, and when we got lonely we figured out a way to make more of us. We called it sex and most people enjoyed it.”
This will be a hard story to top for my favorite of the year. I can’t find anything wrong with it at all. I mean, it covers everything, including the theoretical me, and does so without a single misplaced word.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

January 22 - "The Gift of the Magi"

“The Gift of the Magi”
by O. Henry
The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories (2002)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

Devoted Della is desperate to find enough money during hard times to purchase the perfect Christmas gift for her husband Jim. Through sacrifice she finds the money required to buy that elusive gift. Convinced of Jim’s impending delight, Della waits anxiously for his return from work. Only, Jim arrives with a gift of his own for his thoughtful wife.

It is probably best to come across a story written by O. Henry without any prior knowledge. If you know the ending, or the clues that get you there, quite a bit of the power of the story is lost. The introduction to this collection mentions the gifts wife and husband give each other, along with supplying that word “irony,” and my mind quickly recognized the supposed twist ending long before I reached it.

(And by now I may have spoiled the story for you.)

So, some of the enjoyment of the story was lost, but overall it is quite a nice little tale. There are some awkward parts, due largely to the gap between when the story was written and the present day, but I’m anxious to read more, trying a tale where the ending remains unknown and hidden behind an unexpected twist in the tale – O. Henry’s lasting mark on short stories.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

January 21 - "Other Persons"

“Other Persons”
by Juan Jose Millas
translated by Tobias Hecht
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

While recuperating at home after a car accident, the narrator comes to realize he is no longer the person he was before the accident; he is another person hiding in a life no longer his own. As this other person he comes to recognize something new and beautiful about the woman who was once – and still is – his wife.

Sometimes the best stories are the shortest stories. This story, translated from the original Spanish by Tobias Hecht, is the first in a collection of “sudden fiction” stories. These are stories of only a few pages in length. There is some nice imagery and word work done in this tale.
"We sat together on the tombstone and watched our shadows, projected on the wall by candlelight, commingle and fuse and form beautiful silhouettes of love."
The message of the story is swiftly examined, and the ending doesn’t feel rushed, but natural. That’s a lot to accomplish in three pages.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

January 20 - "Small Country"

“Small Country”
by Nick Hornby
Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren’t as Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, A Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn’t Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out (2005)

* * * (Good) Children's

Stefan wasn’t entirely sure why his country, Champina, couldn’t be found on a map. It was not until – in a moment of embarrassment – his teacher had to explain that Champina was no larger than a field that Stefan began to really understand where he lived. And it wasn’t until his father hurt his foot that sedentary (by choice) Stefan was able to help his tiny country through his participation in a game of football.

This collection will, no doubt, have the longest title in this year of reading. This is a children’s short story collection put together by the talented – and hilarious – folks at McSweeney’s. Hornby is an author I enjoy very much, and this short story is another great example of his interesting character writing. Stefan has a dry sense of humor that is unique – and interesting – to see in a younger child. This humor is often apparent in Hornby’s adult work, and refreshing to see in a story about a child who doesn’t understand his entire (small) country’s obsession with football. This collection will be full of these interesting little literate – but absurd – short stories, and I can’t wait to continue reading.

(Thank god for the ability to copy and paste the title, though. Even the abbreviation – which they do provide on the page preceding the title – is unwieldy.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

January 19 - "Countdown"

by Jonathan Maberry
[free download from Macmillan Trade Publishers] (2009)

* * * (Good) Pulp

While listening to tapped phones for Homeland Security, Baltimore PD officer Joe Ledger heard a brief conversation mentioning the terrorist El Mujahid. This mere mention is enough for S.W.A.T. to storm a suspicious warehouse on the docks. In the firefight that ensues, something stumbles out of a mysterious blue box surrounded by armed terrorists.

I have been tempted to read Jonathan Maberry for a while now. He has won the Bram Stoker award (a prestigious award for horror writing), and I’m always looking to discover new, talented authors. I happened across this promotional short story for his new book, Patient Zero, and thought this sounded like just my chance to sample his writing. And it’s quite entertaining. The action is well written and exciting, and the pulpy feel of this short story was a pleasant surprise. It even included a memorable line of dialogue from the movie Silverado: “I don’t want to kill you and you don’t want to be dead.” Any story that manages to quote one of my favorite westerns is bound to score some bonus points with me. I’m looking forward to the March release of Patient Zero, which will continue the tale of Joe Ledger and the surprise he found in the large blue box.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

January 18 - "Autopsy Room Four"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Autopsy Room Four”
by Stephen King
Everything’s Eventual (2002)

* * * (Good) Horror

Howard Cottrell awoke to find his body unresponsive, even his eyelids failed to perform their simple act. He was paralyzed and rolling toward room four. Unsure whether he was alive or dead, Howard struggled to get the attention of the coroner before the act of an autopsy answered the question – with finality –for him.

