Category Archives: Short Stories

Should Books Come With Trigger Warnings?

Neil Gaiman’s most recent book was a collection of short stories under the title Trigger Warning. He opened the book with a short discussion of “trigger warnings” (an internet phrase that is used to indicate that there may be objectionable or deeply troubling content to follow, to allow readers to “opt out” if they feel unprepared for it). Gaiman comes out neither for or against trigger warnings—he basically says if someone will be greatly upset by something, they do have a right to avoid it, but that sometimes it is good to introduce ourselves to troubling things, in order to grow as people—and I didn’t think too much about it beyond “hm.”
Then I read Ship of Destiny. Not to spoil too much, but there is a sudden and unexpected rape scene in the story. Much like a real rape, it occurred practically without warning. It was not a particularly graphic scene, violence-wise, but the word choices and the trauma of the victim that played out over the next several chapters deeply troubled me.
I think I would have liked to have had a trigger warning that there would be a rape in the book. I think I would have still read it—it was very well executed, sensitive to the victim, and made it clear that the villain was a deeply conflicted, messed-up person—but I would have liked some warning, so I could have emotionally prepared myself.
I struggle with rape scenes in all genres. I was interested in Girl with a Dragon Tattoo until I heard there was a graphic rape scene, and I know myself well enough to know I just can’t handle that. I had to stop watching a movie (I think it was The Missing?) because it looked like the main female character was going to be raped–I ran out of the room crying and couldn’t bear to finish.
Someone I know has told me she wishes TV shows and movies came with trigger warning-esque labels: she has a crippling anxiety about people being shot in the head after someone close to her died that way. I can’t blame her for that.
But of course, content creators may not want their work to be labeled in this way. (Publishers probably wouldn’t!) It might put off potential book-buyers. People might protest something that, if they just read it in context, would be fine. There’s a danger inherent to telling people your work might be challenging to them.
I don’t know that I feel that all books should carry a trigger warning. After all, I found Kushiel’s Dart …troubling… but it was still a great book and I’m glad to have read it. (The difference between that and Ship of Destiny? Kushiel’s Dart had lots of clear warnings about what I was getting into!)
I agree with Gaiman that sometimes we have to push our boundaries a little, and that may mean reading something we find unnerving. But I also think people do have a right to protect themselves, particularly that very delicate emotional scared place we all have.
What do you think? Would you want your book to have a trigger warning?

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Fisherman Jack

My grandfather recently passed away, quite suddenly and unexpectedly. I’ve had trouble expressing my feelings about it. But I did write this, in honor of him.


 

Fisherman Jack

There once was a man who liked to fish. He’d sit on the pier with a rod and a reel and coax silvery fish up out of the water. He’d stand hip-deep in frothy streams and fool whiskered, muddy fish with clever lures and intricate flicks of the wrist. By boat, he explored dark wallows and mysterious shadowed rivers. Jack was a man who liked to fish.

He took his sons out with him to the water and taught them the ways, the lines and the tricks. With his first son he traveled in a small dingy, the water rocking them along the river’s rocky bottom, so close beneath them. Jack taught his eldest son to sit quietly, to watch for the dark shadows. They baited hooks with writhing worms pulled from rich-smelling dirt and brought in crappie, bass, and brown trout. As they carried home their haul, Jack smiled and said, “That sure was a good day’s fishing, but I think there may be better.”

Later Jack took his second son out. Together they waded deep into chilly mountain waters. They arched their lines out overhead, landing lures lightly on the water’s shining surface. Jack showed his second son how to move the line, skipping like a fly. After a long day’s contest, they brought home their trout, walleye, and salmon, proud as could be. With a smile, Jack said, “That was a good day’s fishing, but I’ve heard there is better yet.”

With his third son, Jack took out the trawler loaded with gizmos, all the latest. He let the lad steer and showed him how the equipment found the fish in their shadowed depths. Together they drew the fish out of the murky dark and into the clear light of their shining, wonderful boat. Laden with fish, Jack smiled and said, “That was a good day’s catch, but I hear there’s one better. I’ll fish it, one day.”

