Let Me Tell You (Shirley Jackson)

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I have had the most pleasant voice in my head for the past couple of weeks — the great writer Shirley Jackson has been spinning tales, doling out advice, and wryly commenting on waffle irons plotting against toasters.

I have loved Shirley Jackson since reading her fantastic story “The Witch” in my childhood, on my father’s advice. I remember that the bio at the top of the story noted that of all the writers featured in this particular horror story anthology, she was the only one who professed to being a practicing witch. That was irresistible enough, but the story — the writing — was staggering. I have written elsewhere of Jackson’s unerring and inimitable ability to shift mood on a dime; that story demonstrates this gift in a single savage sentence.

While Let Me Tell You features no such singular story (which might not be the collection’s fault, so much as the intervening near fifty years on the part of the reader), it leaves an eminently satisfying cumulative effect as the force of its fifty-six essays, lectures, reviews, and short stories sink in, revealing a prodigious and profound talent. In these writings, her wit (“…she got on a commuter train every morning before the weather had rightly settled itself for the day…”) and whimsy (“The green glasses from the five-and-ten love their bath; they roll luxuriously in the soapy water and seem almost to stretch”) are displayed alongside her merciless and unflinching ability to expose and lacerate the pompous, the petty, the predictable:

an inexpensive black pen-and-pencil set, which…had been awarded to Cheryl…by members of her class, whom, as class president, she had inspired to be exactly the same as every other class graduated from that academy.

Taken together, the various pieces form a clear and cohesive whole, both showing and explicating how her keen observational skills were tempered and complemented by her free-flowing imagination.

And there are very strong works in the book, both fiction and nonfiction. These include the very funny “Company for Dinner”; the puckish “The New Maid,” with its whiff of Mary Poppins magic; the plaintively unsettling “Showdown”; the portentous “The Man in the Woods”; the passionate defense of Samuel Richardson in “Notes on an Unfashionable Novelist” (the fulsome opening rhetorical paragraph of which is so brilliantly undercut by the first sentence of the next: a triumph of literary writing); and, my favorite, the nonfiction “Good Old House,” with its uniquely Jacksonian blend of domesticity and implicit dread as she describes life in her haunted house:

Laurie went off pleasantly from the house to nursery school, where he played happily in the yard and through the attics, but there was a corner of the hall where a wolf lived, and he would not go near it alone.

She then tells a tale (true? I hope so) of an old lady who comes to visit one afternoon. It is, like the best Jackson, set firmly on the border between disturbing and reassuring. A similarly off-kilter occurrence is described in “The Ghosts of Loiret,” where Jackson details the postcards of various homes her husband has bought her, and remarks on the people on the balcony of one, who aren’t there the next day. A similar chill goes up the spine in “How I Write,” where she explains just how she got the name for her secondary female character in The Haunting of Hill House.

Delightful as many of the stories were, what I loved best was sharing with her what she loved: books, words, writing. And I loved hearing her talk about these, as here, when she discusses cleaning off her children’s bookshelves of the

adventures of numerous bluebirds, airplanes, toy engines, clowns, rabbits, and walking-talking dolls, all of whom got into trouble by not obeying, or not conforming, or not going to bed on time.

After this purge, “The real books remained, the ones that packed a sense of excitement and enchantment, that were read rather than skimmed…”

Jackson thrived on writing, telling herself stories throughout the day as she cared for house, home, and family — well, in a fashion: “…trying to get the living room looking decent without actually cleaning it…” But all, all, was fodder for the tales she told, for

a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees; always noticing…and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.

And thank heaven she did not. She is a master, and this book a treasure.

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Summer Highlight—Genius and Max Perkins: Editor of Genius

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Colin Firth as Maxwell Perkins in Genius

Colin Firth as Maxwell Perkins in Genius

About two months ago, we saw Genius, the biopic based on A. Scott Berg’s excellent biography of Maxwell Perkins, editor of—among others—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe.

As soon as I saw the preview, I knew I would love the movie. I mean, we’ve all seen WRITER movies, where typewriters are feverishly pecked or quill pens are meditatively dipped or cursors implacably blink as authors struggle to get the thoughts out and down. But here, here is richness, soul satisfying to the intermediary who stands between author and reader: a movie about an EDITOR. What exquisite joy to see a film where a key action is the cool and deliberative striking out of a line of text. Where a pivotal montage focuses on cutting a book’s length.