King does a great job building suspense and tension throughout the story. You begin to wonder how you’d feel and think if you were aware and on the slab. Knowing King’s stories don’t often flinch at the horror or unhappy endings, the intensity of the tale stays jacked up all the way through to the resolution. There is an afternote to the story that I feel diminishes the overall impact of the ending. It feels tacked on, and doesn’t add anything but an unneeded explanation for the cause of paralysis. Still, successful tales – horror stories in particular – are those that examine common fears and questions, and with these King is master.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

January 17 - "Untitled Story" (previously, "Exile of Atlantis")

“Untitled Story” (previously, “Exile of Atlantis”)
by Robert E. Howard
Kull: Exile of Atlantis (2006)

* * (Okay) Pulp

Kull arrives back to his adopted village to find a young girl bound to the burning stake. After a night of discussion bordering on the blasphemous with his hunting companions, Kull, strengthened by visions of future sovereignty and the incredulity of a people who would kill one of their own for such petty reasons, springs to action.

This was my introduction to Robert E. Howard. I decided to begin with Kull instead of Conan simply because Kull came first. I enjoy experiencing it as an author grows with his or her work. This very short story supposedly serves as introduction to Kull – yet was not published until well after the first tales of Kull appeared. Brief as it is, the story is somewhat confusing – almost as though the reader would already have an understanding of the character, time, and setting. It's as though a larger portion of the story is missing - maybe why this tale wasn't published until long after Howard's early death. That said, I’m interested to jump into this world and follow the exploits of the exiled king of Atlantis.

Friday, January 16, 2009

January 16 - "It Was Romance"

“It Was Romance”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* (Eh) Realistic

Humans are different from animals in that they live their lives in the space directly in front of their face. This is the place that romance blooms. A group of women are participating in a session designed specifically to explore and ignite that missing romance in their lives, and two women find that romance in the most unexpected of places.

I have to be honest; I didn’t get this story at all. Its only saving grace was a few nice sentences.
"We could smell each other's shampoo and the laundry detergents we had chosen, and I smelled that she didn't smoke but someone she loved did, and she could feel that I was large but not genetically, not permanently, just until I found my way again."
"We had loved people we really shouldn't have loved and then married other people in order to forget our impossible loves, or we had once called out hello into the cauldron of the world and then run away before anyone could respond."
I think my problem lies in the fact that I didn’t understand the idea of the world existing directly in front of the face. Whatever symbolism or deeper understanding I - as the reader - was supposed to pull from the story, just simply didn’t exist for me. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I’m left gaping blankly at the final sentence, no idea what I’ve completed reading.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January 15 - "Cat 'N' Mouse"

“Cat ‘N’ Mouse”
by Steven Millhauser
Dangerous Laughter (2008)

* * * (Good) Humor

The mouse and cat are forever trapped in an endless cycle of schemes and violence and mayhem. In the moments between exploding sticks of red dynamite and carefully concocted traps, both mouse and cat ponder a life without the conflicting company of each other’s presence.

This literary cartoon acts as both introduction to a story collection, and my introduction to author Steven Millhauser (Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” which was the basis for the movie, The Illusionist). This story is a lot like the shorts before the Pixar movies, not some throwaway piece of entertainment meant to run in those five minutes as the tardy patrons finally find their seats in the darkening theater. There’s action, laughs, and enjoyment in this setup to the main event. While there is only a thin line of story holding this tale together, it is structured more as flashes of insight than normal narrative. And for its subject matter – essentially a mash-up of the best of Tom and Jerry cartoons – the format succeeds. There is some nice prose displayed, full of entertaining sentences and vivid imagery. At just a bit too long, the story does end in the only way this eternal struggle could end. I’m now more curious where this collection of stories will lead me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

January 14 - "Prey"

by Richard Matheson
I Am Legend (1995)

* * * (Good) Supernatural

Amelia found the perfect birthday gift for her boyfriend, a skeletal, wooden doll of an ancient hunter, its spirit bound to doll by a single golden chain. Or so the story went. After a couple of disastrous phone calls, Amelia decides to run a bath, and absentmindedly places the doll precariously on the edge of her coffee table. The doll topples from the table, the chain slips loose, the hunter’s spirit unbound.

