Tag: ambiguously happy endings

Flash fiction story: “The Golden Key”

“The Golden Key,” by Carlea Holl-Jensen

Appeared in FLAPPERHOUSE #17, Spring 2018, March 20th, 2018; online here March 16th

841 words

An interesting piece with a great ending. Seems to be about an emotionally reserved/deadened man rediscovering a sense of romance (I mean, not eros romance, but the romance of mystery and delight). I like the way the romantic title contrasts with the mundane appearance of the key in the story. Maybe the key and box have to appear mundane in order to break through the main character’s reserve? A more conventionally fairy-tale-ish golden key and beautifully carved wooden box might have provoked his skepticism or cynicism, too fantastic to be real.

Holl-Jensen is the editor of a magazine by the same title.

Edited to add: I think this story does something unusual—introduces a character’s typical state (emotional reserve) while almost simultaneously showing how that typical state breaks down in the face of an unusual event. It works for me, even though the character’s typical state is more told than shown.


Short story: “The Better Part of Drowning”

“The Better Part of Drowning,” by Octavia Cade

Appeared in The Dark, November 2017 issueonline here

5,207 words

A grim story full of mysterious and highly original worldbuilding.

Short story: “The Interruption”

“The Interruption,” by Debbie Urbanski

Appeared in Terraform (on Vice‘s Motherboard), September 22nd, 2017

1915 words

I like this one. Good evocation of the main character’s rather unhappy life and (subtly, towards the end) the sense of freedom she finds in being lost. Wouldn’t feel out of place in a literary fiction publication.

I like how Terraform embraces stories that, while only science fiction in a loose sense if at all, use technology or science in interesting ways.

Short story: “Owl Eyes”

“Owl Eyes,” by Joyce Carol Oates

Appeared (PDF) in The Yale Review, Vol. 104 No. 3, July 2016

Around 17.5 pages, 6501 words

I’m not sure how to feel about the ending of this story. Jerald has discovered a new place in himself, a new capacity for action, but it’s hard to know what his adventure will cost him. I’m also not completely sure I buy the suddenness of his change.

I found myself slightly jarred—irrationally—by the mention of an iPad. Something about the language or the setting feels to me like that of an earlier era. Or it might be that the language sounds so very Joyce Carol Oates (I was reading her work before iPads were around) that I’m automatically taken back in time.

Short story: “Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets”

“Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets,” by Jacob M. Appel

Appeared in The Gettysburg Review, issue 23:2, summer 2010; published in a collection of the same title by Black Lawrence Press

15 pages in the magazine, maybe 2,500 words

For a story about a topic as contentious as abortion, this is a charmingly light and gentle piece. You can feel the author being amused by his characters, maybe, but not censuring them or talking down to them.

I tend to read the ending as being about Ziggy’s moral failure. He has allowed his choices to be dictated more by emotion than by rationality, and surely he will have cause to regret it soon. Then again, neutrality was never really a viable moral stance for him to take, and how much harm can he do by making himself happy?

Short story: “Makeisha in Time”

“Makeisha in Time,” by Rachael K. Jones

Appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine (subscribe), Issue 20: Time Travel, August 2014; featured in Podcastle episode 345, January 6th, 2015; featured in Cast of Wonders episode 176, August 30th, 2015 and as a Staff Pick for episode 191, January 20th, 2016; also read for StarShipSofa No 414, December 9th, 2015; appeared in the full list of Hugo nominations and so was collected in the first Long List Anthology, published by Diabolical Plots, L.L.C., December 15th, 2015

3,212 words

I remember being impressed but frustrated by this story when I first read it in Crossed Genres. At first I read the ending as another form of suicide, but on a reread I understand it better. Our society has forgotten Makeisha a thousand times. We don’t deserve her. She belongs to a better era, and now she’s going to find one.

This is the type of story that wears its politics, and its political anger, on its sleeve. That limits its depth, I think, but opens the way for more works of fiction exploring the same territory.

