Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March 31 - "The Rememberer"

“The Rememberer”
by Aimee Bender
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * (Good) Fantasy

A woman’s lover begins to devolve at an alarming rate. From man to ape to sea turtle and simpler creatures, her Ben slips away.

Bender writes some great and often fantastical fiction. However, in her stories the fantasy is always grounded firmly in reality. Sure, a man may change from human to ape, and ape to sea turtle, but the foundation of the story – the emotion – remains realistically true: the sadness in our world is a result of the lack of feeling and the reliance on thought. For a couple that believe this sentiment, Ben’s transformation comes as no surprise. The woman does what she can to keep her man as long as she can, but in the end understands his place in the world. That does not stop her from keeping her ears tuned to the news, and her phone number listed, in case of the sudden reappearance of her lover. This story makes me want to dig out that copy of Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and dive back into a world of the strange and beautiful.

Monday, March 30, 2009

March 30 - "Something That Needs Nothing"

“Something That Needs Nothing”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* (Eh) Realistic

Two girls – one in love with the other – move away from home to find the world of jobs, rent, and love more difficult than either imagined.

So not in the mood for angsty, morose narrators. I actually enjoyed this same story when it was written as Diablo Cody’s memoir, Candy Girl - it was far less depressing. To be honest, they are nothing alike aside from the fact that each feature a stint in a peep show booth. I have a love/hate – more hate as I progress – relationship with this collection by July. These stories just aren’t for me. I must be too dissimilar to the characters and lives and feelings laid bare here to make the necessary connection. Which is unusual because I can easily find some connection with most stories I read. The banker, the assassin, the demon, the cops and robbers, etc. – there is always something to keep me entertained and engaged. In July, I am lost.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

March 29 - "The Death of Jack Hamilton"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The Death of Jack Hamilton”
by Stephen King
Everything’s Eventual (2002)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

Homer Van Meter, a member of the Dillinger Gang, shares the unknown tale behind the scar on John Dillinger’s lip. It’s a tale of robberies, firefights and speeding cars, lassoing flies, and the death of a friend, Jack “Red” Hamilton.

Now I really want to see Michael Mann’s Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. If Dillinger and his gang are anything like King portrays them in this “myth”, then the movie will be an enormous success. In this tale we learn the supposed “true story” about how Dillinger’s luck finally ran out. Narrated by Van Meter, you get a strong sense of the time through the dialogue, and of Dillinger’s charm in his interactions with each and every person he meets, be it a car-jack victim or close confidant. King perfectly captures his anti-heroic/outlaw appeal. This story teases a genre King could very easily branch out into: crime, or cops and robbers. (To be honest, I’m such a supporter that I believe King could write anything and it would succeed.) And the idea of lassoing flies creates an amazing image. That someone has the patience, skill, and dexterity to accomplish such of a feat is unbelievable, but the thought of those white threads attached to the flies floating in the air is just as funny and beautiful to me as it was to the dying Jack Hamilton.

March 29 - "The Ship with Three Decks"

A Week of Italo Calvino
“The Ship with Three Decks”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * * * (Excellent) Folktale

A boy tricked into servitude by a mangy man sets off on a quest to find the King of England’s missing daughter. Sailing a ship with three decks, the youth finds the missing princess, but must first complete three trials.

Sometimes the fun arrives not from knowing how the story will end, but in how the story gets there. A ship with three decks, each deck loaded with different cargos, each cargo delivered to a thankful island, and each island pledging future aid: we know the formula. The enjoyment comes in learning of the challenges facing the youth searching out the King’s kidnapped daughter. That the characters are no more than cookie-cutter copies of the inhabitants of any other folktale makes no difference to the story, and my enjoyment the tale.

A successful folktale can transport you back to your childhood, when times were magical, and stories – especially those folk and fairy tales – filled you with wonder. I still find that magic and fascination in the stories I read, but these folktales and fables I’ve been reading remind me of childhood, as I imagine they do for most – it is when we were first introduced. Sometimes a bit of nostalgia can brighten a day.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

March 28 - "Good For Nothing"

A Week of Italo Calvino
"Good For Nothing"
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * * * (Great) Fable

A man's shoelace continues to come untied while he walks through town. The same, light-eyed man points out this frustrating fact to him, with increasing regularity.

There are days when no matter what you do, nothing goes right. And to have this fault pointed out to you repeatedly would make anyone upset. After the confrontation with the light-eyed man, we learn that the man never did learn how to tie his shoes. It was something that he didn't care to learn. When asked who would teach his kids to tie their shoes, he assumed someone else would teach them. The light-eyed man then asked what would happen if everyone only did the things they enjoyed? I think about this occasionally; for I am the man with untied shoelaces, relying on others to do the things I find, well, boring.