While parts of the story (the concept and eventual ending) were fairly predictable, the story still managed to maintain a level of suspense that gave it its punch and power. Not the world’s greatest fan of stories involving inanimate objects come to life, the creepiness factor of such tales does give me the reaction I seek when experiencing works of the supernatural or horror: fear. I do know if I were ever given a skeletal wooden doll, complete with 8-inch pointed spear, I’d chuck that thing out the nearest window. Into a wood chipper. And bury the pieces. Deep. This pirate don’t truck with no demon dolls. But I will read about them, and enjoy it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

January 13 - "Trickster in a Suit of Lights"

“Trickster in a Suit of Lights”
by Michael Chabon
Maps and Legends (2008)

* * * * * (Excellent) Essay

A collection of compelling arguments in favor of entertainment and the pleasure it provides us. Also included is an argument for the best type of short story.

This is the essay that would have sparked this project if I hadn’t already stumbled upon the idea by chance or luck a month ago. Chabon’s view of entertainment is not a newly voiced opinion on the topic. His are views shared by Stephen King and many other authors of works typically deemed less-than-literary. What they do, however, is explain – so much better than I – my own views on the topic. Entertainment is not a “guilty pleasure” – I, and many others, just don’t feel guilt for taking pleasure in entertainment. And just because a work falls nicely into a certain genre does not make it any less worthy of attention, of enjoyment. According to Chabon, genre stories are simply stories that follow certain rules and patterns – not that different from any “literary” tale that follows the structure of the tales that came before it. It all goes back to that idea that there are only a handful of stories in the word. In fact, Chabon suggests that the most powerful, most meaningful modern (short) stories are those that skirt the gray area between “literature” and genre.

There is so much going on in this essay that I can’t possibly do justice to the thoughts and arguments presented. I can only hope that people find this essay – take it to heart – and believe in the power, pleasure, and rightness of entertainment.

Monday, January 12, 2009

January 12 - "The Sanctuary"

“The Sanctuary”
by Bentley Little
The Collection (2002)

* * (Okay) Horror

Cal came home from school to find that his mother had sinned again, given in to The Rage. Torn between turning his mother in to the authorities, or something much worse, Cal notices that familiar glint in his mother’s eye.

A fan of Little’s novels, I purchased the collection on whim to read the story, “The Washingtonians,” because of the Masters of Horror episode based on the tale. Both turned out to be adequate, but not near as good as the other stories I’d read of his. The same is true of “The Sanctuary.” There’s nothing overtly wrong with the story, and it contains enough creepiness to succeed in its genre, but there’s nothing special or newly unique. Originally published in 1989, it appears to be one of the earliest stories in the collection, and his strength as a horror writer has only grown. It does win a couple of points for examining – rather harshly, but maybe accurately? – the home life of certain religious extremists. (I’m sure that’s an unfair generalization, but jeez, those people creep me out.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

January 11 - "The Gingerbread Girl"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The Gingerbread Girl”
by Stephen King
Just After Sunset (2008)

* * * * * (Excellent) Suspense

Emily began running to escape the sadness of the death of her baby daughter. At first she ran from the pain, then from her marriage, before finally finding some small measure of peace while running the beach and two-mile stretch of road on the summer-deserted Vermillion Key in Florida. And then one day, with one quick peek past the open gate of the Pickering place – one glance at something not supposed to be seen - Emily finds herself running for her very life.

This is yet another amazing story by King. If you didn’t know the author and simply started this story, you wouldn’t even imagine where the tale eventually ends up. I know stories by Stephen King, and even I was surprised halfway through when things took a horrific turn. King is a master at creating truly evil characters that, while quite crazy, still seem real and possibly waiting right down the street. He also manages to create believable “regular” folk – with all their problems, feelings, emotions, and weakness. While Emily is a victim, you never feel she is without reason or strength (a common trait in female victims in horror stories). Crafted so well is this story that I can’t help believe it won’t be picked up and filmed some day like so many of King’s works.

Sundays with Uncle Stevie

The idea came to me today – and when I checked back a few posts to “Willa” and found that serendipitously it would work – I was pleasantly pleased.

