“Only in New York,” by Libby Heily
Funny. I would have liked higher stakes (grief), but I guess that would make it less funny.
“The Princess,” by D. H. Lawrence
According to Wikipedia, first published in the March, April, and May 1925 issues of the Calendar of Modern Letters (now defunct); collected in St. Mawr and Other Stories in 1925; found online here
I have a theory that horror, comedy, pornography, romance, drama, and tragedy are all various aspects of the same thing. Every story aims at a certain effect, sometimes more than one, and most stories take roughly the same route to get to it. I like stories like this, where the emotional effects are mixed and piled on heavily. The last line, for example, is hilarious because it’s slightly horrifying and also anticlimactic. There’s also a lot here that is serious. Mr. Urquhart’s “demon” theory of the psyche sounds like Lawrence’s own.
Why does Lawrence’s perverse little fantasy work for me while Vonnegut’s doesn’t? Where “Welcome to the Monkey House” is self-indulgently kinky and in denial about it, “The Princess” is self-destructively kinky, shattering its protagonist’s brittle purity with open eyes.
“One Eight Hundred,” by Mark Leahy
Appeared in Wigleaf, September 27th, 2015
Stories that are essentially jokes don’t always work. This one sounds like a standup bit, but it works, I think, because the narrator makes it personal and because the approach is somewhat grim and quiet (“planning four hundred final moments”). The last sentence does have a punchline feel, though, that would be mitigated if this were a part of something slightly larger.
“Baby Girl,” by Dylan Landis
Appeared in Black Clock, issue no. 19, winter 2014/spring 2015, pages 37 to 39
About 2.25 pages; my guess of 1200 words was pretty close to the actual figure, 1,173
Like a quiet horror story or an extended joke, this tale gets its power from the gradual escalation of mundane fears and cruelties. It’s too believable to be fun, but I can appreciate how well and how concisely it’s deployed.
“Suzanne Delage,” by Gene Wolfe
Originally published in the 1980 anthology Edges; collected in Endangered Species in 1990; appeared here in the September 2013 Lightspeed Magazine
2,422 words according to Lightspeed; 2,283 according to MS Word
I didn’t understand this story, but when the ending came I felt like laughing, as though I had caught the tone of a joke without hearing the words. The excellent reading by Stefan Rudnicki in the Lightspeed podcast probably contributes a lot to the charm I feel about it.
The style and subject matter make me think of Henry James. Also reminded of Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Missing Girl”—two maybe-ghost stories that refuse to solve their mysteries for us. This story, however, goes further than either of those, refusing to make it explicit what the mystery is and whether it even exists. The narrator denies that anything “supernatural” has taken place.
I’m not sure whether a twice-married, at-least-middle-aged guy checking out a fifteen-year-old was creepy to Wolfe’s readership when this was first published, or for that matter to the narrator’s own contemporaries (the story seems to be set earlyish in the twentieth century; some, based on the mention of Spanish influenza, have said the 1910s). I would like to think it’s intentionally creepy. Especially the “virginal breasts” thing and the implication that he’d like to fondle her waist. Talking to the reader, the narrator is self-aware enough to feel compelled to deny that his interest in her is merely physical; talking to his acquaintance, he says “child” rather than “girl.” All this seems like a clue that he’s an unreliable narrator, as well as, perhaps, a clue to what makes him unreliable. His idea that he “would no doubt have soon come to both love and hate” Suzanne also stands out, being too extreme a sentiment for a rivalry that never happened in the reasonably happy childhood of a sedate man.
It’s also possible that the narrator is in fact pretty reliable. The fact that he and Suzanne have never met is explicable only by an astonishing set of coincidences, each of which is unremarkable on its own. But if this fact points to the one “extraordinary experience” in his life, then by the rules of the story he is incapable of telling us about that experience, because “he has forgotten it.” He can only offer hints. The story may merely be an excerpt from his private musings, whose larger significance, if any, he fails to recognize.
This is the first thing I’ve read by Wolfe, who’s been strongly recommended to me. It strikes me as very accomplished, even if it’s a literary joke of some sort.
A great collection of theories here. Perhaps this is the real point of the story, to provide endless grounds for analysis and debate.
I can’t resist jotting down a few more points:
“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.
“The Verdict,” by Edith Wharton
“But I forced myself to put it here; and now it’s cured me—cured me.” Somewhere around this line, or a bit earlier, it becomes pretty obvious (to me, if not to the narrator) why Gisburn has given up painting, and on my first reading I wanted the story to end there. But the recounted scene with the corpse has an unexpected savor and poignancy.
A lot of my favorite stories are very cruel. What makes them work as stories is the precise deployment of their cruelty, sort of like jokes whose punchlines simultaneously fulfill and reverse audience expectations. I’m putting this badly, but I may put it better later.
All the women in this story are remarkably empty-headed and despicable, even taking the era into account.
“The Long QT,” by Hilary Mantel
Appeared in The Guardian on October 19th, 2012 (read here)
I’m starting to wonder if this is a parody of something. When I first started reading, I was struck by the extreme conventionality of the subject matter and style. It’s almost the ideal example of a familiar literary short story: dull suburban marriage, would-be adulterer, high-quality prose, third person limited, psychological astuteness, detached wit.
The ending took me by surprise, but not because it was really unexpected. In this type of story, it’s inevitable that the main character’s complacence must be shattered like (even the metaphor is inevitable) a dropped glass. What surprised me was that the ending arrived so soon. The abruptness of it left me wondering if I had been the victim of a sly literary joke. You see, the story seems to say, it’s even in the title! You can see it coming a mile away, so why not get it over with now instead of 2,000 words later?
And I did feel I should have seen it coming:
A shock will do it, he said, or strong emotion, strong emotion of any sort. Sometimes, he said, people die laughing.
This last little irony struck me as recycled from a thousand other stories, though no one story in particular. I don’t know whether to admire this story for being such a perfect distillation of its type or look down on it for its pointlessness. Or laugh.