Sunday, May 31, 2009

Story Count as of May 31, 2009

The project – a new short story read and reviewed a day – is still going strong (unlike other ambitious plans). As of today, the Escape Pirate has read 160 new short stories. There have been a few – 6 – instances where the story was read, but the review was not posted until the following day (in each instance the Pirate fell asleep in the Chair of Unexpected Sleep and did not wake until after the midnight deadline had passed).

Still, I’m happy to have made it as far as I have. Five months down, seven to go. And worry not; I’m in no fear of running out of material – new stories. The shelves are still well stocked, and I’m as anxious as ever to continue reading the stories gathered in these collections.

May 31 - "The Night Flier"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The Night Flier”
by Stephen King
Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993)

* * * * (Great) Horror

Tabloid report Richard Dees follows the story of a serial killer preying on the people that run small airports along the East coast. His nose for the “blood and guts” story leads him to an encounter with the Night Flier he will never forget.

This is the type of horror story I enjoy. It’s the building tension and suspense – the mystery – that draw me into stories. I don’t mind the carnage –the blood and guts – but only if they fit the story, if they are the right element for the moment. As "The Night Flier" progresses, each section gives you another piece to the puzzle, with the past and present coming together at the end. There’s a spectacular bit of plane-crashing action before Dees finally meets up with the Night Flier. It’s a confrontation King excels at writing, leaving both the character and the reader in awe of the monster King has gleefully created.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

May 30 - "Doctor Jack-o'-Lantern"

“Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern”
by Richard Yates
The Collected Stories of Richard Yates (2001)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

Miss Price, a fourth grade teacher, is eager to help her new student, Vincent Sabella, fit in with the class. Each well-intentioned effort only makes the situation worse for Vincent.

These will not be easy stories. It’s not that they are difficult to understand or read – the writing is sharp and clear and accessible – but rather they are painful and sad and ultimately, honest. These are stories of small dreams – often unrealized – with devastating, hope-crushing consequences. A young boy wants to fit in, is provided the opportunity to do so, but then tries too hard and fails. A well-meaning teacher wants to help, but her pity only makes the situation worse. This is the stuff of life, and it’s not neat, and it’s not nice. It’s true.

There’s also a great introduction to this collection by Richard Russo. It provides a nice primer to the themes explored in this collection – and in all of Yates’s work. More than that, it makes you want to read on, eager to enjoy the work to come.

Friday, May 29, 2009

May 29 - "The Prince Who Married a Frog"

“The Prince Who Married a Frog”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * (Okay) Folktale

The king’s three sons test their three brides to see which couple will inherit the kingdom. The youngest son and his frog bride perform the best with each of the king’s challenges.

The cursed frog fairy tale is nothing new. This tale is unique in that the frog is female instead of male. There is a bit of a copout in that the transformation from frog into beautiful princess occurs off the page, without any strong reason. It occurs because the princess found love, even in her frog form; only nowhere in the story does the young prince ever admit such feelings. In fact, he always makes a point of replying that he is the “love who loves you not.” The pieces are all there, only they don’t fit together quite right, and the story feels incomplete.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

May 28 - "Twice"

by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * (Okay) Realistic

Everything, from her marriage dissolving to returning movies to bouncing checks, was happening twice. It was the single events that gave her pause, caused her to question the future.

The idea behind the story failed to capture my interest. It’s a clever idea – events happening in pairs – and allows for some sentence play – repetition and balance – but in the end, the cleverness wears thin and the play becomes overly showy and distracting. It is a nice experiment that simply fizzled out quickly.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

May 27 - "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”

“Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”
by Neil Gaiman
Fragile Things (2006)

* * * * (Great) Fantasy

A young man struggles to write literature until a raven convinces him to write what he enjoys, as fantastic and escapist - and unexpected - as it may be.

The great twist in this story – and I will spoil it here – is that we come to find the young man’s escapist, fantasy world is our own. The idea is hinted at early on in the tale, and becomes clearer as the story progresses. In fact, the beginning of the story feels slightly off until the all the pieces start to come together, and then when it all makes sense, the beginning becomes that much more interesting. I particularly enjoyed the Poe-ish story within the story. It’s a fun kind of suspense you don’t find in horror stories today. And what a title! Long and convoluted and ominous.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May 26 - "The Contests at Cowlick"

“The Contests at Cowlick”
by Richard Kennedy
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)

* * * * (Great) Children’s

Wally, the lone resident of Cowlick, with the courage and willingness to stand up to Hogbone and his ornery gang of fifteen, plans three contests in an attempt to save the town from the dastardly fiends.