Sundays, for the foreseeable future, will find me enjoying the company of a short story written by Stephen King (“Uncle Stevie”). I currently have two short story collections of his on my shelf, which should get me through half a year of Sundays. From there we’ll see where things lead me. I know he’s written more short stories; it would simply be a matter of tracking them down. Or I may take a break and spend my Sundays with some other author, or many.

For now, it’s Sundays with Uncle Stevie.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

January 10 - "The Shadows, Kith and Kin"

“The Shadows, Kith and Kin”
by Joe R. Lansdale
The Shadows, Kith and Kin (2007)

* * * * (Great) Supernatural

A raging storm has kept our narrator trapped inside his home; well, his in-laws’ home. After all, he can’t do anything – they all told him so: his wife, and her parents. But it was a night not long before the storm that the shadows began to visit him on the front porch. The faceless shadows reminded him that he and they weren’t all that different, and that he could do a few things real well, like shoot.

It has been years since I’ve read a short story by Lansdale, but this was just as great as I remembered his work being. The sentences are simple, and yet frighteningly good. The story moves along nicely, and the words gather you up and place you on the porch next to the narrator awaiting his shadowy kith and kin. You feel the tension as the narrator slowly comes apart. You know what that smell is hiding behind the duct-taped bedroom doors. You understand what will happen as soon as the storm lets up. It’s a chilling tale – an unforgiving tale – but it’s well written, and thus, ultimately satisfying. Even if it does make you jump at the shadows cast as the sun drops below the horizon.

Friday, January 9, 2009

January 9 - "The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds"

“The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds”
by Neil Gaiman
M Is for Magic (2007)

* * * (Good) Pulp

There’s been a murder in Nurseryland, and private dick, Jack Horner, is on the case. It wasn’t that the deceased Fat Man – Humpty Dumpty – deserved justice, in fact, he was a real bad egg, but times were tough and the dame, Dumpty’s sister, was a knockout. It is only after the third murder in less than a week, and the mysterious lead about the four and twenty blackbirds, that Horner realizes Dumpty’s sister knows more than she let on when first hiring him to put the pieces together.

I find it amusing that in a collection of stories for younger readers I find a pulp tale of private dicks, dames, hooch and murder. More amusing is the setting and characters. The tale is populated by familiar nursery rhyme folk gone bad. Gaiman does a great job taking these characters and transporting them credibly into a world of shadowy noir. However, the ending was a bit too pat, with clues only sparsely seeded throughout. This is true of a lot of mystery fiction, but only more obvious in a story of shorter length. As a fan of flights of fancy involving fable folk (i.e. the great Fables comic series) and hardboiled detective fiction, I still enjoyed this simple little story of tiny dicks - midget detectives - and bad eggs.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

January 8 - "This Person"

“This Person”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

This person is having a great day. This person has found that everyone she knows has gathered together to show this person his or her love. Enjoying the attention and love, this person decides to check her post office box for mail – this person wants her mail - and that’s where this person comes to a realization.

This is the type of quirkily sweet – yet slightly sad – story I expect to find in a collection by July. This is the type of “cute” story that can only last so long before becoming tired or obnoxious. The idea of making this story so generic, and yet so true, is what allows it to be so clever. Written from an omniscient point of view, and rambling like our collective minds do, it doesn’t take more than a paragraph or two before you find yourself becoming, “this person.” If you don’t know the people this person meets at her picnic, you know someone similar, someone else who would fit right in with the rest of them. They are the people that populate our lives. They are the source of our happiness, of our depression. We all are this person.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

January 7 - "Ten Dimes"

“Ten Dimes”
by Mike Toomey
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * (Okay) Crime

Everyone who’s anyone has heard the tale of the Ten Dimes from a friend who heard it from a friend who actually knew the guy who lifted them from The Man on his way into the ground. A cautious fence, with a personal interest in the dimes, agrees to make a rather unfair trade for them.

From an anthology titled Hardcore Hardboiled, and an introduction warning of the toughness of the following tales, I was less than pummeled by this story. The dialogue was realistic enough – tough enough to be credible – but the story felt very PG and only slightly differed from any number of other similar heard it from a friend yarns. I may simply be a soiled soul no longer so susceptible to shock. But, I was pleased to be correct in my guess as to the identity of The Man. My limited knowledge of 50’s and 60’s singers and actors finally paid off.