And beyond the moralizing, this is a story with some great descriptions. The setting and the man's feelings of growing frustration at the continued sight of this disapproving, light-eyed man are well realized in this short tale.

Friday, March 27, 2009

March 27 - "The Black Sheep"

A Week of Italo Calvino
“The Black Sheep”
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * * * (Great) Fable

There was a town in which everyone was a thief. In this town, from next-door neighbor to government official, everyone stole from one another. And then an honest man arrived.

They say man is an animal at heart, naturally evil. This story presents a bleak, but entirely logical, lesson about the nature of man and his tendencies. It presents a utopia formed from universal thieving. In the story’s scant two pages, this utopia is challenged, and we are forced to question our own ideals. I quite enjoyed it. I suppose that has to do with my own cynical tendencies, but I digress. What I found most fascinating were the progressively logical sentences, for example:
So everybody lived happily together, nobody lost out, since each stole from the other, and that other from another gain, and so on and on until you got to a last person who stole from the first.”
Everyone is equal. (And now I wonder: Was Calvino a Socialist? I hate to think this deeply.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

March 26 - "The Man Wreathed in Seaweed"

A Week of Italo Calvino
“The Man Wreathed in Seaweed”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

A king offers a reward to the person who finds his kidnapped daughter. The search for the princess moves from land to sea where a drunkard is abandoned on a small island and finds a surprise.

A fine story, if not overly predictable. The innocent are double-crossed, the wicked are punished, and the ending is happy – the same old story, told in a different way, and at times rather awkwardly translated from its original Italian. I did enjoy the imagery, from the shape-shifting creature to drunken, seaweed-clad Samphire Starboard emerging from the sea; there were many pretty pictures floating around. It is also nice to find the occasional happy ending to a story. Most of our fictions today aim to be realistic, strive for that accuracy of life, and end up reflecting back bleak but honest reality.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

March 25 - "Dauntless Little John"

A Week of Italo Calvino
“Dauntless Little John”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* (Eh) Folktale

Dauntless Little John takes the only available room in town, a room in which no one has ever survived the night.

I’ll be honest: the magic of this story was lost on me. I didn’t understand the story in the least. Part of the problem may be my unfamiliarity with the culture – I know nothing of Italian folklore; I know little of any folklore outside what I have read in comic books and seen in cartoons. I do like the idea of an unafraid boy, but the mysteriously assembled giant and surprise ending made little sense. All the fancy sentences and styling can’t save a story you do not understand. In a collection of 200 folktales, I simply hope to find more I enjoy than not.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

March 24 - "Solidarity"

A Week of Italo Calvino
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark

* * * * (Great) Fable

A man moves seamlessly between robbers and cops during a break-in, equally co-conspirator and colleague.

The idea of being comfortable on opposite sides has a certain appeal, to be every man’s friend and no man’s enemy. The story plays out like one of those screwball comedies from the 1930’s in which an ordinary everyman finds himself stuck in an impossible – but hilarious to the viewer/reader – situation. The short, precise sentences help to convey the urgency of the situation along with the ease in which the man comfortably and effortlessly blends with each group. There is no question where this man belongs; he is simply part of the team.

Monday, March 23, 2009

March 24 - "Conscience"

A Week of Italo Calvino
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * (Okay) Fable

Luigi joined the army believing he’d be able to kill Alberto, an enemy of his.

The problem with fables, or stories with morals, is that they can often come off sounding preachy. This story doesn’t quite go that far, but it comes close. There isn’t a lot of story here, just a few awkward sounding sentences strung together to hammer home a point about the reason we fight wars. In search of the one man he truly wants to kill, Luigi kills many other “innocent” people. For this killing he is awarded medal upon medal. When the war is over – his Alberto never found – it is his conscience he must reconcile. The reasons we fight are often our own, and it is those reasons we have to live and battle with once the war has ended. It’s not a terrible message; it’s just not well expressed in this brief tale.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Week of Double Stories

I decided to take the extra time (vacation) this week and use part of it to dig deeper into the shelf of short story collections I've amassed.

I toyed around with the idea of picking a theme, or genre, or single author, but instead decided to double up with a different author each day. Reading Calvino, Doctorow (both of his on the iPod Touch with the Stanza e-book reader application), Hill, Brown, Lansdale, Gaiman, and King, I found that most days I'd find one story I enjoyed more than the other. I don't know if this tendency toward comparison would occur as naturally if I hadn't read the two stories essentially back to back, but it does make me curious. Three days (Hill, Lansdale, and Gaiman) I found the stories equally enjoyable, but the rest of the week was rather uneven.

