I recently read that book reviews are obsolete, that in this age of social media, anything longer than one sentence and a hashtag is a waste. That may be true in the world of book marketing. But not in the world of writing.
A young writer who I admire very much recently said that he wished people would spend more time talking about what they love. I agree.
With that in mind, I’m starting a new feature on this website, ‘One Good Story’. It’s not a book review site––there are still plenty of those out there. Instead, I’ll be writing about one story at a time, stories that have inspired, instructed, or otherwise blown me away. I’ll try to keep it short––longer than one sentence and a hashtag, but still short.
I’ll be focusing not only on stories that identify as genre fiction (horror, weird, mystery, etc.), but also stories from the world of “literary fiction”, as well as stories that straddle that line or break right through it.
My hope is that writers and readers who may be unfamiliar with writers on one side or the other of that imaginary divide will discover voices that are new to them––and, ultimately, feel inspired to cross that line themselves.
And if some of you decide to seek out and support the writers you read about here, that’s great––they deserve it.
Others (the dead ones) don’t need our support––instead, think of them as being here to support us––to make us glad that we’re writers, to give us courage and inspiration to stay in the game, so that maybe one day we can do the same for someone else.
WHAT WE MEAN WHEN WE TALK ABOUT THE DEAD
by GARY MCMAHON
“There were too many questions that could never be answered; there was too much confusion in this world and whatever lay beyond. So she took him in her arms and held him…”
Of all the emotions commonly associated with horror, especially horror fiction, one of the most underrated (and most difficult to execute successfully) is sorrow.
A classic trope in horror fiction is sorrow or grief over the death of a loved one (usually a lover, spouse, or child). In his remarkable story, What We Mean When We Talk About the Dead, Gary McMahon succeeds brilliantly at turning this trope inside-out by presenting us with a story about the kind of grief we might feel for a person who can not die.
McMahon cranks up the emotional tension considerably by making his protagonist, Liz, a social worker. Social workers, of course, are “the helping profession”, and are trained to provide material and emotional support to other human beings, no mater how challenging the situation may seem. But the situation presented in McMahon’s story is so extreme, the gap between the protagonist and the person who needs help is so vast, that the human brain cannot event begin to contemplate it, and shuts down while trying.
The emotional high point of the story comes when Liz has exhausted all possible lines of thought––when she can, literally, no longer think at all, and resorts to the most fundamental, wordless means of human communication and comfort. It’s a powerful moment, but McMahon wisely chooses not to end his story there, but moves on, as Liz herself must move on, back out into the world and, eventually, home “to see who might be waiting for her there.”
The very best horror stories (or weird stories, or sci-fi, or fantasy) have emotional truth at their core. Sometimes the emotional truth may appear after-the-fact during the writing process, like a positive side-effect. But the best stories, I believe, start with that single powerful emotional truth and build on it. The Black Cat by Edgar Alan Poe, A Father’s Story by Andre Dubus, A Good Husband by Nathan Ballingrud, all start with a single white-hot core emotional truth and build on it, so that there is barely a word in the story that does not support this truth.
That’s what Gary McMahon has done with What We Mean When We Talk About the Dead. It’s a story we all can learn from. I know that I have.
What We Mean When We Talk About the Dead can be read in Shadows & Tall Trees 4, available from Undertow Publications: http://www.undertowbooks.com/shop/page/2/
LETTERS FROM THE SAMANTHA
by MARK HELPRIN
“I confess that I have wished to be completely taken up by such a thing, to be lifted into the clouds, arms and legs pinned in the stream…I have wanted to surrender to the plum-colored seas, to know what one might find there, naked and alone. But I have not, and will not.”
The plot of Letters From the Samantha by Mark Helprin is as simple as it is colorful. The captain and crew of a merchant vessel survive a freak typhoon, find an ape floating on some flotsam, then rescue the creature and bring it aboard. If it sounds like no good can come of this scenario, you’re right––but it’s the telling of the tale, and its powerful conclusion that makes Letters From the Samantha one story I have never forgotten and never will.