Cops and spies and action heroes get to see movies about themselves all the time. And there are any number of films about artists and dreamers and creators. But name a movie focused on a facilitator—as Perkins himself phrased his ambition, “a little dwarf on the shoulder of a great general advising him what to do and what not to do, without anyone’s noticing”—someone who helps realize the vision of another. (And noble self-sacrificing spouse movies like A Star Is Born don’t count. This is about a professional relationship.) My brother suggested The Miracle Worker, and that’s a good thought, but Annie Sullivan overcame so many of her own handicaps to become Teacher that she does not seamlessly fade into the background. And an editor, a good editor, does.

The real Maxwell Perkins

The real Maxwell Perkins

And Maxwell Perkins was a good editor; a great editor. Which the book not surprisingly clarifies much more than does the movie, which focuses on a single relationship—that of Perkins and Thomas Wolfe—and grays out the rest. And even with this narrow focus, the movie often distorts more than it illuminates, substituting melodrama for nuance, especially with regard to Wolfe’s love interest, Aline Bernstein, whose haplessness has been ratcheted up to showy histrionics. Which is all too bad, but is easily remedied by reading the Berg book.

However, the movie contains at least one scene that is truer than truth, and definitively captures Perkins’s genius. Tom Wolfe has written a dense, evocative, detailed passage where his protagonist falls in love. Patiently and methodically, Perkins asks him if various metaphors and similes and tangents are strictly necessary, and he slowly obtains assent for various deletions. But there’s more. Because he asks Tom what it was like for him when he fell in love, and Tom responds that it was like a lightning bolt, illuminating everything before and after. And then we realize what Perkins is doing: he is leading Tom to create a lightning bolt using style and tone and contrast. And Tom suddenly gets it; he understands that this text must stand out from all the other dense evocative detailed passages in the book. And he cuts the multipage passage to a powerful paragraph.

I loved that scene; it is so smart and so cognizant of what a good editor does and how.

The Maxwell Perkins Berg reveals in his understated and well-constructed biography is a man of “keen intelligence and uncompromising standards” dedicated, as a contemporary described, to “the development of American talent and literature.” Notes Berg, “Max had an artistic flair but New England common sense.” Taken altogether, this made for a tireless, powerful engine driving artists to achieve their best work. Perkins maintained that “An editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.”

Perkins used many and varied tools in this task. He certainly honed and polished, as in helping S.S. Van Dine perfect detective Philo Vance and in guiding the acid-tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth into producing a “more relaxed and revealing” memoir. Of this latter effort, he noted “We made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with Alice Longworth’s book—or she did…Now it’s a good book. It might have been a splendid one. But we had to build up from worse than nothing.”

He advised. Berg explains, “In detailed letters, Perkins gave his reasons. He reminded the author, for example, that his first responsibility was to tell a story and that the reader ‘cannot bear to be too much interrupted.'”

And he certainly cut and chopped. The original Wolfe manuscript of Of Time and the River was a cool million words. Moreover, Wolfe’s resistance to editing was monumental. Notes Berg, “Every time he slashed a page from corner to corner, Perkins could see that Tom’s eye was following his hand. Wolfe winced with pain…”

In truth, the kind of editing that Perkins performed on Wolfe’s books—his shaping and condensing of overly long material—was but the literal manifestation of his greatest gift as an editor. What Perkins could do was see the book inside an author before it was even written. Thus, he advised Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to write a boys’ book:

She also kept harking back to the letters he had written her in 1933, especially the one in which he said: ‘A book about a boy and the life of the scrub is the thing we want.—It is those wonderful river trips and the hunting and the dogs and guns and the companionship of simple people who care about the same things…

Which culminated in her life’s masterpiece, The Yearling.

Similarly, Perkins tells Taylor Caldwell, “What you have chiefly is the superb talent for telling a story on a grand scale. It is a mighty rare talent.” Berg notes, “With his simple intuition that Taylor Caldwell should write historical novels, Perkins had founded one of the most enduring and profitable careers in the history of book publishing.”