I would still like to try a theme week, or single author week, but not for a little while. Two stories a day, in addition to other reading and life, was a bit of a challenge.

March 22 - "Graveyard Shift"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Graveyard Shift”
by Stephen King
Night Shift (1979)

* * (Okay) Horror

Hall and a handful of other men volunteer to clean the long-abandoned, rat-infested basement of the mill during the Fourth of July shut down. No one expected to find the old wooden door leading down to a forgotten sub-basement, and the evils lurking beneath the mill.

If you did not already dislike rats before reading this story, I imagine you’d look upon them now in a new, disgusted light. In this tale King spends too much time on the atmosphere and setting, ignoring the story. I never had a feel for the character of Hall, something unusual in a story penned by King, and that lack of connection kept me coolly aloof as a reader. While it is a creepy tale, and you can easily imagine the glassy-blind black eyes staring out at you from the shadows of the room, you reach the end and can do little but shrug your indifferent shoulders. Horrific, yes; entertaining, not so much.

March 22 - "Jerusalem's Lot"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Jerusalem’s Lot”
by Stephen King
Night Shift (1979)

* * * * (Great) Supernatural

A correspondence of letters tells of the mysteries and horrors Charles Boone encounters upon taking up residence at Chapelwaite, near the deserted, evil town of Jerusalem’s Lot in 1850.

In a change of format and style, King provides the history behind the town of ‘Salem’s Lot, the setting of his wonderful novel of the same name. Having read some stories from the 1800’s, King does an adequate job of capturing the cadence of the time through the voice of Charles Boone in his letters to close friends. There is the trademark suspense and tension that builds as Boone investigates the “bad house” and the tales surrounding the deserted town close by. The story’s only fault comes at the end, where things begin ape the Cthulhu mythos (maybe respectfully so, but I am not a fan – yet – of the Lovecraftian old ones), complete with conquering worms. As a fan of the novel, 'Salem’s Lot, I was curious throughout, wondering how this story fit with the novel’s larger world. It acts as prequel, setting up the horror of the house in which the vampire resides. It is a nice little Easter egg of information that adds a new level of story to an already dense and defined work.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

March 21 - "October in the Chair"

“October in the Chair”
by Neil Gaiman
Fragile Things (2006)

* * * * (Great) Fantasy

The months of the year gather around a campfire to share stories. October, in the seat of position, shares the final tale of the night – the story of a runaway boy and the friend he finds in the moonlit fields.

The brothers and sisters of the months in this story could very well be cousins to the brothers and sisters of the Endless from Gaiman’s popular comic series, Sandman. Even the idea of gathering to share stories doesn’t stray far from the format of comic series. Don’t get me wrong, this similarity is in no way a disparagement to the story here; it is a compliment. It was enjoyable trying to match personalities and traits to the individual months, but it was October’s tale within the larger story that made this an interesting piece of fiction. The tale of Runt was reminiscent of Nobody Owens from The Graveyard Book. [There are a lot of connections to be made when you enjoy the works of such a prolific author.] Gaiman is at his best when pairing the innocent and supernatural. The open-endedness of Runt’s tale is what leaves an enduring impact on the reader. It is the type of story that will come back into your thoughts long after you’ve placed the collection back up on the shelf.

March 21 - "A Study in Emerald"

“A Study in Emerald”
by Neil Gaiman
Fragile Things (2006)

* * * * (Great) Fantasy

In an alternate version of Victorian England, two men search for a killer. Using new, but effective manners of deduction, the men follow the killers's trail to an unexpected revelation.

The power of this story is its ability to take your expectations and twist them just so, each turn dropping you deeper into a world you thought you knew. The story is an excellent example of a mystery in which all the clues are explained, conclusions justified by the evidence collected. Having never read a story starring Sherlock Holmes, I can only imagine – and probably rightly so – that the format here follows that of Doyle’s rather closely. [Some research on Wiki suggests Gaiman wrote Emerald as a mashup of Holmes's first adventure, A Study in Scarlett, and H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones from the Cthulhu Mythos – which is all beyond my reading.] One of the other powers of fiction is a story’s ability to spark a desire to follow the tale to its obvious influences. I am more intrigued by the worlds of Holmes and Cthulhu than I ever had been.

Friday, March 20, 2009

March 20 - "The Long Dead Day"

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

* * * (Good) Horror

A man’s daughter says a dog bit her, but the wound is not that of a dog’s bite; it is the bite of something else, something far more deadly.

