Tag Archives: short stories

Review: Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and DisturbancesTrigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan. Let’s just get that out of the way. I cried when he signed my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane because I was so excited.

But this book barely got its 3rd star from me. If you’re already a fan of Gaiman, there is very little in this short story collection that you haven’t already read somewhere else, or for free via his blog. It’s a collection of short stories with no coherent reason behind them, no theme, no real organization. It feels, honestly, like a book put together because someone–and probably not the author?–said it would be great to be able to sell more books.

I find that a little frustrating.

That said, there were three stories out of this collection that really made the whole thing worthwhile. If you buy it and feel like me, just skip to the end of the book: that’s where the good stuff is hidden.

First, we have a delightful little short story from the witch’s perspective in “Sleeping Beauty.” It’s dark, mysterious, and does a great job following close to the theme and tone of the real Grimm fairy tale. It’s very quick, but really enjoyable.

The second story is also about “Sleeping Beauty.” This one, “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” has since been made into an illustrated book. It may be the best story in the collection: it re-imagines both “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” so that the women can be the heroes and live in neighboring kingdoms. I don’t want to reveal too much, but let’s just say if you love either the Disney version, the original story, or the “10th Kingdom” TV serial, you will most certainly adore this story. It’s just fantastic.

The final feather in this hat is “Black Dog”–an additional story featuring Shadow Moon, the main character in American Gods. Even if you found American Gods to be a challenging book for you, I think you’ll like this story, which is straightforward, touches on some delicious little-known history, and is really scary. Gaiman owes me about two hours of sleep for this story–I stayed up past my bedtime to get to the big ending, and then couldn’t stop thinking about it!

It’s that last story that changed my mind on whether the book as a whole was a good purchase. I don’t know that I’ll ever read large chunks of it again, but the ones I loved, I LOVED, so that makes it worth it to me.

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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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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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Is Your Character Stuck with a Fad Name?

I read an absolutely fascinating article on baby names, and how they change over time and how some names sort of move in packs and what is currently going on with the state of baby-naming (hello, yoonik names!). It’s really delicious.
The only things I’ve named recently are my cats (after literary characters) and my car (Sassafras, because she’s so Sassy — also, the word sounds really cool). With no kids to inflict odd names upon, I’m left with the people I make up for stories.
A quick review of recent name choices for my characters offers a smattering of my friends’ names, a cluster of intentionally old Biblical names, one “scifi” variation on a historical name, a few names tied to jobs and fibers for a cult of characters, and a bunch of fairly generic common American names.
I feel like I need to now take those names (or at least those of significant characters) and run them through the name research gauntlet as Wait But Why did.
Picking a character name is tricky. Maybe — dare I say it? — harder than picking a baby’s name. Bear with me here: a kid grows into a person. Over time, they aren’t defined by their name, necessarily, but it becomes just an appellation attached to that person. Sure, we may say that “John” is a “good strong name,” for example, but if John the kid turns out to be kinda puny in the strength department, we don’t think he is a failure as a “John.”
But a character? Well, they should grow, certainly, but they exist, fully formed, before the reader even enters the story. And a name is one way for the author to tell the reader something about the character. (I’m looking at you, Hunger Games).
Plus books take the “weird name” thing to a whole new level, with stories in different universes, fantasy scenarios, the far future. Heck, I’m reading “The Shipping News” now, and the main character’s name is “Quoyle,” as in a coil of rope. (There’s a rope/ship repeating pattern throughout.)
So names can really matter. Sometimes it seems like authors just take a “real” name and screw with the letters to make a character name, like “The Left Hand of Darkness.” Fantasy has a lot of names that are actually other nouns, often nature-related. Or names drawn from ancient Greece or Rome. (Related: Does anyone know where JRR Tolkien got the names for Lord of the Rings? Like, is there a guy out there who was named Frodo who got a lot of unwanted attention when it first came out?).
Naming a character can be loaded and fraught. How do you choose? Careful analysis and selection? Name origins? Concocted names? Or do you just go down a baby name generator and spin until something feels good?

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Review: Fortunately, The Milk

Fortunately, the MilkFortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bring a smile to your face, and go buy Fortunately, The Milk. This is a book that EVERYONE needs to enjoy. It is delightful, in every sense of the word.

Fortunately, The Milk is ostensibly a children’s book, in the same vein as Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book or anything from Doctor Seuss. It would be good to think of it as the best combinations of both these literary gems. Not quite a chapter book but longer than a picture book, the hardcover edition has images on nearly every page, seamlessly interwoven with Neil Gaiman’s text. You’ll want to read it aloud; you’ll pore over every beautiful scribble by Eisner-winning artist Skottie Young**; you’ll laugh at the absurdity; you’ll ponder the ending with reverence.

This book is pure distilled happiness, and you need to have it.

I had the privilege of hearing Neil read from Fortunately, The Milk when it was still a twinkle in his publisher’s eye, at the book tour for The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Sure, everyone, reader and critic alike, is fawning over Ocean, but my favorite part was definitely Fortunately. It was just so fun.

It is a book that exalts fathers, and children, and, most of all, vibrant imaginations. The premise is sacchrine-simple: A family runs out of milk just before breakfast, and father goes to get some. He is gone what seems like an awfully long time. When he gets back, his hungry children wonder where he has been, so he answers them. The story involves pirates, piranhas, time-travel (someone is a Doctor Who fan, for sure!), a volcano god, the invention of the button, aliens, and more, because I’m probably forgetting someone or something.

You won’t be able to look at your everyday errands the same way.

Buy this book, then snuggle up to your kids (or your special friend, or your sweetest pet, or even just a really cozy blankie), and read. Make sure you do all the voices; that’s the way it really should be done.

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**This is amazing, but I have gotten to meet both Skottie and Neil. Neil at the aforementioned book tour, and Skottie at ComicCon, the day he won the Eisner. So wonderful, both of them!

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