Another powerful arrow in his editorial quiver was Perkins’s ability to create community among his authors. He was forever writing to one about the other, visiting one with another, introducing this one to that one. In the safety of this community, supportive mentoring relationships formed, allowing Fitzgerald to reach out to Wolfe at a lunch with Perkins in Baltimore. As Berg writes, “Fitzgerald tried to console Wolfe about the truncating of his manuscript by saying, ‘You never cut anything out of a book that you regret later.'” And when Fitzgerald suffers a health crisis, Perkins suggests Marjorie Rawlings visit him as a way of “sending in some reserves to boost his spirits.”

Perkins also ran interference and created continuity between and among difficult, high-strung personalities, desperately needing interaction but not always capable of making connection on their own. Thus, “Until Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, Max’s office would be the clearinghouse for much of the emotion going back and forth between the two men [Fitzgerald and Hemingway], particularly when they wanted to communicate without risking a confrontation.”

This ability—compulsion?—to create community among the isolated particularly resonates for me as an editorial tool. Regardless of whether the subject matter is artlifeandtheuniverse or fiscal decentralization, poetry or pedantry, the author is putting part of him- or herself out there, inviting criticism or neglect. Knowing others—or even just knowing OF others—in the same position is endlessly reassuring. Perkins obviously understood this and sought to bridge the various divides, gulfs, and voids between and within his frequently troubled flock.

Berg paints a detailed and compelling portrait of a distinctive yet retiring subject. He brings the modest, matter-of-fact Max Perkins very much to life through careful, but unobtrusive, scholarship and keen insight:

Max’s comments were effective almost subliminally; he had a way of gently tossing them out as one would pebbles into a pond, making rings of meaning which enlarged until they touched the author’s consciousness.

Like Max, Berg keeps himself very much in the background. You are not aware of the skill and effort being exerted to tell the story; there is nothing showy or dramatic in the presentation. On the other hand, the book is neither dry nor humorless, but instead filled with wry observations like this: “One of Perkins’s daughters insisted that he no longer drink so much and then drive. Max gave up driving.”

Berg also paints clear and succinct miniatures of the legendary characters who peopled Perkins’s world. Fitzgerald, to my mind, comes off the best; a tragic, self-aware character, doomed and damned and despairing. Hemingway is cold and hard: “There was something in Hemingway that preyed on the weaknesses of others.” And Wolfe—possibly the son Perkins, the father of five girls, never had and always wanted—contains multitudes, but in the end comes across as extremely immature. In the face of Wolfe’s fulsome, overheated rejection, which is the climax of the film Genius, Perkins remains compassionate and understanding, a good editor to the end: as fellow Scribners’ editor John Hall Wheelock noted, “Thomas Wolfe was the ultimate editorial challenge, part of which meant dealing with his personal temperament.”

In a late-in-life, fiery correspondence with a difficult author who asked him “just who he thought he was,” Perkins answered that he was “John Smith, U.S.A.” who “is always aware of the fact that he may be, and probably is, wrong. That is tolerance.”

And that, in the final analysis, is the very best tool for being a good editor.

The Lobster

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The Lobster is a disturbing, disconcerting, and disarmingly alarming movie. It tells a romantic story in a dystopic setting, crackling with the blackest of dark humor.

The movie takes place in some not-so-distant future where being paired up is mandatory. After his wife of twelve years leaves him, the protagonist, David — the only character in the movie given a name; everyone else is defined by some incidental detail such as a limp, a lisp, a great smile, a tendency to nosebleeds, or being another person’s best friend — checks into a rigidly managed resort hotel where he has forty-five days to find a mate. Failing that, he will be turned into an animal of his choice: a lobster, he has decided, since they are long-lived, have blue blood like aristocrats, and are fertile till death. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that a lot of lobsters just get eaten.

The world of The Lobster is highly circumscribed and characterized by a flaccid passivity — remarkably so, given the high-stakes, short-duration task the inhabitants must accomplish. The unpaired guests are given identical clothes and shoes; they are to presumably find each other in this sea of uniformity on the basis of their individuality. But what passes for individuality is only outward quirks and tics: failing to find a limping girl, the limping man fakes nosebleeds. There is no desperation, just resignation and lethargy. There is certainly no passion.