This quick tale could very easily fit in the world of The Walking Dead, or any other zombie-splattered landscape. There is nothing shockingly new here, but that which is written is pure Lansdale in style. The story is visceral, it is graphic, and it is easily imaginable – not that many would want to imagine living in a world where you would be faced to make the choices this man makes. Similarities to other works aside, this is recognizable Lansdale, and it is good, bloody horror.

March 20 - "Deadman's Road"

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

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

The road-weary Reverend Jebidiah Rains agreed to help a deputy transport a criminal to Nacogdoches for hanging, insisting they travel by Deadman’s Road after hearing the Old Timer tell tale of an evil haunting that way.

The story I was searching for all week. I had been in the mood for a western – not old-timesy and tame, but something brutal and fierce. The addition of a supernatural element only added another level of pleasure to this tale. Lansdale knows how to write the west, and horror. The slow build from dinnertime ghost story to supernatural showdown added a sense of tension and terror that kept me shifting in my seat. There simply aren’t nearly enough well-written horror/westerns out there to keep me satiated. And the descriptions: wow.
The evening sun had rolled down and blown out in a bloody wad, and the white, full moon had rolled up like an enormous ball of tightly wrapped twine.
Amazingly bleak, and yet wonderfully western.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

March 19 - "Etaoin Shrdlu"

“Etaoin Shrdlu”
by Fredric Brown
From These Ashes (2000)

* * * * (Great) Supernatural

After allowing a little guy with a pimple to use the linotype machine to print off a secret message, profitable and strange happenings begin to occur with the changed linotype machine.

While not entirely original in concept, the slow build and fascinating machine kept me anxiously turning pages. The themes of avarice and power are nothing new, but paired with a now obsolete machine, they work together to create an engaging story. This is the Brown I enjoyed in Night of the Jabberwock - a tale also involving a small-town newspaper editor, similar enough that I thought it might have been the impetus for this story (no proof – but similar enough in character – and machine – and nine years before Jabberwock’s publication). It says something about the story when you feel the need to do some research – such a fascinating machine – upon completion. The title, for example: did you know that “etaoin shrdlu” are actually the first two columns of keys on the linotype machine? If you made a mistake, it was easier to just run down these two rows, creating a bad slug, than hand-correcting a mistake in the type. Knowledge, huh? Completely entertaining, regardless of the time period; even if you have no knowledge of a linotype machine, the story is a joy to follow.

March 19 - "Not Yet the End"

“Not Yet the End”
by Fredric Brown
From These Ashes (2000)

* * (Okay) Science Fiction

Two aliens in search of a race of replacement slaves for their world locates an inhabited planet, third from the sun, which may yield promising results.

It is my understanding that most short stories, especially science fiction tales from the 40’s and 50’s, follow a rather basic format: the twist ending. This short, short story is no exception to the format; in fact, it is a rather weak example of the rule. The aliens in this story make a mistake, and humans are saved from a life of slavery. The story is mainly told at us with some clunky exposition, and the only part of the tale that appears to be written with any care is that tacked on ending – the twist. I know this story comes at the beginning of a writing career, so it will be interesting to see how Brown evolves into a stronger writer.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 18 - "Pop Art"

“Pop Art”
by Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Fantasy

A boy and his inflatable best friend, Arthur Roth, are forced to deal with bullies, apathetic and overprotective parents, and Happy, a dog out for his piece of inflatable boy. Through all of this a friendship is cemented, and the questions of mortality become more immediate and momentous.

Over the course of this story you come to truly care about Art, the inflatable boy. You know his ending will not be kind, or deserved, and that painful awareness grows with each scrap of information you collect, written down in crayon on the tablet the mute Art wears around his neck. His loneliness, his fear, his dreams of becoming an astronaut; all of these convince us of Art’s humanity, his heart, even if he is just four ounces of air in a plastic container. That is an impressive feat of writing. The ability to take a concept as silly as this and transform it into a powerful piece of writing shows a skill for story that makes me hunger for more. Two stories from Hill in a day is not nearly enough.

March 18 - "20th Century Ghost"

“20th Century Ghost”
by Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

The ghost of Imogene Gilchrist has haunted the Rosebud theater from the first screening of The Wizard of Oz through the theater’s restoration, always eager to discuss the movies that excite her.

