In October I will be presenting a workshop to my fellow writers on the craft of short story writing. While I was thinking about what I could include in my presentation, it really got me thinking about why I have a penchant for short stories. What is it about a short tale that grips my imagination and transports me to another place so easily?
There is no doubt that I live in world of speculation, where the dark, fantastical, chilling and horrifying are elements I choose to rub shoulders with most comfortably. (The whys and wherefores of this little idiosyncrasy is fodder for a different blog post altogether, so I won’t bore you with that now.) But how did my love affair with a tightly-written ten-pager or a sneaky little story with a sting in the tail start in the first place?
Let me take you back. All the way back to 1984, when I was a little bookworm of nine. I have always read voraciously. Anything really. If I couldn’t find a book, I would turn to travel brochures, street maps, the nutritional guide on product packaging. If there were words, I wanted to know what they said.
One day my Dad bought home a box of books for me. I think he had maybe picked them up from an auction house as a complete lot, or perhaps they had ‘fallen off the back of a truck’. I can’t remember now, either is viable. I will check with him. Anyway, Dad plonked the box of books in front of me and watched as I dug through them. There was all the usual Enid Blyton’s, Judy Blume’s, James Mansfield’s, etc that I loved.
There was one hardcover book, however, that dad plucked from the box before I could examine it. “Better save this one for a couple of years,” he said, studying the cover. I watched, intrigued, as he placed the mysterious book out of reach on the top of the bookshelf.
Needless to say, the very second I could retrieve the book without drawing my parent’s attention, I did so. The book was ‘Deadly Nightshade – Strange Tales of the Dark,’ edited by Peter Haining. The cover depicted a corpse flanked by fire, with the image of a demonic looking child standing guard over both.
I was mesmerized by the cover and squirreled the book away to bed with me that night to read it. Was it too old for me? Probably. Was Dad right in his well meaning decision to keep it safe from small eyes and psyche until I was older? Definitely. Was I scared? You bet. Did I like what I read? Hell, yes, I was hooked!
Deadly Nightshade is an anthology of seventeen horror stories with elements of supernatural and fantasy. As I write this, I have the book in front of me. It left such an impression I have kept it after all these years. Here was the sort of company I was in, that little nine year old girl, reading the forbidden book in bed by lamplight: Ray Bradbury, M R James, Robert Bloch, Saki, Joan Aiken … need I go on?
Now, I promised this blog wasn’t going to be about horror writing, and it won’t be. It just so happens that stumbling across this book gave birth to a twin passion – the horror genre and a passion for short fiction.
There is something intensely satisfying about the mechanics of a well written short story. Every word must be well chosen and well placed. After all, when you are dealing with stories, say of 1,000 – 8,000 words, every word counts. The margin for error is very little. Character must still be as strong as plot, and therein lays the art form. I sometimes have put down a story in complete awe at how the author has moved me so largely with so very few words.
Sometimes it’s character (think Doyle, think H G Wells), sometimes it’s atmosphere (M R James), sometimes it’s dialogue (Wodehouse), sometimes it’s the pure genius when all these elements come together at once (think Stephen King – have you ever read any of King’s non-horror stories? The man is a goddamn miracle worker).
I fear this blog is going on a ramble, so I will cut short here and leave you with a list of short stories that I highly recommend. Many of them are drawn from the speculative fiction pool, and for that I make no apologies. Whether you are into chick lit, crime fiction of the works of Shakespeare, everyone appreciates a ripping yarn!
Beck’s List of Must Reads (in no particular order)
1. The Streets of Ashkelon by Harry Harrison (one of the most intelligent and thought provoking stories dealing with the topic of religion I have read in a long time. Science Fiction).
2. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (many of you would have studied this is school, I imagine. This classic highlights what is meant by taking the reader’s breath away with a severe sting in the tail.)
3. The Last Rung of the Ladder, My Pretty Pony and Mrs Todd’s Shortcut. All three by Stephen King (just beautiful writing).
4. Gabriel Ernest by Saki (the first werewolf story I ever read … and never forgot).
5. The Truth About Pyecraft by H G Wells (delightful tale from 1903, in true “Men’s Club” fashion. The late 1800’s – early 1900’s are my favourite era for writing.)
6. Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad by M R James (if you want to know how to handle horror with class and understatement, take a leaf out of the Master’s book. M R James’s style will sadly never be replicated in our modern age. You will never be able to look at your bed sheets again without seeing them caper off down a dark, windswept beach after reading this! Brrr! NB: We have become so desensitized as readers and watchers of horror, that we have lost touch with what is beautiful about the genre. While the stories from the turn of the last century may seem mild by today’s standards, look at the composition, the imagery and the atmospherics. Stylish!)
7. Mr Lupescu by Anthony Boucher (This story unsettled me so much when I was younger, that I pulled it out pretty much every year for the next ten years to see if I understood what happened better.)
8. The Tell Tale Heart / The Pit and the Pendulum both by Edgar Allan Poe (do yourselves a favour – get your hands on Mr Poe’s complete works and get lost in them. He was a dark soul indeed, although he also wrote with elements of great romance and tragedy. There is a fine poem called ‘Helen’ which has never left me.)
9. The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (one of Sherlock Holmes and Watsons best known mysteries. What is the “speckled band” that everyone keeps screaming about before death? Delightful)
10. The Tortoise Shell Cat by Greye La Spina (an excellent example of how to use extracts from letters to weave a fine story. The ingenuity is the parts that are left out, rather than what is included in the letters)
These are just ten, or so, stories that have jumped into my head right off the bat. You will note that many of them are from a different era. I have included them for the purpose of this blog as examples of fine writing, entertainment factor notwithstanding.
In a future blog, I am going to showcase contemporary Australian writing and authors. We have an absolute plethora of talent from coast to coast across many decades, and I am looking forward to sharing the best of what we have to offer with you all.
Until then, happy writing, happy reading and happy days 🙂