This would be an amazingly fun story to read-aloud. So much so that I found myself reading parts (most, to be honest) out loud to an empty living room. The dialogue is a joy to experience. The story was nicely constructed and flowed well from beginning to end. My only complaint is that the story was a tad predictable. The contests could have been slightly more original. Still, overall, it was a fun story to read. And who doesn’t enjoy a fun story.

Monday, May 25, 2009

May 25 - "Double Down"

“Double Down”
by Jason Starr
Sex, Thugs, and Rock & Roll (2009)

* * * (Okay) Noir

Jimmy takes a PI job to see if a woman is cheating on her husband. Needing money to fund his gambling habit, he decides to get paid from both ends, which leads to unexpected consequences.

The tough-guy talk is there, and it’s good. It’s accurate. Only, nothing happens. Jimmy is a degenerate gambler at the start of the story and is still a degenerate gambler at the end. Now, I wasn’t expecting huge life changes to occur in a few pages, but nothing - no change at all – that’s boring. Even his luck doesn’t change. Starts out a loser, ends a loser. At least he talks tough, using those swears like a pro.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

May 24 - "Graduation Afternoon"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Graduation Afternoon”
by Stephen King
Just After Sunset (2008)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

Janice contemplates the end of her relationship with Bruce – Buddy – at his graduation party, the backdrop for an unexpected nuclear attack on New York City.

Lacking any horror, except for the true horror – a conceivable horror these days – of a nuclear attack, the story is still a great study in character. Janice is believable as a graduating high school student. She’s hopeful, realistic, and honest. She knows what’s best for her, even if it includes the loss of her rich boyfriend – no real loss she understands. And then the unthinkable happens – the bomb – and you feel so terribly bad for this girl you know was on her way toward a happy and successful life. The shock of the bomb hits the reader nearly as hard as it does the character, a sign the author has done justice to his creation.

May 23 - "The November Game"

“The November Game”
by F. Paul Wilson
Aftershock and Others (2009)

* * * * (Great) Horror

Mich continues work on his escape from prison, all the while becoming increasingly distressed by the pieces of his dead daughter the guards keep slipping into his meals.

Who hasn’t participated in that Halloween activity of passing around “body parts” in the dark that gave rise to Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The October Game”? Apparently the story had such in impact on a young Wilson that he felt the need – to our enjoyment – to continue the tale. The quick building of tension, and the too-obviously apparent monster in the hole, make the story feel a little rushed and predictable. However, the horror remained. And in horror stories, the hardest part is retaining that feeling of dread, of terror. It is what makes the story work and gives it its bite.

[The story was read on May 23rd, but the review was late in being posted. I knew I should have posted the review before settling down in the Chair of Unintended Sleep.]

Friday, May 22, 2009

May 22 - "Jack Jaw and the Arab's Ape"

“Jack Jaw and the Arab’s Ape”
by Ryan Oakley
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * * * (Great) Pulp

Jack Jaw uses the ape he buys from the Arab to compete in underground fights for money.

I’ve always said: all any good story needs is a monkey ripping a man’s arms clean off – blood spurting – swinging those bastard limbs over its head. (Okay, I’ve never said such a thing, but after reading this story and digging the ultra-violence, I don’t think it’s such a bad idea.) For all the fun elements of the story, from the strung-out killer monkey to the funny names (Jack Jaw, the Arab, and Mr. Skippy), the story does have its faults. The writing is unclear in spots, and some of the sentences lack style. This can be forgiven when the story is as entertaining as this one.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

May 21 - "Ax"

by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

The scene of a man and woman meeting a man carrying an ax could be interpreted many different ways.

This story is another example of Olin Unferth concocting sentences of such length and complexity that they either succeed wildly or fail spectacularly. The plot of the story – if there even is one – is rendered moot. As a fan of such experimental sentence I am less concerned with the plot – or lack thereof – but with only half of the sentences exploding off the page, the overall story needs work.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May 20 - "My Lawrence"

“My Lawrence”
by Claudia Smith
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * (Good) Science Fiction

Mary Alice and her android, Lawrence, decide to move to the country.

Androids creep me out. So, I’m biased, and any story containing androids will inherently put me on edge. As sentimental – and it is sentimental – as this story is, my own prejudice tints every page with a shadow – a fear – I know wasn’t intended. It just goes to show how different readers will come to enjoy a story – or not – based in large part to factors no writer has any control over.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

May 19 - "Relations"

by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

The narrator’s determined aunt tracks down the family’s long-lost relations. The entire clan meets in a restaurant in an attempt to get to know one another.