Nightly, the residents are reminded, through dances, presentations, and lectures, of the importance of being mated. One telling demonstration — ineptly, woodenly, and ludicrously performed by the hotel staff — showed a single woman walking on her own being sexually assaulted. The same woman walking in the company of a man (albeit one some forty years older than she) was not. The lesson is clear: it’s safer not to be alone.

And that’s when I started to see a larger message in the movie. It could very well be that it is only meant as a dark comedy about the difficulties of being in and out of relationships, but we saw it as an exegesis on conformity and freedom, and the price that people are willing to pay for security.

In this mannered and restricted world — somewhat reminiscent of Metropolis, I thought — the people have surrendered their judgment and individuality. I was reminded too of Sartre’s No Exit; it seemed to me resistance was not futile, just not undertaken.

In the second act, David does resist and escapes to an equally oppressive mirror world in the woods just outside the hotel. Here, a tribe of loners are led by a dictatorial young woman who has every bit as many rules and regulations for living as exist in the hotel. The objective in the woods is not to pair up and to fiercely reject anything that smacks of empathy. And of course it is here that David falls in love.

A word that kept running through my head during the movie was “affinity” — as in Goethe’s Elective Affinities, a book I hadn’t thought of in lo these many years since college and which I don’t even own anymore. But a quick wiki confirmed the connection: Elective Affinities posits that human relationships are all just, as Guys and Dolls‘ Sky Masterson would aver, chemistry. Which is to say, outside the bounds of higher order rationality, respect, or reflection: like finds like and connects and bonds. The superficiality of the affinities displayed in The Lobster are almost farcical. And this leads to the film’s punchline, for David’s affinity is based in his being literally shortsighted.

I found The Lobster unsettling yet appealing, repellent but compelling. Julie thinks it was responsible for giving her a migraine, and no animal lover will sit easy. Its several acts of brutality can be seen as a series of escalating wake-up calls, gradually shaking the protagonist — and us — out of passivity and into action, however misdirected, misguided, and — yes, here is the punchline — shortsighted.

A postscript upon sleeping on the movie and its affects: Director Yorgos Lanthimos’s vision is sufficiently fluid, and the movie’s ending sufficiently ambiguous, as to permit a quite converse conclusion. Inaction could rule the day, making the brutality, and the shortsighted hero, tragically meaningless.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

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S. Ramanujan.

And again, a fascinating story, a fascinating life, is twisted and contorted into a Hollywood-ized biopic. I vaguely knew of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, an imaginative genius of humble origins who came to Cambridge around World War I and then died at a tragically young age, his promise barely realized. His real life, and the contributions he made to experimental mathematics, are recounted in some detail here; I highly recommend this blog post by Stephen Wolfram, as it gives a very measured and insightful description of the characters and concepts tackled by the movie — and the movie pales dreadfully in comparison.

What The Man Who Knew Infinity does is set up a simplistic redemption on two levels: (1) the unfeeling professor (that’s Jeremy Irons as Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy) who doesn’t know how to be a friend is ennobled and enlightened through his contact with the pure and idealistic savant, and (2) the narrow-minded, xenophobic academic institution as a whole is uplifted and enlarged by recognizing the genius who has quietly dwelt among them, patiently enduring their abuse and scorn. And then, of course, his task of enlightenment completed, the martyr dies. This variant on the “magic Negro” trope makes Ramanujan’s story an Occidental one.

Jeremy Irons as G. H. Hardy and Dev Patel as Ramanujan.

 

The truth was apparently much more interesting — and actually much more inspiring. The collegiality of science trumped petty racism (and I have been racking my brain: I know I read last year of a situation where German U-boat incursions near Britain were temporarily suspended during World War I in deference to a scientific mission — another example of a shared recognition of the boundarylessness of scientific truth). Further, Ramanujan’s genius was recognized by his peers in England, and the issue was less about breaking his spirit, as Bertrand Russell accuses Hardy of in the film, than it was of filling in gaps in his knowledge and providing discipline and structure for his creative leaps. And, as Wolfram points out, Hardy and Ramanujan came to math from two very different viewpoints: Hardy built up to conclusions from proofs, and Ramanujan boldly inferred/extrapolated from mathematical phenomena. I have probably not expressed that properly, but the point is that one is a bottom-up, incremental approach, and the other a sweeping, experimental attitude. Very different, and yet complementary.