The terror experienced by the captain (subtly and masterfully communicated by Helprin as a series of letters from the captain to the ship’s owners) is not so much the terror of being attacked by a wild beast, but the deeper terror of losing control, of losing one’s powers, and being robbed of the ability to decide and to act. The presence of the ape on his ship is an aberration that alters the captain’s world and worldview in ways he can barely bring himself to express, but which he knows are dangerous beyond imagining. And when the captain finally acts to save his ship, we understand that he is acting to save himself, his own sense of identity and purpose in the world.
It’s easy to frame Letters from the Samantha in allegorical terms, a move that threatens to reduce its raw power to a bloodless academic riddle. Helprin seems to foresee that particular danger, and gives the captain the final word on this matter in the powerful final paragraph, a take-no-prisoners rejection of metaphor and symbolism that’s as brief and precise as it is devastating.
That final passage never fails to give me chills every time I read it, although it’s difficult to say exactly why. Maybe it’s because Helprin is insisting that we must meet a story on its own terms, that we not have it ‘explained away’ for us by someone else, but have a personal, physical relationship with it.
Some stories communicate experiences that are too frightening for some of us––and that, I’d argue, is precisely why we try to turn stories into allegories, to tame and distance them from our more vulnerable selves. The attempt to tame that kind of terror is what happens in Letters From the Samantha––although whether the captain succeeds or fails in his attempt is one more question Helprin’s story insists that we answer for ourselves.
Letters From the Samantha can be read in Mark Helprin’s second collection, Ellis Island & Other Stories, available from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Ellis-Island-Other-Stories-Helprin/dp/0156030608
THESE THINGS WE HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN
by LYNDA RUCKER
“The price of living is dying, Sarah told me, and even when Cold Rest has swallowed up the last of you whole, you know you’ve been in the presence of something divine.”
It’s often said that the line between horror and ecstasy is a permeable one. When the borders of the familiar begin to break down, the resulting sensation can be terrifying or liberating. Or in some instances, both.
One story that, for me, demonstrates that phenomenon in a uniquely powerful way is Lynda Rucker’s These Things We Have Always Known.
The story is set in Cold Rest, a small town in the mountains of Georgia, where (the narrator tells us) “things are different”. Rucker goes on to detail that “difference” at a writerly pace that is both gradual and relentless. The family in Rucker’s story try to carry on with their daily lives while experiencing the certainty that everyone and everything they know will soon be taken from them by forces they can neither escape or understand.
Those of us who grew up in or near “Bible culture” (particularly those of us from the American South) are familiar with the scriptural story of Revelations and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that story tends to permeate people’s psyches. The popular version of Revelations tends to focus on big-budget Hollywood scare-effects (rains of hellfire, avenging angels, Satanic beasts, etc.). But the real terror implanted by that Biblical myth is the kind raised by more personal, existential questions: Am I one of the saved? Will I be separated from the ones I love? Am I strong enough and pure enough to survive what’s coming? These are the deeper terrors evoked in Rucker’s story.
Let’s be clear––These Things We Have Always Known is not a “metaphor” for Revelations. It is not a metaphor for anything––it is it’s own unique and creative response to some fundamental mortal terrors that are ageless.
Am I strong enough to survive in this new and terrible world? This is a question we’ll all inevitably ask ourselves at one point or another. In These Things We Have Always Known, Rucker has asked and answered this question for us. And her answer is terrifying, human, and beautiful.
You can read These Things We Have Always Known in Lynda Rucker’s collection The Moon Will Look Strange which is available through Amazon via the links on her website here.
BRIGHT WATER, by ANNA KEESEY
‘You have called us graceless, and we have plucked up that name and wear it.’
‘When the fever is off of you, and you come back to look around, what will be left? The door is closing, the world and its doors.’