It is funny how certain stories come along at just the right moment in time. All week I’ve been thinking about ghost stories, trying to develop this idea of mine into something more. And here is the prime example of everything I was hoping to achieve. It is both a daunting example (how could I even match a story of this caliber?) and a gauntlet thrown (can I rise to the challenge?). In this story the ghost is not the star, not the main attraction, but rather a device – an interesting and engaging and tragic device – that connects us to the theater and its patrons as we follow them through the years. It is as much an appreciation for the movie-going experience as it is a tale of the supernatural. It’s fantastic.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March 17 - "The Super Man and the Bugout"

“The Super Man and the Bugout”
by Cory Doctorow
A Place So Foreign and Eight More (2003)

* * (Okay) Superhero

Hershie Abromowicz is the Super Man, a semi-retired hero protecting a crime-free world while worrying over his pension check and trying to please both his demanding mother and his overzealous friend.

Sometimes, simply having a distraction (a weakness) pointed out suddenly makes that fault all the more clear. If Stephen King is to be believed – and I find this to be the case – then Doctorow has some annoying habits to correct, as evidenced in this story full of adverb-heavy dialogue attributions. “…said, hotly.” “…said, lamely.” “…said, sensibly.” “…asked, wonderingly.” With one of these adverb-laced attributions every paragraph, even I began to wonder if the dialogue was so weak that I, as reader, am believed to be unable to grasp the speaker’s intention and/or tone. The entire story was hit-or-miss, almost as if too much was forced into too small a space. The individual parts were interesting, but just underdeveloped, aching for more room to unfold.

March 17 - "Return to Pleasure Island"

“Return to Pleasure Island”
by Cory Doctorow
A Place So Foreign and Eight More (2003)

* * * * (Great) Fantasy

Working as a candied floss spinner at an amusement park for stolen children, George – the strongest of three golem brothers – notices the changes in the children, and his family, and starts to question his place on this paradise island.

This story reminded me very much of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the first of Doctorow’s works I read. Both offer twisted, and yet seemingly truthful extrapolations of the future and purpose of amusement parks. George, the strong golem, serves as a tragic tour guide in this cautionary tale about the pursuit of a life of pleasure. You feel sorry for George as all those around him succumb to their every desire, while he stands stoically unfulfilled, but safe. There were some repetitive and unpolished sentences throughout the story – actually making it quite difficult to get invested in the tale early on – but in the end, the story won out, and I was entertained.

Monday, March 16, 2009

March 16 - "Dry River"

“Dry River”
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * (Okay) Realistic

A man returns home to the dry river and follows it to a small pool where he is able to bath himself in a near-religious experience.

I was utterly lost throughout this story. In the beginning I wasn’t even sure I was following a person on this journey up the dry river. Part of the problem could have come from the translation of the story, but since I had no difficulty with any other of the tales translated in this collection, I must assume it was simply the story itself I couldn’t follow. That said, there were some beautifully complex and entertaining sentences trickling across the page. My favorite was a rather lengthy sentence detailing a swarm of tadpoles.
And because their jumps were simultaneous and because while pressing on along the great river one saw nothing but the swarming of that amphibious multitude, advancing like a boundless army, I was struck by a sense of awe, almost as if this black and white symphony, this cartoon sad as a Chinese drawing, were fearfully conjuring the idea of the infinite.

March 16 - "Making Do"

“Making Do”
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * * * (Great) Fable

The citizens in a town where all is forbidden, except the play of tip-cat, react strongly when they are free to do as they please.

I should have seen the ending coming, but I didn’t, and it nearly sent me off the road laughing. (Yes, I was reading while driving – but it was an empty stretch of road and a very short story.) This allegorical fable probably had such an impact on me because I could easily relate to the obsessive attitude of the folks in this town of forbidden activities and newly forced freedom. I have no idea how to play tip-cat (or even what it may be), but I do understand the frustration of others forcing me to do something I do not wish to do. Take away all freedoms, save one, and then ask people to give up that final freedom – what do you expect will happen?

Vacation Plans

Check out the vacation plans for the week.

There will be more story reviews (twice as many) this week as part of my vacation. Return here for twice the fun, daily, this entire week.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 15 - "Suffer the Little Children"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Suffer the Little Children”
by Stephen King
Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993)

* * * (Good) Supernatural

Miss Sidley began to notice a change in some of her third grade students. They no longer feared her; they had become something to be feared.

It would be difficult to do your job if everywhere you looked you saw evil. If even the innocent and innocuous became things of terror, it might be enough to drive a person mad. King does a wonderful job – as always – taking a sane, if not entirely good person, and detailing her descent into madness. Miss Sidley’s reaction to these monstrous children is not something we tend to joke about in the current day, but it fits the story. The most chilling aspect of the tale is at the end, when this awareness of the evil inside children – all children – becomes apparent to even those placed in charge of Miss Sidley's care. Is it madness passing, or something far worse?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

March 14 - "The Flash"

“The Flash”
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * * (Good) Realistic

A sudden revelation in a crosswalk convinces a man that all he once thought important was no longer relevant. As the man attempted to share this newfound knowledge with the crowd around him, he found he no longer had the words to explain.