So the conflicts the movie establishes didn’t really exist. Neither did the heightened romantic longing for his left-behind wife, or the cruel purloinment of her letters by his jealous mother (who in actuality forbade the daughter-in-law to write Ramanujan lest it distract him), or his TB (thought now to be hepatic amoebiasis; see Wikipedia), or the imperialist bigotry of his boss in India (in reality, Sir Francis Spring was a mentor to Ramanujan).

The gaps between the fictionalized and actual versions of Ramanujan’s life could be overlooked — or at least forgiven — if they were in service of pursuing a larger truth. But The Man Who Knew Infinity failed to move me with its portrait of a Christ-like outsider (even though I heard our fellow attendees in the Showroom’s little upstairs theater sobbing as the credits rolled). Overall, I found the film blatantly manipulative and simplistic, despite fine performances, in particular by Jeremy Irons. Even so, three quite impressive cinematic moments stood out for me, salvaging much of the movie for me by stimulating my imagination and introspection:

  • When, on Ramanujan’s arrival at Trinity College, his companion, mathematician John Littlewood, points out a tree, laconically explaining that it’s the one under which Isaac Newton discovered gravity.
  • When, during the narrative wrap-ups scrawled on the screen before the end credits, we see Ramanujan’s “lost notebook,” with the note that his formulae are being used in understanding black holes.
  • When a huge, motionless zeppelin blotted out the Cambridge sky and rained sudden death on those below.

The first two of these speak to the prosaic origins of profound scientific discoveries: how so much is rooted in so little, and how the trivial should not be overlooked. In this context, note the lovely quote, included in the movie, by Littlewood about Ramanujan: “Every positive integer is one of his personal friends.” The last speaks to the tremendous waste of war with its indiscriminate destruction of youth, promise, and intellect. Both concepts can be further distilled to a message of mindfulness: wonder at the awesome magnificence of this world and attempt to, if not understand, at least appreciate it, as it can all end all too quickly.

Not a bad place to end up in, even if via a rather mundane film.

 

Hail, Caesar!

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Smarter people than I have written lots of very smart reviews and analyses of this latest Coen brothers movie, so I will not presume to contribute to the larger conversation. But what struck me most about the picture, which is an affectionate tribute to old Hollywood, is its deep and abiding — and utterly unironic — appreciation for craft and craftsmen.

There is a scene where the singing cowboy star has gone to pick up his date for the evening, a sizzling Carmen Miranda type he has been fixed up with by the studio in an attempt to forge a reputation as a sophisticate. And while he waits for her, he gets out his rope and starts doing Will Rogers style tricks with it. Effortlessly. And the girl appears and is duly impressed, and he asks her if it’s hard to dance with bananas on her head. And she explains that no, it isn’t, just a little hip and neck action (but it’s a much better written line), and the point is made. This incongruous pairing is not so incongruous. These are craftsmen, and they have practiced and mastered their craft.

The movie is filled with hard-working, talented people, each contributing their best efforts to something larger — and they hope better — than themselves. What that something is, and whether it is worth it, I leave to the wiser heads to battle out. For my part, I was content to be taken to a world where strange, perhaps useless, but enchanting talents are appreciated and given full attention and encouragement. And where gung-ho all-American ingenuity triumphs, as it does in every one of protagonist studio fixer Eddie Mannix’s solutions to the wildly diverse and seemingly intractable problems he is thrown during the course of his day.

Hail, Caesar! is a Coen brothers picture, and there is much to think on and contemplate — and much to feel uneasy about. But the movie’s satire, and any post-viewing reflective cynicism, does not extend to the celebration of the individual doing what he or she does best, doing it well and with pride and — yes — integrity.

2016 Animated and Live Action Shorts

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Dystopic. Dour. Despairing. Dark dark dark. And, to break from the alliteration, grim. Taken collectively, this year’s ten Oscar-nominated live action and animated shorts — save for a few that focus on individual loss and love and one extremely quirky and unsettling futuristic vision — revolve around culture clash. The “other” features prominently, and we don’t like them. Few of the messages offered are uplifting, hopeful, or ennobling; most agree that war is our natural state, negating any chance of lasting reconciliation on the basis of shared humanity.