One of the most common and effective tropes in horror, mystery, and suspense, as well as in literary fiction, is the disappearance of a child. In such stories, the child is usually taken by an outside force, a criminal or predator.
But what of the child who walks off on his own accord? Who willfully removes himself from the circle of family and stands apart, perhaps only a little ways off, saying, You cannot reach me.
That’s the emotional territory that Anna Keesey explores and illuminates in her remarkable story, Bright Water.
Keesey builds her story as a series of letters from a father to his missing son. Josiah Cole is a respected banker in a small 19th century American community. His son, John Ephraim, has run off to join a religious group who have separated themselves from the rest of society to prepare for the end of the world, which they believe is imminent.
The father’s first letters have the expected authoritarian tone, chiding his son for abandoning his mother who is ill, ridiculing his newfound religious beliefs. But as time passes without a response, Cole’s letters turn from anger and indignation to anxiety and fear, and finally to a kind of wounded reconciliation.
Keesey has gifted her main character with a voice that embodies the 19th century person’s faith in the power of the written word; there are lines in Bright Water that are as close to angelic as human writing can get.
As Cole struggles to understand the choices his son has made, he begins to question his own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of the community he is part of that his son has rejected. What we witness in these letters is a man slowly and painfully stripping away his emotional armor piece by piece in an effort to connect with his lost son, trying to come to terms with a new reality that’s as strange and terrifying to him as any Biblical doomsday.
With all its period-formality of language and dignified pace, what Bright Water leaves us with is a portrait of a human being undergoing a terrible and necessary transformation in order to survive. Outwardly restrained, like its narrator, it’s a voice of almost unbearable intensity and intimacy.
There are a few works of fiction that have made me weep openly. This is one of them. It would be foolish for me to say that you’ll have the same experience with this story. But if you have a son, or if you are a son, I promise you will not forget it.
Bright Water by Anna Keesey is available to read online at the Grand Street website.
THE 18, by RALPH ROBERT MOORE
“Would you like to see the world as it really is?”
–––– from The 18 by Ralph Robert Moore
How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?
–––– I – Corinthians xv.20.
A clever idea––by itself––does not always make a good story. Some stories push their cleverness in your face. This happens especially––though not exclusively––in the world of speculative fiction where the pressure to come up with “original ideas” or “new tropes” can be overwhelming.
Maybe it’s time to stop looking for “clever” or “original” ideas and start looking for effective ones.
What makes a story-idea effective is how well it taps into powerful human emotions. The same way microscopic surgical techniques allow surgeons to access the human heart from new and previously unimagined directions, a truly effective story-idea reaches our hearts and minds in surprising and inventive ways.
I can at this moment think of no more brilliant example of this than Ralph Robert Moore’s story, The 18.
The story starts out as a well-written, fairly traditional narrative of bereavement, a husband mourning the loss of his wife of forty years. A reader might expect what follows to be an equally well-written account of some type of haunting This is what the reader gets––but it’s a type of “haunting” that no reader could ever expect or imagine.
One of the most terrifying (and most neglected) questions that a writer can raise in the reader’s mind is What the hell is happening? It’s one thing for a writer to make us believe (temporarily) in ghosts, demons, or vampires, etc.–––but it’s a whole other thing to make the reader call into question the whole fabric of reality.
That’s what Moore does in this story. Best of all, he does it in layers. Layer after layer of progressive revelation. My experience of reading this story for the first time was like having the rug pulled out from under me again and again and again until I wasn’t sure where I was standing anymore (––and I mean that in a good way).
In some ways, The 18 is a love story about the illusion of human individuality, and, by extension, the absurdity of love. But if that was all that it was––if it stopped there––the story would not be as powerful and memorable as it actually is…
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this story are its final lines. After radically stripping the main character of his sense of identity and empowerment, Moore hands it back to him in a quiet final turnaround that is subtle, unexpected, and deeply moving. It’s the writer’s parting gift to his character, and to us.