We all have those moments of sudden insight that force us to stop and think, or stop and question. This may have been something as simple as remembering a stray thought moments after it was needed, or it may have been a more momentous moment, but it was something that stopped time, if only for a moment, and changed the way in which we view(ed) the world. This “flash” might not be the easiest thing to explain, but it has meaning to us. In that moment we are open to the possibilities of the world, and a story that attempts to describe that feeling – that moment – can be a difficult thing to write. This story gave me that moment, but left me wanting. Was there more to be had? I don’t know, but I think we all wish there were more to be had, from stories, and from the world around us.

Friday, March 13, 2009

March 13 - The City of Dreadful Night

“The City of Dreadful Night”
by Rudyard Kipling
Tales of Horror & Fantasy (2008)

* * * (Good) Realistic

A man takes a walk into the city on a motionless night and under a bright moon, observing the effects of an oppressive heat.

Atmosphere. That’s the strength of this story. You feel as though you are walking that corpse-lined path, sweltering under the harsh heat, approaching the midnight hour, observer in a foreign land. More descriptive writing than story, this does serve as great example of Kipling’s ability to set a scene, as dreadful as that scene may be. I wouldn’t have made it down that road of corpses, not at night, not by myself. It’s a portrait of despair, brightened by the faith of a people suffering, overwhelmed, but not without hope in the coming day. It is dark, but beautiful writing; only I wish it told more of a story.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

March 12 - "The Man Who Shouted Teresa"

“The Man Who Shouted Teresa”
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A man shouts for Teresa from the middle of the street as a crowd gathers and joins in on the call.

Huge fan of Calvino from my introduction to him by way of Invisible Cities. This brief humorous tale was a gentle reminder of his descriptive prowess. There is not a lot of action in the story, but the image of this man, surrounded by an expanding crowd, shouting in unison, freely forms out of the flowing words. Even translated from the original Italian, the rhythm of the sentences is retained. The obvious twist is readily apparent, but is easily forgiven due to the shortness of the tale and the wonderful imagery provided in the limited prose. Where else can you find a sentence as simple – yet descriptive – as: “My shadow took fright at the moon and huddled between my feet.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

March 11 - "Juan the Cell-Phone Salesman"

“Juan the Cell-Phone Salesman”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* (Eh) Realistic

A woman returns home for the holidays to find pressure in the form of mother and younger sister to call the eligible Juan, the cellular phone salesman, for a date.

There was little to enjoy in this rather awkward story of family pressure. The social contract of leaving messages on the telephones of strangers just doesn’t excite me – or even interest me – in the way that almost any other topic might. Telephones and I simply do not mix. There is also some very weird word play going on in these sentences. I think I understand that the author is attempting to add style to the writing, but here it is blatantly obvious and attention seeking, which detracts from the overall style and rhythm sought. For me, it’s just a boring and dull clump of words on the page.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

March 10 - "Estoppel"

by Bentley Little
The Collection (2002)

* * * * (Great) Science Fiction

A man decides to stop speaking forever because his gift, his curse, is that everything he speaks suddenly becomes reality. After twenty years of silence, twenty years of formulating the exact phrase, the man decides to speak one final time.

The title comes from the Middle French, meaning to stop (thank you Dictionary.com). It is a fitting title for this story of man afraid to speak for the changes his speech exert on the world. I enjoy these trippy ideas where I find myself wondering what I would do – the choice I’d make – if I were in a similar situation. It is that age-old question: How would you handle the gift of power? I like to think I’d be as noble as the character in this story, but who knows. That’s one of the powers of fiction – good fiction – it allows you to live vicariously through its creatures and creations. To be as good or bad as the story, or your imagination, allows.

An interesting side note – There is a novel, Dispatch, by Little that must have found inspiration in this story. In Dispatch the main character has the ability to persuade anyone to do anything he writes in a letter. Blessed/cursed by a gift of similar persuasion, Little explores the idea in more detail, and it is a captivating and entertaining read.

Monday, March 9, 2009

March 9 - "Don't Ask Jack"

“Don’t Ask Jack”
by Neil Gaiman
Smoke and Mirrors (1998)

* * * (Good) Supernatural

The Jack-in-the-Box would not open. The children would tell stories of that hidden Jack, but could barely stand to touch it, or look upon its intricately carved box, until the night it called them each forth to play.