The years wore on, and still Jack fished. He explored raging rivers and clear still waters; he plucked giants from backwood streams and sunk his line in ocean swells. He tried the great Mississippi and hiked through Yosemite. He stood under the big skies in Montana and on the muddy banks of Lake Pontchartrain. Everywhere he fished, he smiled and said, “There’s better yet to come.”

Jack’s visits to the water slowed as time ticked by. He taught his grandchildren how to bait his hooks and cast the reel; he was as pleased to scoop a minnow as a meal. He’d smile and say, “There’s yet one more I’ve yet to fish. The time is coming soon that I’ll try it.”

He hugged his dear wife and said goodbye to his sons as he packed his rod and reel. With a smile, Jack said, “I’m goin’ fishing, oh Lord. I know the way now.” He leaned back and let fly his hook, up up into that great big blue above. The hook caught, and Jack wound the reel. He fought as best he could, making it a fair challenge, pulling down against the upward tug, but knew this was his big catch. Up he went, caught by the Fisher of men, reeled just like those fish he’d caught through the years.

But Jack was not troubled. Elated, he grinned as he went up, pulled gently along. “Hallelujah,” he said, “I’m the best catch of all!”

 

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Review: Skeleton Crew

Skeleton CrewSkeleton Crew by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For a collection of short stories, this book took me forever to read. It’s an interesting peek behind the curtain of the famous writer while also being chock-full of scary, interesting, and mysterious tales. It’s a lot of fun, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to read it on your relaxing vacation (see: took me 3.5 months to read it all).

If you’ve read King’s famous “On Writing,” you may find this book extra interesting. He can’t help but reveal himself in these short stories, and when they are all collected together, it’s easy to see commonalities. For one, I feel like I have a real roadmap to Bangor, Maine (King’s beloved hometown). The laundry where he worked before he found a teaching job (and then became a writer) makes several appearances, and country roads in the vicinity twist and tangle until some of the more unruly characters appear. I have to wonder if King’s drug addiction lies behind some of the more nauseating and skin-crawling horrors: the rat-person in “Mona” in particular, and certainly the methodology in “Survivor Type.”

It’s interesting to read “The Mist” and King’s thoughts on it in the decades before it became a movie (his son Joe Hill even being “cast” as the precocious little kid in the story). The story, which opens the book, is one of the best, but is not the most frightening, by far. “The Jaunt” is a cheerful attempt at science-fiction, with the ending practically obvious from the get-go. The final story, “The Reach,” wasn’t horror in the slightest; it’s more of a quiet contemplation.

I found it intriguing that the horror factor in several of the stories (“The Mist,” “The Raft,” “The Monkey,” “Morning Deliveries (Milkman #2)”) is never clearly defined, explained, or even resolved. Particularly in “The Mist” and “The Raft,” bad things just sort of happen, and there isn’t a lot anyone–reader, character, perhaps writer?–can do about it.

While I enjoyed reading these stories because it allowed me to study King while he was at work (or, as he says, “my muse shat on my head–this happened as it always does, suddenly, with no warning.”), it reads like the grab-bag off his desk: a little of this, a little of that, some worth more, some not worth writing on the back of a napkin. It’s a ragtag bunch of stories, and shows the breadth of King’s talent and interests, but may not be for every reader.

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From the Desk of Dr. Harleen Quinzel

To Whom It May Concern:

Please accept my submission to the esteemed American Journal of Psychiatry, “No Laughing Matter: Humor & the ‘Criminally Insane.’” I realize this submission is unconventional, so I have provided further information to help you make your decision.

I am Dr. Harleen Francis Quinzel. I began my career at the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane after concluding my studies at Gotham City University. As an intern, I interacted with many of the famous inmates, but one in particular seemed worthy of additional study: the man best known by his nom de guerre “the Joker.”

Because of his many exploits and the extremity of his manner, many of the staff feared the patient. As a result, I noticed the patient was frequently isolated and demonstrated a depressive affect. Feeling that all patients deserved a high level of care, I volunteered to analyze and treat him.

In him, I found one of the most fascinating subjects I have ever encountered. My patient presented a challenging case, his only clear characteristic being his instability.