There are moments when the story is just strange enough to give it charm. I particularly enjoyed the beginning – the grandmother’s, and later grandfather’s, insistence about being an orphan, much to the aunt’s chagrin – and the ending – the conversation about the merits of purchasing only 2 gallons of gas at a time. Meeting the lost relations was nothing special; I’m used to huge family gatherings. I will give Olin Unferth credit for accurately describing how large families act, react, and gather.

Monday, May 18, 2009

May 18 - "The Three Castles"

“The Three Castles”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * (Okay) Folktale

A would-be thief takes a job from the king shepherding sheep. He kills a three-headed snake while protecting the flock and finds keys to three magical kingdoms hidden inside its heads. Using the gifts of the kingdoms, he wins the princess’s hand in marriage.

This story is like a bad mash-up of multiple ideas. The boy’s exploration of thieving is briefly explored at the beginning of the story and then completely forgotten as the story moves along into its magical kingdoms of crystal, silver, and gold. The disjointed tale has potential, but you never feel as though either story is fully realized. Each one could have been its own fascinating story, but smashed together neither lives up to its potential.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

May 17 - "The Boogeyman"

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

* * * * (Great) Horror

Lester Billings discusses his guilt over the death of his three young children with a shrink. He didn’t kill the children – not exactly – he just didn’t protect them from the Boogeyman.

Speaking as a person who still jumps at sounds and bumps in the night, a story written about the Boogeyman terrorizing a family hits me where I still feel some fear. King does a great job of justifying, in character, why Lester would continue to leave his children alone in the dark, easy prey for the Boogeyman even he is convinced exists. After the first child’s death, you as reader wonder why he doesn’t learn and protect the other children. His upbringing – and then fear – are offered as explanation, not excuses, and they fit the character and thus end the questions we readers were asking. My only complaint is the ending. The story could have gone a few different ways, but took the easy route: the Scooby Doo ending. A monster in a mask is weak.

May 16 - "Juanita"

by Tim Wohlforth
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * * * (Great) Noir

Juanita wakes to find her abusive husband dead on the living room floor. Not knowing who killed her husband, Juanita decides to get rid of the body before people start asking questions.

Wohlforth does an excellent job setting the scene in this story. We can feel the oppressive heat, the crunch of the gravel yard, and the isolation of this home out in the desert. The best stories are those you can feel yourself inside. None of the characters are all that likeable – typical of noir – and yet they seem believable. They may not be people you would spend time with in the real world, but they make for fascinating company on the page. And the prose, it’s as noir as it comes in its hyphenated descriptions:
“Don’t they have some medal to honor the hero who kills the worst wife-beating, two-timing, double-crossing, porno-pimping, white-trash, desert rat there ever was?”
[This story was read on May 16, but the review was posted late because I once again fell asleep before typing it. I blame the movies I try to watch at night.]

Friday, May 15, 2009

May 15 - "En Transito"

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

- (Bleh) Realistic

There are hidden things in the space between the things we know.

I have no idea what to think. The story spends so much time being oblique that in the end nothing occurred, nothing became clear. It’s essentially a mess of words coughed up onto a page. Confusion sums it up.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

May 14 - "A Flourish of Strumpets"

“A Flourish of Strumpets”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * * (Great) Noir

Representatives from the Exchange, offering a unique and venerable service to the community, hound a happily married couple.

My favorite parts of this simple story are the brief descriptions of the different attractive women knocking on the Gussett’s door.
  • a black-root blonde, slit-skirted and sweatered to within an inch of her breathing life
  • a perky brunette with a blouse front slashed to forever
  • a raven-haired, limp-lidded vamp
  • a redhead sheathed in a green knit dress that hugged all that was voluminous and there was much of that
All these noir-ish descriptions of dangerous dames in drop-dead outfits. Couldn’t help but enjoy the writing. And how about this, a great use of the word, gelatinous:
His gaze rooted on the jutting opulence of Margie as she waggled along the aisle, then came to a gelatinous rest on a leather-topped bar stool.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

May 13 - "Another One"

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

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A woman struggles with the decision to break up with her wheelchair-bound boyfriend due to his extended and complex family.

While there are parts of this story lost in the complexity of the prose, the sentences themselves are a joy to read.