Short story: “Leg”

“Leg,” by Steven Polansky

Appeared in the New Yorker on January 24th, 1994 (subscribers can read online); read by David Gilbert for the excellent November 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast; anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1995, edited by Katrina Kennison and guest editor Jane Smiley; reprinted September 25, 2013 as issue no. 71 of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, thanks to J. Robert Lennon

4,926 words

An amazing story.

David Gilbert describes the main character’s choice as “incredibly passive-aggressive” and ultimately a mistake. I disagree on both counts. I see Dave’s sacrifice as inspired—by God or by his subconscious, it doesn’t matter which—and I think it does save his relationship with his son. On a rational level, it’s senseless, but on the nonrational level of mysticism or Oedipal tensions, it makes perfect sense. He’s chosen the small gate, the narrow road that leads to life.

For Gilbert, the idea that Dave’s pain can alleviate Randy’s is too heavy-handed, too pat, too “O. Henry-esque.” He sees the story as undercutting its central symbol. I take the symbol at face value. For me, it works because Dave’s sacrifice is so huge, so dark, and so ostensibly casual—almost disinterestedly casual.

One thing that complicates (and perhaps inhibits) my understanding of the story is that I identify completely with Randy. I don’t believe he’s “simply going through adolescence,” as Gilbert puts it, or “simply” anything. I feel that Randy needs to see his father debased (or cut down to size, or any other Freudian double entendre you like) before he can tolerate him. In the end, Randy has to choose whether he needs his father to actually die or just get symbolically castrated.

Maybe Randy will end up resenting having to make that choice. Maybe it ultimately hurts him more. For that matter, maybe Randy overheard Dave’s prayer about him; maybe Dave passive-aggressively let him hear it. I don’t know. I feel like everything may be okay, but I don’t know.

This is one of those stories where it’s possible for two readers to interpret it in completely opposite ways, and yet agree that it is a great, great piece, because it’s so well-made and so alive.

Edited to say how much I love the exchange that starts around here: “Randy began to drift in his father’s direction, up the line. Dave watched his unwitting tack with gratitude and wonder.” There are so many ways to interpret Randy’s behavior, for both the readers and Dave.

Short story: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison

Appeared in the March 1967 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction (now defunct); won the Hugo Award in 1968

Slightly over 5,809 words (my guess was relatively close this time—5,000)

I’ve always admired this story as a small, concentrated dose of pure horror. It’s also quite funny. Like a lot of funny-horribles, it resembles a well-told joke.

(I say this kind of thing a lot. I guess I’m trying to develop a taxonomy of fictions. Probably futile. Most stories have similar structures; some use them more baldly than others.)

I think Ellison described the ending as an ethically happy one. The main character is in Hell, but he has fulfilled his duty to his fellow creatures.

Short story: “The Secret Miracle”

“The Secret Miracle” (“El Milagro Secreto”), by Jorge Luis Borges; the version I read was translated by Harriet de Onís

Collected in Labyrinths, probably anthologized all over; a version without translation credits in PDF

My current estimate is 2,500 words in English

I like this so much. On a reread, I notice that Hladík is not described as a remarkably good or hardworking writer. Up until that final miracle, he seems both mediocre and undisciplined. One of Borges’ witty throwaways demands to be quoted:

Like all writers, he measured the achievements of others by what they had accomplished, asking of them that they measure him by what he envisaged or planned.

Which makes his redemption (or whatever it is) all the better. Hladík is apparently nobody special, and neither he nor we can understand God’s motives for choosing him. Maybe it’s like humoring a child who wants you to check for monsters under the bed just one last time before going to sleep—God’s way of comforting someone who is beyond rational comfort.


  • Hladík’s torment as he waits for the appointed day is entirely believable. I wonder if Borges was thinking of Dostoyevsky.
  • Borges very logically makes his writer a formal-verse poet. A prose writer, or a writer of free verse, would have a lot of trouble trying to take advantage of this miracle, unless he happened to have Funes’s memory.
  • I like the epigraph here better than the one on “The Circular Ruins,” but that may be because I’ve never read the Koran. If it were as familiar to me as Through the Looking-Glass, I probably wouldn’t find this excerpt so strange and lovely.