It’s been said that there are only a handful of stories in the world, and that each new tale is only a recycled jumble of something told better before. And while this seems the case with “Ten Dimes,” I have hope - hope that springs from other stories, such as yesterday’s, “Armageddon,” that take these supposed handful of stories and pound them into something original - slightly different, slightly better.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

January 6 - "Armageddon"

by Fredric Brown
From These Ashes (2000)

* * * (Good) Science Fiction

Herbie Westerman had seen the magician - Gerber the Great - perform before. He knew the next trick would involve the aid of a young volunteer from out of the audience, and he didn’t waste a moment asking his mother for permission. But once on stage, events take a turn for the worst, and it’s up to Herbie and his recently acquired water pistol to save the world.

Written in 1941, it’s reassuring to know a story can survive 68 years and still stand proud. There are a few dated references and phrases peppered throughout, but the story – the idea – still works all this time later. The notion that a single, simple event, halfway across the world, can result in catastrophic consequences elsewhere can still be seen and heard in pop culture today. And it’s still entertaining.

Also, I found it impossible not to start the story with a slight smirk when I saw the title, “Armageddon,” and read the first sentence: “It happened – of all places – in Cincinnati.

I, for one, was not at all surprised.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Trouble with Horror

After reading my third story of this nature in less than a week, and struggling to classify it as simply Horror, I find myself changing my genre categories already.

It was “Willa” that brought me to rethink my Horror category, and “The Wedding Present” that forced me to edit my previous posts and correct such an error in classification. Stories such as these are more apt to be categorized as Supernatural than horror.

More on this troubling genre of horror to come…

January 5 - "The Wedding Present"

“The Wedding Present”
by Neil Gaiman
Smoke and Mirrors (1998)

* * * * (Great) Supernatural

A newlywed couple finds a mysterious note among their wedding gifts that beautifully details their wedding day. Packed away and rediscovered years later, the note now tells a different tale.

For a story hidden in the introduction to the collection, Gaiman kicks things off with a real corker of a tale. It’s not a new idea – never claims to be - with its obvious literary reference blatantly acknowledged midway through the unraveling of the story. It’s simply a splinter of the original. And sometimes, as is the case here, as is the case of suspense done well, an old idea – twisted – serves to propel the story through expectation. You already know how the story is going to end, but you simply can’t forego that familiar ending. It’s like visiting old friends, sharing the same tired stories, but still reveling in the company.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

January 4 - "Willa"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
by Stephen King
Just After Sunset (2008)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

Willa had had enough waiting around for the special from Amtrak to come rescue them from their stranded state on a platform in the open country of Wyoming. Her fiancĂ© David takes off after her, into the gathering darkness, against the repeated recommendations of the other passengers, in face of the wild cries of animals roaming the wide country all around him. She’s his girl, and he will not leave without her. In his search for Willa, David comes across a roadside honky-tonk and stumbles upon an eye-opening truth.

Stephen King is a master of the form. This is an example of a short story done well. The characters are well formed, even those with few lines and little role, are easy to imagine, feel as true as any character in a well-crafted longer tale. The suspense builds, and the atmosphere is just eerie enough to put us - the reader - right there with David as he searches for his missing fiancĂ©. From the start, things feel don’t feel right, and as you read, the revelations and twists feel natural and not forced. Just as David came to recognize that “perception and expectation” together could be a powerful thing, I came to understand that a horror story doesn’t have to terrify, but instead can be something sweetly sad and tragic.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

January 3 - "The Sister"

“The Sister”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* * (Okay) Realistic

An older man becomes fascinated with the promised meeting of a co-worker’s sister. Recalling tales told from long ago of pretty sisters a man must meet; the narrator becomes more and more desperate to meet this mysterious sister always hiding just beyond his reach. He finds what he least expects.

Short stories are often known for their twist endings. This story takes a turn I didn’t expect and it left me a little put off. It was not that the prose was poor – the writing, especially the stream of conscious writing of the narrator’s thoughts, was great – but ending didn’t appeal to me. And this may just be a case where in not catching the message of the story, I don’t understand the ending.

I admit that I’m an entertainment first reader, message or moral or greater meaning be damned.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Little More Information

I thought I’d provide a little more information about my short story adventure.

I will read a short story – new to me – each day for the entire year. I will not cheat by reading or writing reviews prior to the day they will be posted. In my collection of unread stories I have tales of varying lengths, from sudden fiction (stories of only a page or two in length) to almost-novellas (50+pages). This allows me to select stories of shorter lengths on days when I may be pressed for time.