Indeed, while under my supervision (lasting several years), the patient has been labeled psychopathic, manic depressive, schizoid, schizotypial, histrionic, antisocial, socially deviant, manipulative, suicidal, and, yes, homicidal. But I have been led to believe, despite off-the-cuff analysis, that the patient is not afflicted by any of these disorders (or others found in the DSM-V), but rather is merely an underappreciated intellectual with a highly developed sense of humor. (A full analysis can be found in my attached article.)

Some may try to discredit my research because of my close association with the patient. I believe that such devotion was necessary in order to more closely study and learn his ways. It is not my fault that to know him is to love him; it is merely a sign of how thorough my research has been. It is true that it was my familiarity and affection for the patient that led to my current circumstances; however, I do not believe that is at all an impediment to my work.

Though I have recently taken my career in other directions, psychiatry was and always be my first love. I also hope my recent incarceration is not too large a burden for your great institution. In fact, my time here at Arkham Asylum has been a boon, finally allowing me the opportunity to fully process and prepare my research.

I hope you will consider publication of “No Laughing Matter: Humor & the ‘Criminally Insane’” in the American Journal of Psychiatry. (Please keep in mind that, if you don’t, my puddin’ might take it personally. He put a lot of himself into this research!)

Smiles,

Dr. Harley Quinn
Arkham, #12
Gotham City, DC 91192

Pretty please?

 

 

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Stephen King at His Worst

I’ve been reading Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew. (Pro tip: It may not be a great idea to read horror when you’re going through a stressful time! The more you know!)

It’s taking me awhile. I picked it a) because it’s Stephen King and I feel like there’s a lot I can learn by studying him, b) my fiance brought me the book when I didn’t have one to read, and c) I figured hey, short stories! Perfect for when I’m busy!

I sort of forgot that I don’t read Stephen King generally because he writes horror. …The subsequent nightmares reminded me, don’t worry.

Anyway, so I’ve been reading this book. And you can tell he’s talented, even though many of his successful books, including On Writing, hadn’t been written yet. But the really interesting thing, to me, is the prologue. He writes about how he likes to write short stories, how he got started with them, selling a thing or two to a magazine (back in the day when mainstream magazines bought fiction to publish) to keep his family afloat. He writes about how it’s been harder, since he started in on novels, to find time for the shorts.

And–critically–he talks about how the contained stories aren’t really “winners.” (He specifically calls them “losers” and then details why, and why you should read on anyway.) I don’t know if that’s an author’s critic chewing away at him or what, and I haven’t read enough of his works overall to know for sure but… I believe him.

Some of the stories don’t really work. Some are dalliances with other genres and then remember they’re supposed to be horror so make a sharp and weird turn at the end, like The Jaunt (science fiction), The Wedding Gig (1920s crime intrigue) and The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands (maybe Poe-sian or Doyle? I dunno, it just didn’t work). Some are clearly horror but are so undefined that it’s hard to be frightened, like The Raft, which read like an episode of Supernatural, except those guys would have killed the monster somehow.  Then there are those where you can see the ending coming from a mile away, like the charming wish-fulfillment fantasy Word Processor of the Gods.

Nevertheless, I feel like I’m learning a lot from these “losers.” (I mean, they were still published, some of them twice, so they aren’t so bad, really). King is great at giving his characters baggage; everybody has issues of some kind. This makes his people relatable. I think I can work on that in my writing. I also feel like I know the general landscape of Maine, even though I’ve never been anywhere near it; he does a great job mining his geography for detail, and maybe I need to work on embracing Texas in my writing more. His word-choice manages to have depth without ever feeling too out of reach for a general audience, and it feels like you’re getting to know him.

But the biggest lesson, perhaps, I’ve gotten so far? Failure doesn’t always mean the end.

Skeleton Crew was published in 1984. In 2007, the first story in the book became a movie: The Mist.  I haven’t seen it, but it seems like it stays pretty true to the text…with a critical and gut-wrenching change to the ending.

23 years later, his “loser” became a success–or at least a pretty good movie, with a slight change. It has a rating of 7.2 stars on IMDB right now. That’s not so bad for a “meh” story, is it, Stephen?

Twenty-three years seems like a long time to wait, but it does give me hope. (Though I’d prefer things come along a tad faster.)