Short story: “Departures”

“Departures,” by John L’Heureux

Appeared in the New Yorker on April 7th, 1980 as a “Portrait,” whatever that means (subscribers can read online here); collected in Desires; anthologized in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (edited by Tobias Wolff)

Roughly 11.5 pages in this edition, no clue how many words

A bunch of barely organized thoughts:

In art, emotional distance doesn’t seem to correlate negatively with emotional intensity.

“His mother is beautiful, radiant, and she will not be dead for another fifteen years.” Every time I read this sentence, I trip slightly over “beautiful, radiant,” because I half expect it to be the start of a list of adjectives or adjectival phrases. I think this slight awkwardness is intentional. It’s as though that “radiant” caught the narrator by surprise, as it must have done to the priest himself in his memory.

The dice dream seems to implicate the priest in the ritual humiliation of Christ. In the Gospels, the casting of lots is a quiet moment of cruelty not unlike his greeting to his mother. He evidently doesn’t analyze it that way. In fact he appears to avoid analyzing it at all. The closest he comes is his thought that meditating on the dice “has something to do with not feeling, with the reason he is a priest in the first place.” Holding dice seems like a plausible symbol of “bring[ing] order out of chaos” as well, since dice are used to exploit blind chance within the formal rules of a game.

The kiss on the cheek, attempted twice and failed both times, also calls to mind Judas. Obvious, I guess. He could be a failed Judas, then, one who thinks he’s acting according to a plan, but is really only committing a pointless betrayal.

The priest’s fatal choice, I take it, was “order” at the expense of everything else. The “crazy couple” represents one of the possible traps he fears, the trap of what he sees as pointless emotion and public indignity and general inefficiency. He doesn’t realize he’s only walked into another trap until his dice dream becomes a nightmare.

What happens at the end? I can’t decide whether the priest has broken out of his trap or not. We know from the narration that he has another fifteen years to live. Does he walk out of the ceremony? Does he lose himself in drink? Does he reach out to take the dice, or perhaps to close his mother’s fingers around them and give them back, or merely to snuff out the vision he sees? The title suggests that he too is departing, but I don’t know from what.

I looked up the prayer he recites at the end, but I don’t see any particular significance in the words he fails to recite.* I think what stops him is the word “sanctify.” He has attempted to sanctify himself by ceasing to care much about anything. He must be realizing now that he’s failed, and/or that he was wrong to try.

The narrator is “omniscient” in that it knows things beyond the present moment, but “close” in that it almost exclusively speaks the priest’s own thoughts, without overt editorializing. I’m not sure if that even counts as omniscient rather than limited, since it’s technically possible for everything the narrator tells us to be within the priest’s lifetime knowledge. (Fifteen years from now, he may well be aware that he’s dying, and how fast.)

The author/narrator’s real opinions are expressed only indirectly, by making the priest’s thoughts ridiculous: “It is boring but good for him. Existentialism is good and humanism is good, and he feels that boredom is just something that goes along with the package.” And later: “But what is good? Well, he feels good and that’s something.” Mocking the priest’s inability to hold real (non-abstract) values or even to make a sincere search for them.

Present tense is widely said to make fiction more vivid. (Detractors say less reflective and less disciplined, but that criticism would be pretty laughable here.) I don’t think the choice of present tense in this story has anything to do with vividness. It’s probably a practical choice that makes it possible to mention past, present, and future events without grammatical difficulties. I think a lot of Muriel Spark’s fiction is in present tense for this reason. (Why don’t I have a Muriel Spark tag already?)

*According to the book From the Beginning to Baptism, by Linda Gibler, it continues, “Sanctify this new fire which was struck from flint and is destined for our use. Grant that we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires through this paschal feast that we may come to the feast of eternal light with pure minds.”