The one exception I may make to my rule will involve the week of RAGBRAI. Depending on the route, camping accommodations, and/or my cell phone signal and battery life, the timely posting of posts (not the actual act of reading a story and writing a review a day) may be affected.

The format I’ve decided upon begins with a short - non-spoilery – summary of the story. I then add whatever thoughts and feelings and praise and faults I find once finished.

I am starting with the following ratings system:
* * * * * (Excellent)
* * * * (Great)
* * * (Good)
* * (Okay)
* (Eh)
No Stars (Bleh)

I am also categorizing the stories - as best I can - by their genre.

If you have comments or advice or suggestions of stories, please let me know. Drop a comment.

January 2 - "Lie Big"

“Lie Big”
by Davy Rothbart
The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas (2005)

* * * (Good) Realistic

Mitey-Mike believed in the power of lies. No matter the size or occasion, Mitey-Mike found lying the easiest answer to any problem. The narrator of the story never saw the harm in Mitey-Mike’s lies until he caught Mike trying to explain his way out of a rather awkward situation involving a girl – his girl.

This is a case where the subject matter of the story instantly elevates my enjoyment. Lies are fun and wonderful things. Those lies that blossom into stories all their own are exquisite little flowers of deceit. As my introduction to this author, “Lie Big,” captured my attention. There are some well-crafted sentences and a pace that whips you right on through to the end. A fun little story with characters I feel I could find – and hang out with – right next door.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

January 1 - "Brand New Horror"

“Best New Horror”
by Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts (2007)

* * (Okay) Horror

The editor of Best New Horror, a short story anthology, comes across the story of Buttonboy that rekindles his excitement for work - his love of stories and horror - but has difficulty tracking down its elusive author. Stories this scary come from somewhere – from someone. But is that really a someone you want to meet?

I don’t know that I would have chosen as leading story in the collection, or even included such a superlative such as “best” in the title, a story that was only okay, but ultimately unsatisfying. The snippets of the story-in-the-story, “Buttonboy: A Love Story,” were examples of all I don’t enjoy in horror – mindless torture/porn. The surprise, shock ending was obvious from the outset. I don’t know if I’ve just seen too many horror movies (a problem shared by the main character of the story, and his reason for loss of love of the job and his end of the story revelations), but this story fell flat on its own, trying-to-be-clever face.

That said, there was a description of a boy’s soul leaving through his pin-punctured eyes, sounding like breath over an empty Coke bottle, that I thought was pretty perfect.

The Format for Now & "The Bees"

Here is a sample of how you can expect to see the stories reviewed/discussed for the time being. As things do do, I’m sure even this will change over the course of 365 stories.

When I first thought of this endeavor, I knew the story I would begin with. As I’ve already enjoyed this story (7 years ago), it doesn’t count for anything more than an example. I just hope to experience stories as impressive in this adventure I’m beginning.

“The Bees”
by Dan Chaon
McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2002)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

It’s the scream that stays with him. The kind of scream you never want to hear from your child. Gene’s son wakes him up some nights with a scream that has brought back memories of his past life. A life of drinking and actions he is not proud to remember. Gene is haunted by his first son. A boy who suffered. A boy in search of revenge?

As Gene’s life slowly begins to unravel over the course of 18 pages I became increasingly unnerved. The suspense builds, the terror silently sneaks up on you. I think it’s the words that work their magic here. From the feeling they convey of bees trapped inside a child’s head - tapping and buzzing - just trying to escape, to the bird-like affectations and over-the-shoulder glances in search of his stealthily odd first son, to the restless rubbing of feet together under the covers of a man unable to find comfort, the words craft images and scenes that build a truly suspenseful and horrific tale.

I’m trying to think of a scarier short story and I can’t.


I came up with the idea a few weeks ago to read a short story a day - every day – during the year 2009. I knew I enjoyed the format. I was pretty sure I had more than enough short story collections not-yet-read sitting on my shelf. It was simply a matter of “is this possible?

I didn’t want to start something so ambitious and then quit after a week, or month.

I wasn’t entirely sure I could do this – wanted to do this – until I read the comic, Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall. In the comic the main character, Snow White, has to entertain through stories to keep her head, the same as in the original Arabian Nights tale.

And I thought…

I thought, yes. This is possible. I can – and will – read a (short) story a night for the next 365 days. I’ll keep my head – I’ll save myself – through stories.