Thursday, September 18, 2008

John Kessel begins the remix--a short story playlist

There was a time when short stories were the best thing going in fiction. Well-honed, beautifully crafted stories that pulsed with mystery or adventure, or hinted at fantastic worlds and future possibilities were the mainstay of fiction.

But that all happened sometime long before I was born, because when I was in school, searching around for something to read in bookstores and libraries, the only short stories I found were boring. As in, nothing happened. And stories that might have been interesting were eviscerated and served raw, guts flailing all about, by my mediocre English teachers in class.

The good news is, short stories are back. For the past fifteen years or more, incredible short stories in which plot is as valued as tone have made a resurgence. The big problem, though, with so many good stories out there, is “how to begin?” It’s like with music: you don’t want to go out and slog through an entire catalog of albums put out by every band you’ve recently heard of. Instead, you download or hunt down a song here or a song there. Or, even better, a friend hands you a CD mix with the best new sounds they’ve discovered.

All this came to mind as I read several collections of short stories this summer, most notably The Baum Plan for Financial Independence, by John Kessel. I’d like to paint a brief picture of the collection, but then what I really want to spend time doing is creating the most awesome story mix ever!

John Kessel is a gifted, brilliant writer whether he’s creating his own worlds or playing in the worlds of others. And while his award winning cycle of stories called "The Lunar Quartet" is in this collection, I find myself most drawn to his inventive explorations of fictions we thought we’d left behind, whether it’s two criminals stumbling into Oz, with all its possibilities of wealth and freedom, or the relentless, unforgiving promise of redemption in a sequel of sorts to Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, or even the bizarre confluence of Doctor Frankenstein and Mary Bennett in a “but of course!” story called Pride and Prometheus.

The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories is published by Small Beer Press, a fantastic printing house run by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant. One of the best things SBP has done for the world, however, is publish the stories of Kelly Link herself. She is an amazing short story writer, rightfully compared to the likes of Kafka and Borges. Her magical stories have appeared in possibly every great collection of short stories published in the last ten years. The good news is, many of her best stories will now be available in a widely distributed collection marketed toward young adults, titled Pretty Monsters, after the only original-to-this-volume story included.

Thus, we come to my Short Story Mix CD, which begins with my favorite Kessel and Link stories:

Catskin, by Kelly Link (story excerpt and audio recording)- This is my favorite Kelly Link story, maybe because it was the first I ever read. Originally published in the first Michael Chabon edited issue of McSweeney’s, it shares space with lots of great stories.

A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor (full text)- The classic, which is awesome, especially because it leads into:

Every Angel is Terrifying, by John Kessel (audio recording)- See above for why this is so great.

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, by Randall Kenan — This story saved me from a life of loathing reading. I was in the middle of grad school and felt like my classes were sucking the life out of my love of stories. This story, from the excellent collection by the same name, blew me away and brought me home again.

Speckled Trout, by Ron Rash— I love southern tales, and this one, about the brutal realities of the rural south, kicks ass. From Rash’s collection Chemistry and Other Stories. Ron Rash can best be understood by saying aloud the title of his collection of short stories: The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth and Other Stories from Cliffside, North Carolina. You can't beat that with a stick.

Poachers, by Tom Franklin—Where Rash deals with a south caught in the struggles of a reality it almost cannot understand, Franklin crawls around in the soil of the South’s mythologies, real and imagined. This is long-novella length-but worth every word. Especially if you like taut, suspenseful tales of vengeance. You can find this in a number of anthologies, but if you find it in the collection by the same name, you can read his introductory piece, which is as fine a bit of nonfiction about hunting, fathers, growing up, and the south as you're ever likely to find.

The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allen Poe (full text here, among other places)- Speaking of southern writers telling tales of vengeance, this is the classic example. Poe can be good and bad. When he’s bad, he’s really bad. But when he’s good, oh it’s sweet, like a fine wine.

Anda’s Game, by Cory Doctorow (full text)– On one hand, this near-future SF tale is a kick-ass tale of a girl surpassing every task set before her, much to the chagrin of those who thought they could control her. On the other, a brilliant lesson in global economics as taught by 12 year olds.

The Sloan Men, by David P. Nickles (full text and audio)- Awesome, creepy tale that plays with our expectations of horror, especially Lovecraftian, otherworldly, soul-sucking horror and how little it compares to the true horrors of the human heart.

The Wilds, by Julia Elliot— This is only available in the recent Fantastic Women issue of Tin House, but it is not to be missed. Elliot demonstrates why you don’t need a fantasy setting or a horror tale to show that teenage desire is magical and terrifying.

The Big Rock Candy Mountains, by Andy Duncan— Another one a little tough to track down. I think this has only been printed in the journal Conjunctions 39th issue, called “The New Wave Fabulists.” If the story weren’t so unique, it’d be a clarion call for hobopunk science fiction. A classic "watch what you wish for” tale.

The Comet, by W.E.B. duBois (excerpt) Yes, this is a strange outlier. I recently picked up the first volume of the SF/Fantasy/Speculative Fiction collection Dark Matter, edited by Sheree Thomas, which explores the rich history of black SF writing over the past century. I was so surprised to see a story by Du Bois here, that I couldn’t help but read it. An excellent demonstration of what I said when I started: there was a time when well-honed, beautifully crafted stories that pulsed with mystery, adventure, fantastic worlds and future possibilities. But I hope you see from these stories (and others as you might encounter as you search these out) that the time to which I refer just may be now.

Edited to add a picture and this note: feel free to argue other authors and stories--like any mix, this is just what's striking me right now. I couldn't find space for Margo Lanagan, and how do I get folks to find The Voluntary State, one of my favorites by good friend Christopher Rowe? (Ah, the old Sci Fiction website, what a great place you were...)


Colleen said...

This is awesome Justin!!! What a cool idea.....

Kimberly/lectitans said...

Ditto to Colleen, and I'm so excited to see A Good Man Is Hard to Find and The Cask of Amontillado on there, as they are the two short stories that made junior year English entirely worthwhile...

david elzey said...

Double-plus awesome post! I want to read EVERYTHING here. NOW!

Anonymous said...

So, then, what's your playlist?

Rochelle Cashdan said...

Except for Ursula LeGuin, Poe and Sheckley, I'd never read fantasy until a copy of Ed Ferman's The Best Fantasy from Fantasy & Science Fiction came into my hands recently. Now I'm hooked on John Kessel, Fritz Lieber, Parke Godwin, John Aickman and others from that volume. Will hunt up the tales yoou mention as being on the internet as I now live in Mexico. Many thanks, Justin.