Clockwise from upper left: Bear Story, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, World of Tomorrow, Prologue, and Sanjay’s Super Team.

 

Clockwise from upper left: Shok, Ave Maria, Stutterer, Everything Will Be OK, and Day One

As has become a much-anticipated annual ritual, we headed to the Asbury Showroom, our cozy walking-distance indie art house, for two chilly evenings of shorts. This year, the chill was not just due to a New Jersey February. Even though there are sparks of warmth generated by the unabashedly romantic Stutterer, the beyond-the-grave devotion of the boyhood friends in both Shok and We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, and the love of family that heartbreakingly permeates Bear Story and drives the action of Sanjay’s Super Team, most of the others point out man’s inability to live at peace with himself, his family, his neighbors, and the larger world. A sad message indeed, and all too evident in our present reality.

Two of the animation pieces particularly thrilled and stirred me. Bear Story, a dialogue-free Chilean CG masterpiece with undertones of political repression, moved me to tears with its story of tragic and senseless loss.

And World of Tomorrow, by the distinctive stylist Don Hertzfeldt (who did the brilliant and similarly discomfiting It’s Such a Beautiful Day) is staggering in its tone, style, and implications. It, like It’s Such a Beautiful Day, is available for streaming on Netflix and Videomeme, and I recommend it enthusiastically. What World of Tomorrow does is set a sterile, lonely, solipsistic future (its only characters are the child Emily and her strange visitor from the future, her third-generation self-reproduced clone) against the wide-eyed innocent wonder of a child; it cannot be a coincidence that the character is named after Thornton Wilder’s Our Town heroine.

Also worth noting of the animation pieces is Prologue.This was done by Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and is apparently the beginning of a longer work. Its power too lies in juxtaposition: achingly beautiful hand-drawn illustrations of a glorious natural world against which four Greek warriors battle graphically and brutally to the death.

This is not to disparage the artistry or messages of the other two animated works. They just did not speak to me with the same passion as these three.

Of the live action pieces, two dealt explicitly, and one implicitly, with long-established conflicts between peoples: Albanians/Serbs, Afghanis/Americans, Israelis/Palestinians. A fourth dealt with another longstanding conflict: that between (ex-)spouses. Only the fifth, and our favorite, was an internal conflict. Stutterer dealt movingly and imaginatively with the inability to push out words from head and heart through the mouth. We heard his pain. And of course, I loved that he was a typographer. The filmmakers carefully showed how the protagonist could communicate through and with a broad range of media and methods — just not the one that comes so easily from most lips.

The one I think will win, however, is one of the war stories. Shok tells a tale of a boyhood friendship tested by cowardice, reinforced by self-sacrifice and bravery, and ended by an adult brutality that is as unreasoning and senseless as the children’s actions are thoughtful and sensitive. It’s a heartbreaker, and based on truth — which makes it even more heartbreaking.

Of the live action pieces, my least favorite was Ave Maria. Since viewing, I have gathered that this is a comedy, and may in fact be favored to win. The first-ever Palestinian movie nominated for an Oscar, it juxtaposes the inflexible religious traditions of Orthodox Jews with a sect of silence-bound Arab nuns, as they try jointly to resolve a problem. I found the depiction of the Jews difficult to get past: the characters came off as needlessly nasty, demanding, whiny, and nettlesome. I found no particular effort on the filmmakers’ part to bridge the divide between cultures they were apparently asking their subjects to do. Instead, and this is of course my perception, they laid stereotype in the way of understanding. And unfortunately, that reinforces the message of damned, doomed, and eternal strife these shorts collectively convey.

 

Short Stories I Have Loved

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In my life, I have read hundreds upon hundreds of short stories; the bookcase has more than two full shelves of anthologies, and that doesn’t count all those volumes that have been lost to downsizing or generosity over the years. Nor do I count with those the myriad collections I have edited — another full bookshelf or two — because that’s a different kind of reading.

In general, my taste runs to fantasy, horror, and science fiction — although I take pleasure as well in the clean and elegant short stories of Maugham and de Maupassant and the cool visions of Updike and Cheever, among others.