For as short as this story is in length, it packs quite a peck of ominous feeling. It is the type of short tale that aches to be expanded. The story ends with more questions left dangling than answers neatly tied in bows. With some stories those unanswered questions add to the strength – the atmosphere – of the overall tale, but here they need answered. They are holes without explanation. Still, you can’t fault a story that leaves lingering snapshots of horror out on the table of your mind, scenes of small children inching closer to a hidden, malevolent, Jack, smiling and whispering. There’s some fine, fantastic, imagery in these few quick pages.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

March 8 - "The End of the Whole Mess"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The End of the Whole Mess”
by Stephen King
Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993)

* * * * (Great) Science Fiction

Howard Fornoy feverishly types out the events that led up to the end of the world. This final manuscript follows the life of Howard’s younger brother, Bobby – a genius in search for a cure to the meanness of the human race.

I’m a sucker for stories from the edge of the end of the world. It is the hope that is often found in these darkest moments that interests me most in apocalyptic times (e.g. McCarthy’s The Road). However, there is no hope in this story, no happy ending, and yet I still enjoyed it. What I continue to discuss – and enjoy most – in King’s stories are the relationships unearthed between the characters. The Calmative, the end of the world, the bees and wasps, all of this is fine and good, but I was more engaged by the brothers in youth – one soaring, mad genius gliding over a park in D.C., while the other, older, shouts in fear and exasperation, and flashes upon images of tragedy. These true, human moments give the reader that empathetic connection that makes the end of the world – or hidden horror – seem all the more troubling, exciting, and ultimately satisfying.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

March 7 - "The Dream of Duncan Parrenness"

“The Dream of Duncan Parrenness”
by Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy (2008)

* * * (Good) Supernatural

Duncan Parrenness recounts a troubling dream he has after a night of excessive drinking while in Calcutta, India, far from his home in London. In this dream he glimpses an older version of himself that asks of him but three simple things.

This was a rather strong introduction to Kipling. I’ll be honest in my reason for picking up Kipling – he was cited by author Neil Gaiman as an influence. I’m always curious at what has helped form the authors I so enjoy. Seeing that Gaiman had provided the introduction, seeing that this was a collection of short tales of horror and fantasy, seeing a sharp looking cover and heft to the collection, only further cemented the deal.

This story was very obviously written at a far different time from that of the present. There’s an interesting flow to the sentences – a length and rhythm you don’t find in stories nowadays. I only wish I knew what was meant by that “little piece of dry bread” in Parrenness’s hand at the end of the story. I’m sure it’s simply a reference I’m unfamiliar with, but it leaves the ending a bit unfinished for me. I’m actually very curious and excited to delve further into this collection, into some stories from over 100 years ago.

Friday, March 6, 2009

March 6 - "Berlin Wall Piece"

“Berlin Wall Piece”
by Sam Shepard
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A boy attempts to interview his father about the eighties for a seventh-grade social studies project, only to find his father remembers nothing about the times, save the personal stuff – meeting the boy’s mother and the birth of him and his sister. The boy’s sister, however, comes to the rescue with a piece of the Berlin Wall.

I’m noticing a recurring theme, and it is both startling and upsetting: I’m not as smart as I think I am. Like I know there is deeper meaning in some of these stories I read, but I can’t quite grasp it. This story, for instance, ends in a way that hints at its extra layers, and I’m like a climber, holding on by fingertips, straining to pull body over ledge and into understanding and enlightenment. This does not stop me from enjoying stories. I’m happy to find my joy in the wonder of the words, the rhythms of language. I’m seeing the beauty at surface level. (And what does all of this say about me?)

I enjoyed this story for its setting. The eighties were the time in which I grew up, a time I remember not so much for the styles, fads, truths, and reality – although I do remember quite a lot of this upon reflection – but instead, for the personal stuff: the life lived and shared with family. I even remember touching pieces of the Berlin Wall, transported all the way from Berlin to Iowa, rich with history and reality, lingering and labeled back there in the childhood I can recall only when reminded of its existence.

And now I feel a little less upset. Like maybe that deeper meaning isn’t quite so obscure.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

March 5 - "Johnny Cash Is Dead"

“Johnny Cash Is Dead”
by Jordan Harper
Hardcore Hardboiled

* * * * (Great) Suspense

John Mashburn is not the young man he once was. As he climbs the three flights of stairs seeking revenge against the man who harmed his granddaughter, he worries about the knee he injured years ago in prison, and what impact this climb of stairs and injury will have on his cold plan of punishment.