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On Death, and Life

Sometimes I marvel that human life exists for longer than a mayfly’s. With news of wars, car accidents, freak accidents, illnesses, and more, sometimes it feels like we are constantly living in some kind of Final Destination scenario: everything is trying to kill us.
And yet, here we are, living another day.
It flummoxes me. It feels like, what with all the peril we encounter every day, that we are all, individually and collectively, beating the odds. And that amazes me.
Sometimes, because of circumstances or age or geography, it seems like the odds get really stacked against us. That things almost compete to try to off you first.
I knew someone who worked at a cancer-education place. She said it was crazy how nonprofits competed to be “worst.” See, if your illness was “worst” or “deadliest,” you could pull more funding, get more grants. In a twisted way, it was like the nonprofits were sort of hoping that their illness would be the most horrible.
Maybe the illnesses and other maladies are competing. Maybe they really are conspiring to get us.
It feels that way. A family member of mine is dealing with a cascade of health problems now… I’ll be macabre and say it: it’s like a race. Will it be age that does it? The broken hip? Maybe that mole is really a cancerous growth. Perhaps it will be pneumonia, slipped in on the hand of a healthcare aid.
Are they placing bets?
When I was recovering from a rough patch in life, I wrote a short story, attempting to highlight this: how many things are trying to get you any given day. I laced it with real death statistics to try to hammer the point home. And yet, my conclusion went somewhere totally different (in the way that writing sometimes does). It ended up not bleak but hopeful: there are all these things, and yet…life goes on.
Life goes on. What a miracle.
In the immortal and wise words of Kurt Vonnegut: So it goes.

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To Sleep: An Ode to Early Morning

A bit of flash writing, in celebration of one of my favorite activities: sleeping. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

—————-

To Sleep: An Ode to Early Morning

Everything is heavy. I’m pressed against the mattress, breathing in my own warm air, comfortably squeezed by gravity and my heavy blanket. The light is dim and everything is perfect.

Right now, in this moment, I am only myself. I am not my hands, nor my job, nor my friendships; I am not the number in my bank account (or not in my wallet), or responsible to anyone but myself. I am not even a body. I am a wisp, weighted down only by the memory of a body.  With my eyes closed, I am just thoughts in the darkness, drifting in perfect contentment.

This is happiness, or the nearest thing to it, because as long as I stay half-asleep I have no need of emotions, the wanton rages that make me tingle and burn up and down my skin. Anxiety has left me, and all that is left is a deep simmering joy; I am and am not.

I think about moving, why I’m not exactly sure. A moment prior it would have been unimaginable, but my limbs are quickening all of their own accord, so I stretch and roll languorously. There is peaceful bliss in this as well. My shoulders move easily, warm  and eager, the muscle slipping around the bone with a welcoming happy hug. My toes point and flex in the squiggly bits of sheet down at the bottom of the bed. My little cocoon of warmth remains, but now that I’ve shifted, one side is just a bit cooler.

This, too, is perfect.

I can hear now. The house is buzzing quietly with its gentle hum. A machine in the kitchen whirring as the electrons zolt by. The wind thrumming against the window in random cadence. A groan from a beam somewhere deep within a wall. Maybe a bird singing a tune as it flutters.

Even behind my closed eyelids, light blooms. The sun is tiptoeing through the curtains which never lay quite flat. It blankets the bed, a little at a time, warming eyelids to a soft red.

I resolve to run from it, so I roll again, hiding my eyes against the dark and cool of my cotton pillowcase, snuggling down closer under the blanket. But this was a mistake; this choice was too conscious and the neurons in my brain take it as a cue that they can begin to dance.

My day marches before me, unfolding like a fabric fan, each panel decorated with a chore, a task. I squint my eyes to force it back, but too late. The nagging questions arrive: How much time do I have before the project is due? Do I have enough toilet paper? What was that phone number again?

I bury my head under the pillow, but any comfort there is lost in the warming light.

The brigade of questions will not stop. There is no choice but to acquiesce.

Begrudgingly, I roll over, sitting up until the blankets puddle in my lap. I stretch and yawn, and my feet find their way to the floor. Momentum will handle the rest.

The day is begun.

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