I am currently reading a collection of (mostly) fantasy/horror stories by Michael Marshall Smith. I have read his work for numerous years in various anthologies an51c2bjbl0uol-_sx323_bo1204203200_d have found it haunting. Which made me think about all the stories, my favorite short stories, that have haunted me over the years. These have been culled from books running the gamut from thoughtful and high-toned anthologies, the best of which is 1143Alberto Manguel’s intelligently compiled and beautifully curated Black Water, to lurid-covered trade paperbacks. But these are the stories that have stuck with me.

In the beginning, there was Bradbury. I remember reading him in junior high — maybe even late elementary school — so it is not surprising that three Ray Bradbury stories make the list. And frankly, I didn’t even dare read through the tables of contents in the source books: I knew I’d find dozens more that I had enjoyed. But the rule here is stories I can call up in memory and still be moved by decades later. And that criterion yields “The Last Night of the World” from The Illustrated Man, “I Sing the Body Electric” from the anthology of the same name, and 7345225174_d14127f038_o“Homecoming” in The October Country. These three are quintessential Bradbury — juxtaposing the most aching tenderness against a joltingly weird background. Two people hold hands and dry the dishes, wallpaper is peeled away in an old nursery as siblings reunite, and a mother hushes a misfit child’s unhappiness by promising to tend a grave.

Then comes Harlan Ellison; I have written before of my deep fondness for Ellison’s style and work. And my favorite of all is “The Deathbird.” How can you not love a story that contains a quiz, a series of essay prompts, a short story, and at least two converging time and plot lines? All urging free will and  proclaiming the power of the individual. Heady stuff; but that’s Harlan.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Witch” contains the most breath-taking tonal shift I have ever read, switching from light to blackest dark in the space of six words. Amazing.

Some literary short stories next: Heinrich Böll’s hysterical (in the sense of hysteria, not laughter) “Christmas Every Day” and the cool metafiction “Title” by John Barth. A brief sample from the latter:

In this dehuman, exhausted, ultimate adjective hour, when every humane value has become untenable, and not only love, decency, and beauty but even compassion and intelligibility are no more than one or two subjective complements to complete the sentence…

And through the master anthologist Alberto Manguel, I was introduced to I.A. Ireland’s “Climax for a Ghost Story,” one of the shortest and most effective chillers ever, reprinted here in its entirety (it’s in the public domain):

“How eerie!” said the girl, advancing cautiously. “—And what a heavy door!” She touched it as she spoke and it suddenly swung to with a click.

“Good Lord!” said the man. “I don’t believe there’s a handle inside. Why, you’ve locked us both in!”

“Not both of us. Only one of us,” said the girl, and before his eyes she passed straight through the door, and vanished.

Classic horror. To be joined by Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw,” Stanley Ell138760524in’s “The Specialty of the House,” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In all of these stories, a sense of increasing unease, disease, grows, as the protagonist crosses a line between normal and abnormal. The skill of the authors lies in their ability to, like Jackson, shift tone. However, where she turned 180 degrees in a clause, these stories turn slowly around, subtly ratcheting up the horror quotient as the reader moves imperceptibly from the familiar to the unthinkable. In a similar vein, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” moves from the familiar to the unthinkable and back again — and then back yet again. All in just over a thousand words.

Next up, a trio of disquieting stories haunted by madness by Kelly Link, Ted Sturgeon, and Frederic Brown: “Stone Animals” (reprinted with permission here), “The Professor’s Teddy Bear,” and “Come and Go Mad,” respectively. In these three, sympathetic protagonists go very awry under the influence of highly unexpected sources. A couple of sentences from Link illustrate the point: “He had an idea that the phone was haunted now. That’s why Catherine wasn’t answering.”

For a great conceit, few stories can top Robert Olen Butler’s “JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction.” The story is excellent and smart, but I do suspect a great deal of its staying power for me lies in that terrific title.

I end the list with some I have come across more recently: “Collect Call,” by Sarah Pinborough, and “Always,” by the above-mentioned Michael Marshall Smith. Interestingly, both of these recall the tender tone of Ray Bradbury. I seem very drawn to stories of dramatic mood shift, but equally so to those whose pervading mood is of loss and love and how you bridge that. The Pinborough and Smith stories, like “Homecoming,” are about undying love and the humble devices they use to convey this love — a pay phone, a package — subvert the eternal enormity of death, much like Emily’s ribbons and bacon in Our Town.