Sentences like:
“She took care of him, like she had when he was in the womb, or at least barely out, or at least how she would have, had she kept him, the way she put on this socks for him, the way she emptied his bag of pee.”
“Two others lived there too, an uncle and some sort of brother, half or step or imaginary, the girlfriend never sorted it out and she never saw either one, just slight evidences of their existence, a pair of sunglasses or a motorcycle magazine that some mother or other said was one or the other’s.”
There’s just something about the rhythm – the words – that makes me stop, smile, and reread the sentences. Here, I couldn’t care less about plot or theme or intent; I’m reading for the joy of reading.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

May 12 - "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”
by Neil Gaiman
M Is for Magic (2007)

* * * (Good) Science Fiction

A couple of teenage boys in search of a party find a house filled with girls not quite like they expected to find.

Much like the poem the narrator cannot remember, this story is a mystery to me. The prose is pleasant and the story moves from beginning through to end, but I cannot explain what it all means. What I can do is relate to the narrator’s dilemma – talking to girls at parties. Gaiman does great job describing that unease – the hesitation to speak to strangers of the opposite sex. In fact, the foreignness of the girls’ discussions could almost work in a more realistic story in which two strangers meet, talk, and learn they couldn’t be two more different people.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the spot illustrations by Teddy Kristiansen that accompany each story in this collection. They are amazing. I’ve been a fan of Kristiansen since his work on Vertigo’s House of Secrets. They are just “weird” enough to fit the stories in this collection perfectly.

Monday, May 11, 2009

May 11 - "The Snake"

“The Snake”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

A young girl is given three gifts after befriending a snake only to have her jealous sisters attack and maim her. Years later the use of her gifts allows the young girl to come face to face with her wicked sisters.

I was waiting for this one. The dark folktale with the eye-gouging and the chopping off of hands. As brutal as moments were in this tale, it still followed form: gifts of three, wrongs righted, and a happy ending. With 100+ folktales to go in this collection, it will be the tales that break from the form – offer something new, something different – that truly capture my attention. I say bring them on.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

May 10 - "The Things They Left Behind"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The Things They Left Behind”
by Stephen King
Just After Sunset (2008)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

After avoiding death during the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Scott Staley is haunted by memories brought to the surface by a collection mysterious objects that appear in his apartment.

King’s propensity to include pop culture references throughout his writing is blatantly apparent in this story. Almost to the point of distraction. What saves the story is the delicate mix of the supernatural and the realistic. The story retains all of those elements that make Stephen King the writer he is – the character digressions, the hiding horror, those pop culture influences, etc. – while also tackling a serious event in American history. It also helps that the story deals with issues of memory and guilt – topics and themes I enjoy exploring in my reading. Serious King is just as good as Scary King.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

May 9 - "Dying Room Only"

“Dying Room Only”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * (Good) Suspense

A husband and wife stop at a diner before crossing an empty desert. The woman returns from the washroom to find her husband has disappeared, and the last couple of people to see him are anything but helpful.

I expected something more gruesome from the ending. The building suspense over the missing husband’s whereabouts led me to believe something terrible – or more terrible – had happened to him. I suppose in the 56 years since the story was first published, things and thoughts have grown darker, happy endings harder to come by. The story was entertaining in the way that some episodes of old television shows have nifty ideas hidden behind the hooky trappings of the past.

Friday, May 8, 2009

May 8 - "The Present of Concern"

“The Present of Concern”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A woman goes to visit her newly engaged friend and must fight the urge to steal something of importance from her apparently ungrateful and newly capitalistic friend.

It is not unnatural – right? – to feel malicious toward those happier than you, towards those ungrateful for what they have. Unferth does a terrific job exploring this relationship between people’s differing, opposite situations. I can picture the spice rack in question. I feel both the desire to fill the tiny glass bottles and to tear the rack from the wall. In just a couple of pages we don’t get to know much about the characters in the story, but we do understand how they feel, and to capture feelings is a much more difficult task for a writer.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

May 7 - "The Little Girl Sold with the Pears"

“The Little Girl Sold with the Pears”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

After being found, hidden away in a basket of pears, a clever young girl quickly rises through the servant ranks only to be forced to complete an impossible quest to steal the witches’ treasure.

Like so many of these Italian folktales, the protagonist is given gifts – usually three – that help him or her overcome the obstacles of the story. The predictability and formulaic nature of the folktales are, I’m sure, a part of the appeal of the form (I see it; I do), but that leaves the success of the story to the details, often small, sometimes lacking. And it’s here in the details that this story succeeds in only being average. The baby hidden in the pear basket is cute, but other than a nice title, it does little to elevate the story above the rote formula of the folktale.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

May 6 - "Bad"

by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* (Eh) Realistic

A woman questions whether her actions inside a tent at a party were bad.