Now this is the type of story I bought the collection hoping to find. It is well paced, brutal, and contains that hard-edged dialogue you expect to find in a collection with the words “hardcore” and “hardboiled” in the title. It is a revenge story, which is nothing new, but what elevates it above the common tale is the language – you feel as though you are with that old man climbing the long stairs in search of revenge for the crimes committed against his granddaughter. There is also a nice twist near the end of the story, along with an unexpected, but fitting end.
“He knew he had to answer for what he did, so he didn’t hold it against us for doing what we had to do. And my whole life I’ve thought more of that hanged son of a bitch than a lot of people who never did wrong, but never did right either.”
Revenge colored with responsibility – what sounds more noble than that?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

March 4 - "Maybe A Superhero"

“Maybe A Superhero”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * (Okay) Science Fiction

A woman finds she is transforming into a machine, and this change has led her life in two different directions.

I know there is symbolism at work here with the woman turning into a machine – a robot, essentially – who finds different kinds of love from two different men, but I don’t know if I understand what I’m supposed to understand. In the end neither life was satisfying, and she ended up alone, sitting on a swing set, rusting in the rain. For as tragic as the story sounds – and it is tragic – there are some beautiful images, such as the beauty of defeated love and rusting robots. Sometimes I wish I were smarter, and not so easily distracted by the pretty pictures in my head.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

March 3 - "Dress of White Silk"

“Dress of White Silk”
by Richard Matheson
I Am Legend (1995)

- (bleh) Supernatural

Granma has locked the young girl in her room after an unfortunate incident occurs during a play date.

I don’t honestly know what to think about this utter disaster of a story. It was written intentionally to represent the mind of either a small child or unintelligent monster, and instead succeeded in only irritating the reader. Stories written from these particular points of view can be done with stunning success (e.g. Sebold’s Lovely Bones, Keye’s Flowers for Algernon, and Gardner’s Grendel), but it is difficult. This tale proves the inherent difficulty in writing from such an unreliable and unintelligent point of view. It takes more than just sounding like a child, or monster. It takes understanding, and heart. Usually there is some piece – occasionally it is as small as a single sentence or idea – that rescues a story from total failure, but here there was not even that sweet mercy. I’m simply glad the story was no more than a few pages.

Monday, March 2, 2009

March 2 - "Minor Robberies"

“Minor Robberies”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* (Eh) Realistic

Two sisters argue over the number of times they were robbed while on a trip.

Not the way to start a week. This story was confusing and packed very little enjoyment. It was difficult to keep track of which sister was speaking or thinking, which in the mere page of story seems unacceptable to me. Also, only one sentence, out of many, sang. The words and story lay lifelessly on the page, flat and unmoving. I understand that the minor robberies – the trinkets, the unknown and even imaginary – somehow matter, to someone, but this story robbed me of the opportunity to find joy in my reading tonight. And I can’t help but be disappointed. I was robbed by reading.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

March 1 - "Stationary Bike"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Stationary Bike”
by Stephen King
Just After Sunset (2008)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

After a visit to the doctor, and the red, highlighted cholesterol number on his test results, Richard Sifkitz purchases a stationary bike. At first the rides last no longer than 15 minutes, but soon – after painting a projection of a road through the woods on the beige wall in front of the bike – the rides become more frequent and intense. It is only after the projection begins to change that Richard starts to fear what might be following him on these rides along the path toward a healthier life.

It’s an amazing thing when you connect with a story, when your life and thoughts mix with those of another, imaginary (character) or real (author). “Stationary Bike” follows a man obsessed by riding a stationary bike squirreled away in the basement of his So-Ho loft – not obsessed by the act of exercise, but by the journey along an imaginary road maintained by a crew of “metabolic workmen,” a metaphor tossed at him by his doctor while attempting to inspire the man to change his habits, to live a healthier, longer life. I’ve become a bit obsessed with my many pursuits this year – some would say overly so – but I feel as though I’ve changed in mostly positive ways. Still, it is eerie – and fascinating and enjoyable – to have a story so echo your life.

It is a story about obsession, and its cost. I’ve been thinking some about this during my 8 or 9 hours of working out each week, and I’m not sure what the answer is, what the proper balance should be. I’m going to spoil the ending – not something I tend to do normally – but in this case I must: you have to enjoy all of life, you must “allow yourself a little bit of everything.” Words to live by, Mr. King, a balance to strive toward.

Monthly Summary - February

# of stories read: 29
# of stories read this year: 61

# of 5 star stories: 6
# of 1 (or fewer) star(s) stories: 1

Genres read: supernatural, humor, realistic, science fiction, crime, suspense, essay, children’s, fantasy, fable, memoir

Most read genre: realistic (16)

Story of the month: “Blue Yodel” by Scott Snyder

[This was a tough decision because there were quite a few very great stories this month. It’s the time period and the Ahab-like hunting for the blimp that locks “Blue Yodel” in as the monthly best.]