27 February 2014

Tales Around the Fireside

I am a short story writer.  Yes, I've written two novels, one (The Best is Yet to Be) as part of the Guideposts mystery series, "Mystery and the Minister's Wife", the other a sci-fi/fantasy piece that is still sitting in my closet.  I've written plays.  I used to write songs for myself and, later, a Southern rock-and-roll band called "Fantasy's Hand." (Those were fun days...)  But what I really feel most comfortable with is short stories.
I think a lot of this comes from my childhood.  I was an only child, and my parents were 40 when they adopted me; everyone around me was (it seemed) at least 40 years older than me, and back then children were expected to keep their mouths shut and just be there while the adults talked, talked, talked.  Luckily for me, most of them were storytellers.  A story, told in the night, to make you sigh or smile or shiver...  still pretty much the ideal.
John Collier

And I like reading short stories.  I don't understand why so few magazines carry short stories anymore.  Why there are so few short-story magazines.  (Especially considering that attention spans seem to be growing shorter and shorter all the time, but that's another rant.)  I love them.  And some of the finest writing anywhere has been done in that format.  Here are my picks for some of the greatest short story writers:

John Collier.  "Fancies and Goodnights" contains some of his best work.  (It won the Edgar Award in 1962.)  Read "Bottle Party" to find out what really happens with a genie in the bottle.  "The Chaser" - on how tastes change over time.  "If Youth Knew What Age Could"... One of my favorites, "The Lady on the Grey."  And on and on.  Many of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays (including "Sylvia Scarlett", [uncredited] "The African Queen", and "I am A Camera"), and a couple of novels of which my favorite is the mordant, devilish, unforgettable "His Monkey Wife."

File:Ray Bradbury (1975) -cropped-.jpgRay Bradbury.  There are not enough words in the English language to praise his amazing output of short stories.  From "The Fruit in the Bottom of the Bowl" to "I Sing the Body Electric," "April Witch" to "The Veldt", "A Sound of Thunder" to the heartbreaking "There Will Come Soft Rains", "Dark They Were and Golden Eyed", the whole body of "The Martian Chronicles", and on and on, I gobbled each and every one of his stories I could get my hands on. His work inspired me, amazed me, touched me...  couldn't get enough of it. And he was primarily a short-story writer:  aside from "Fahrenheit 451", his other novels didn't really gel for me.  ("The Martian Chronicles" is a collection of short stories, with a narration in between.)  He showed what could be done in the medium of short fiction.  And, of course, he was a regular writer for "Twilight Zone" and other TV shows...

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Somerset Maugham.  One of the few who could write both great novels, and great short stories.  "The Letter" - made into film twice, most notably with Bette Davis as the cool and collected murderess.  "The Lotus Eater" - when Paradise runs out...  "Red" - what really happens when you look up your old childhood sweetheart...  "The Luncheon" - never ask questions you can't take the answer to...  The hilarious "Three Fat Women of Antibes", "The Vessel of Wrath", "The Verger"...  and, of course, the "Ashenden" series which practically began secret agent stories.  (Alfred Hitchcock combined "The Hairless Mexican" and "The Traitor" into the 1936 movie "Secret Agent" with John Gielgud and Peter Lorre.) Seriously, his short stories are like popcorn at the movies - once I start reading them (I have a four-volume set), I can't quit until I've worked my way through...  way too many.
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H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shirley Jackson.  And how do you want to be scared today, my precious?  My sweets?  By many-tentacled horrors from beyond space, or by crumbling ruins of decay and death, or the quiet malevolence of a quiet house or neighborhood? By the breathing darkness or that strange emptiness?  By the sudden creak or that high whistle in the depths?  Any of these will leave you wondering what's really going on next door, when you'll be able to turn the lights off again, and what is that sound in the closet or over head or under the floor...

File:Conan doyle.jpgArthur Conan Doyle.  Let us never forget that 90% of the Memoirs of Dr. John H. Watson about his inimitable companion, Sherlock Holmes, are short stories. We all have our favorites.  (Sadly, the relentless reinterpretations of Holmes and Adler have reduced my pleasure in "A Scandal in Bohemia".)  Among mine are "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches", "The Speckled Band", "The Greek Interpreter", "The Devil's Foot", and "The Norwood Builder".  I have spent many a rainy afternoon curled up in a couch with a hot cup of tea and my father's one-volume "Complete Works", reading, reading, reading, time travelling to Victorian/Edwardian London, as Sherlock Holmes - the world's only private consulting detective - solves case after case after case...  Ah...  Excuse me, I have some reading to do...

NOTE:  These are, of course, only a few of the many tremendous short-story writers I've read.  Flannery O'Connor, Guy de Maupassant, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, Daphne du Maurier ("The Birds", yes - but never forget "The Little Photographer"), Nikolai Gogol  and Anton Chekhov, Ursula LeGuin and Isaac Asimov, and so many of my esteemed colleagues...  I really do have some reading to do!


  1. Eve, an appropriate response to your column today would be to say how many of the authors you name are favorites of mine because they were favorites of my dad's and he introduced them to me. Off the wall comment is, "I didn't know you were a songwriter." That puts you in with Rob, Liz, and me. I'd like to know who else among the SSers writes songs and if so, what genre of music. (BTW, Somerset Maugham was one of my father's favorites and I read all of his material. We'd discuss his plots at the dinner table.)

  2. Thanks for that, Eve. That was a great line-up of talent. I'm working on a presentation to a writers group about short stories and this provided some inspiration.

  3. I love Bradbury's "The Veldt"!
    Another fascinating writer is John Cheever- his The Swimmer is a great story that even Hollywood couldn't kill.

  4. I had completely forgotten about Bradbury's "The Veldt," but when you mentioned it, Eve, the image of that landscape and a slightly blurry recollection of what happened in the story sprang to mind.

  5. And there are so many other short-story writers that I had to leave off or (shamefully) forgot at the time! I, too, am interested in how many SSers have been songwriters. Poll, anyone?

  6. You and I are muy simpatico on short stories, which means I should read Maugham. Don't think I ever have.

    Most of the authors you list appear on my list of fifty best mystery stories. One of my favorite Collier stories is an absolutely horrifying story about a pedophile. And what is so horrifying is that the guy is so sweet and lovable. That's the point - he couldn't get away with it if he wasn't.

    Have you run across Avram Davidson? "The Necessity of His Condition" and "The Lord of Central Park" are two of his masterpieces, although they have nothing else in common. "The Lord of..." would make a great movie, a simple story of the Mafia, the Nafia, a plot to blow up the Broolyn Navy Yard, Hudson River Pirates, and the Lord High Keeper of the Queen's Bears....

  7. Rob, I haven't read much Avram Davison, but I'll check him out. Have you read Cordwainer Smith's short stories? "Scanners Live in Vain" and the whole "Lords of Instrumentality" series? "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell", and "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" are amazing...

  8. Kipling is of course better at the short than the long. One of the first Maugham stories I ever read was "Red," which has probably colored (no pun intended) my stories ever since. Love this post.

  9. The British horror writer Ramsey Campbell has written plenty of short stories. He (and I) would gush over M.R. James and August Derleth.

  10. I agree, Eve. Looking back, I'm amazed my parents let me absorb so much Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson.

    I'm afraid I'm a lone voice speaking out against The Speckled Band. That's the one Holmes story I don't care for and yet it's one of his most popular.

  11. That's all right, Leigh - as I said, I can't read "A Scandal in Bohemia" any more.


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