I’ll be honest; I had no clue what was happening in this story. Its elliptical nature threw me for a loop and I was left wondering what exactly I read. Even if a reader is not focused – and tonight I was not focused in the least – the story should be clear enough that a person understands at least the basic plot or point. This was simply bad.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 5 - "Single Percent"

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

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A woman attempts to classify her single status in the years after breaking up with her last true love.

I enjoy that Unferth takes these strange thoughts and explores them in her stories. This story makes you stop and question how single you may be now, or at any given time in your past. When you apply the logic she presents it makes for a neat – or depressing – activity. When a story gets you to stop and think about your life, that’s something special, even if the results of such thinking are less than impressive.

Monday, May 4, 2009

May 4 - "We Ate the Children Last"

“We Ate the Children Last”
by Yann Martel
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * (Great) Science Fiction

A new treatment for inoperable digestive tract cancer involving the use of pigs’ organs proves successful. The only side effect is an unusual and voracious appetite.

This story pleasantly reminds me of Swift’s A Modest Proposal. While not as cleverly satirical as Proposal, it is a brief and enlightening piece of speculative science fiction. I particularly enjoy the seriousness in which the story is handled. Every detail sounds true and possible. When presenting such innovative ideas with such horrific consequences, the more believable the results, the more thought-provoking the tale. And to do all this in just a few short pages: impressive.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

May 3 - "The Little Sisters of Eluria"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The Little Sisters of Eluria”
by Stephen King
Everything’s Eventual (2002)

* * * * * (Excellent) Pulp

After an unfortunate encounter with a gang of green folk – slow mutants – Roland, the Gunslinger, is nursed back to health by the sinister Little Sisters of Eluria.

A missing chapter from the Dark Tower saga, this not-so-brief adventure takes place before Roland catches Walter, the man in black, of the first novel, The Gunslinger. King does an excellent job setting the scene as Roland first enters Eluria, the eeriness of it all creates such a sense of dread you can’t help but wonder – and hope for – the evil hiding in the silence and shadows. The time Roland spends in the care of the Little Sisters is also a delightfully tension-filled collection of pages. There’s a reason King is a master of suspense, his craft is exceptional. My only complaint with the story is that the language of the series, the narrator’s manner of speech (Do ya ken it?), seems absent. This could be due to the fact that King wrote this tale before finishing the final books, where the language of Roland’s time in Hambry and the Calla seemed to more deeply permeate the narrator’s voice.

May 2 - "Footnote"

by Romulus Linney
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

The trio of Voltaire, his mistress, and her new, younger lover discuss the implications of new baby.

This short story takes all the deceit, lies, and entanglements – the stuff of soapy romantic stories – and, by treating it nonchalantly – civilized – encapsulates the essence of these types of tales in just a few short pages. And it’s not at all unentertaining, either. It just goes to show that if you choose your words wisely, you can tell the most complex of stories in the simplest of ways. How much of this tale is based in truth, I do not know. It is fascinating, though.

[This review was posted to the blog a day late. The story was read on May 2nd, but an unexpected nap during The Terminator stole the night from me.]

Friday, May 1, 2009

May 1 - "One Thousand Dollars"

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

* * * (Good) Realistic

Young Gillian ponders how best to spend his inheritance, the troubling sum of one thousand dollars, neither enough nor little to truly matter.

You read any of Henry and you come to expect the twist ending. In fact, you expect – you even try to predict it. And it’s fun. You feel as though you win if you can correctly guess how the story will end. Some might be put off by this type of game – clearly not me – but it keeps you reading, on edge, guessing what will happen next. There’s also an appeal to reading stories so set in their era that you can’t help but chuckling. Money ages poorly in stories.

April 30 - "The Count's Beard"

“The Count’s Beard”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

Micillina the Witch plagued a small town at the top of a steep hill until Masino, the prodigal son of the town, returned to tackle the problem.

A bit of mystery – a detective story hidden beneath a folktale. The mystery was nothing intricate or clever – it was predictably and easily solved by Masino upon his return to the village – but it gave the folktale an added element of, well, mystery that was unique. I also enjoyed the poetic proclamations made by the townspeople. It amazes me how translators can work their magic maintaining the rhymes and integrity of the original prose. The story still stumbles near the end, when conflicts are too quickly resolved, too neatly wrapped.

[This review was posted to the blog a day late. The story was read on April 30th, but an unexpected nap stole the night from me.]