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Tag: unhappy endings

Short story: “What’s Not There Can’t Hurt You”

“What’s Not There Can’t Hurt You,” by Sara Taylor

Appeared in Granta, October 28th, 2016

1915 words

Creepy. I’m pleased to see Granta publishing something that wouldn’t feel out of place in Nightmare or Pseudopod—they’re genre-flexible when the writing is good.

I can’t decide if I’m satisfied with the ending. The reveal that refuses to resolve anything reminds me of “Suzanne Delage.”

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Short story: “The Testimonie of Alyss Teeg”

“The Testimonie of Alyss Teeg,” by Carys Davies

Appeared in Ploughshares Summer 2016; the opening can be read on Project MUSE

Pages 25–37 in the magazine, maybe 3000 words?

A fine, cruel story.

The eccentric spelling and capitalization seem to insist on the authenticity of the narrative voice. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing; it made me pay closer attention to the narrator’s diction and syntax, asking myself whether someone could have written this without being what I think of as fully literate, questioning, doubting.

The word “testimony” suggests that Alyss is presenting for our judgment the real truth of what happened. But of course she can’t give us the real truth, any more than she could give it in court; the real truth is hidden in the heart of her sibling, the one she never stops calling “James Elward.”

Short story: “Double Time”

“Double Time,” by John Chu

First appeared in Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories (Twelve Planet Press), edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios (buy the ebook); reprinted in Mothership Zeta issue 0 (September 21st, 2015)

Roughly 4,478 words

A touching story, but I found the ending sad in a way I’m not sure was intended or not. What a terrible fate, to get the pride and approval you need only by cheating time and eavesdropping.

Short story: “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism”

“20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism,” by Jon Padgett

First appeared in the 2013 anthology The Grimscribe’s Puppets, edited by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., which won that year’s Shirley Jackson Award; read beautifully for episode 433 of Pseudopod, April 9th, 2015

Maybe 3,000 words?

Deliciously creepy.

I found myself pleased by the long introductory section, which gives only faint hints of what is to come. It’s worth spending some time building up anticipation and setting the tone. And, of course, it gives us all a valuable lesson in ventriloquism.

Short story: “Unwell”

“Unwell,” by Carolyn Parkhurst

Appeared in the anthology Stories: All-New Tales (2010), edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, which won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Edited Anthology

Maybe 8,000 words?

Deliciously nasty. This is the best kind of unlikable character—the one who keeps us guessing what awful thing she’s going to do next.

Short story: “The Truth and All Its Ugly”

“The Truth and All Its Ugly,” by Kyle Minor

Published in various places, including The New Black, an anthology of dark fiction edited by Richard Thomas; appeared here on Fifty-Two Stories (Harper Perennial) in the week of March 9th, 2010; read for Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

6,562 words

This is really good.

The setup in the first sentence doesn’t work the way I want it to. I feel like the story lulls us into believing it takes place in our own present-day world (or something close to it), and then pulls this twist out of nowhere. Maybe that’s the intention, but I don’t like it. What I like is the emotional truth of the story and the narrator’s voice.

Short story: “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving”

“The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” by Patricia Highsmith

Collected in The Black House in 1981; also in The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith and Selected Novels and Short Stories

? words

This story bears some resemblance to Virginia Woolf’s “Solid Objects,” which portrays a similar obsession (artistic? primal? both?). One protagonist ultimately abandons civilization, the other clings to it.

The title is so grandiose that I wonder if the author is having some fun at her character’s expense. After all, Highsmith is a practitioner of a craft as ancient as basket-weaving, and is far more dedicated to it.

Then there’s the symbolism of an empty, torn-up baby basket finding its way to someone who is childless by choice. Contrary to the usual trope, Diane doesn’t seem to be threatened by the symbolic loss of a child, or the lost opportunity to have one, only by her own latent creative potential. Maybe that’s why the symbolism doesn’t weigh the story down: the thing being symbolized is somewhat unexpected, and mysterious.

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.

Fictional essay: “Happy Endings”

“Happy Endings,” by Margaret Atwood

According to Wikipedia, this first appeared in the 1983 collection Murder in the Dark; PDF here ; also online here

Maybe 1,200 words?

This blogger compares “Happy Endings” to “The Babysitter,” which seems apt. But “Happy Endings” has no scene and hardly any continuity in characterization, so I’m thinking it falls on the “essay” side of things rather than the “story” side.

I admire Atwood, and I suspect that this piece was remarkable when it was first published (didn’t it get anthologized all over the place?), but I find it distasteful now. All it does is mock the idea of a plot, and since it omits almost everything that makes plots interesting, the mockery hits the mark easily. I am tired of aggressive meaninglessness.

The last line may not be meaningless. It seems like a genuine challenge of some kind. Maybe Atwood is satirizing a particular cliché plot trend that I’m not aware of.

Short story: “The Ground the Deck”

“The Ground the Deck,” by Jo Lloyd

Online here as a sample of the Fall 2013 Ploughshares

7,416 words

One of those relentlessly witty and ironic stories that leaves you feeling exhausted—moved, but exhausted. Really well done.

“She tied her hair back and studied her reflection and saw that she was the same as she had been.” I think (and hope) Megan is wrong, that she has grown wiser, but I’m not completely sure. I think and hope she hasn’t grown bitter, but I’m not sure about that either.  The story hinges not on Megan changing, but on the heartbreaking suspense about whether and how she will change.

The lack of quotation marks doesn’t have a disorienting or defamiliarizing effect here. It makes the dialogue sound breezy and thereby, I think, makes the characters’ absurd vapidity even more absurd.

Not a fan of the title. I guess it has to do with Megan’s sense of being adrift, even on dry land.