“Once upon a time, there was a man whose therapist thought it would be a good idea for the man to work through some stuff by telling a story4.5 stars.
“Once upon a time, there was a man whose therapist thought it would be a good idea for the man to work through some stuff by telling a story about that stuff . . .”
So begins this fantastic and fantastical short story by Charles Yu, author of the equally wonderful (and equally meta) How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. But while that novel explores the tropes of good sci-fi, "Fable" is concerned with the nature of—you guessed it!—fables and fairytales. For, in the story, a nameless narrator slowly, haltingly, oh-so-begrudgingly, tells a fairytale version of his life to an equally nameless therapist.
“Once upon a time, there was a man who did not know how to use a sword and was also very afraid of dragons, so he took the L.S.A.T., did pretty well, and ended up getting into a decent law school . . .”
In this charmingly breezy fashion, the narrator begins to recount the ordinary events of his life—grad school, career, marriage—in the entirely un-ordinary context of fairytales, thereby highlighting just how miraculous the seemingly mundane can be.
Take, for example, falling in love. In the narrator’s story, the lawyer woos a candlemaker’s daughter whom everyone else (including the candlemaker) dismisses as plain, but whom the fairytale lawyer can see is using magic to hide the fact that she is, in actuality, “the most fetching maiden in the village—maybe in the entire realm.”
When the lawyer tells her as much, she weeps uncontrollably. Is it because someone finally thinks she is beautiful? Or because someone finally sees her true inner beauty? Or because someone finally just sees her?
Does it even matter?
Together, they build a peaceful life. For the fairytale lawyer does not dream of being a hero or slaying dragons (he’s afraid of them, remember), but of simply being happy—maybe “not the stuff of legends”, the narrator admits, but enough.
Then, one night, that changes. An evil witch curses the lawyer and the candlemaker’s daughter and everything begins to go horribly, horribly awry. With heartbreaking clarity, the narrator’s story turns into a stream-of-consciousness that chronicles the myriad ways in which life can fall short of the happily ever after fairytales promise us as children.
“Once upon a time, there was an angry guy, who hated the story he was in. All right? He was angry, O.K.?”
Stalled careers. Infertility issues. A special needs child. Divorce. Addiction. The narrator discusses them all, but always within the protective framework of fairytales, of magic and witches and curses and make-believe.
Thus, the fairytale lawyer—now a lowly blacksmith—and the candlemaker’s daughter move deeper and deeper into the forest, in the hopes of finding “another forest, another village, another once upon a time, where they’d be safe from potions, and spells, and anything else.”
But, alas, the lawyer-turned-blacksmith becomes lost—not just in the forest, but in life, too.
“He’d lost the trail,” explains the narrator to his therapist. “No map, no legend. He no longer knew what stood for what.”
The only way out? To create a new map, a map of words, a story to tell his therapist and himself. For that is one of the many things Yu’s very meta tale is about: the power of stories to help us comprehend the seemingly incomprehensible.
“Once upon a time, there was a guy who wasn’t allowed to start a story with ‘once upon a time.’ Because it wasn’t once upon a time. It was a specific time. And he wasn’t a blacksmith—he was just a regular guy . . .”
Or was he? Because there is magic in that, too. The regular, the everyday, the ho-hum, can lead to extraordinary things, like falling in love or hearing your child laugh for the first time. And when things get difficult, when the going gets tough, the slow and often painful slog to just—keep—going—can be as heroic as any knight-errant’s quest.
That, ultimately, is the moral at the end of Yu’s fable. (For Yu named his story “Fable”, not “Fairytale”, and fables end in moral truths.) And it is weirdly, wonderfully uplifting.
This holiday-themed short story—which can also be found in Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries—stars Christie’s most famous creation, Hercule Poirot, the dapper little Belgian detective famed the world over for his powers of deductive reasoning, or, as Poirot puts it, his “little grey cells”.
So, what are Poirot and his legendary grey cells getting up this time? In a nutshell:
When a young potentate-to-be loses a very famous and very priceless ruby while on holiday in London, a royal advisor recruits the renowned detective to get the jewel back. The plan? To have Poirot spend Christmas at the English manor of Kings Lacey, where, the advisor believes, the suspected jewel thief will also be spending the holidays. Ostensibly, Poirot will be there to experience a “good old-fashioned Christmas” in the English countryside. In actuality, however, he’ll be hot on the trail of the thief. But who can it be? The Laceys’ seemingly sweet granddaughter Susan? Her new beau Desmond Lee-Wortley? His invalid sister? Or Susan’s jilted ex-lover David? It’s up to the great detective to figure it out—along with some unexpected help from the Christmas pudding, of all things . . .
Everything you could possibly want in a Christie Christmas murder mystery. ...more
“I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.” So begins this classic short story, Lovecraft’s2.5 stars.
“I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.” So begins this classic short story, Lovecraft’s first published tale, in which a nameless narrator recounts his time adrift in the Pacific Ocean after a German U-boat sunk the battleship on which he was a crew member . . .
Escaping in a lifeboat, he falls asleep and awakens to find himself cast ashore on a vast swath of exposed seafloor. He wanders across the muddy terrain until he stumbles upon a strange monolith, on which a bas-relief depicts hideous creatures, “damnably human in general outline”, but with “webbed hands and feet”, “shockingly wide and flabby lips”, “glassy, bulging eyes”, and “other features less pleasant to recall.” Naturally, he dismisses the images as “the imaginary gods of some primitive fishing or seafaring tribe”—after all, they remind him vaguely of the ancient Philistine deity Dagon—until, horror of all horrors, one of the loathsome beings emerges from the deep and starts lumbering toward him. Terrified, he races back to his boat and passes out, only to awaken in a hospital in San Francisco.
Was it just a dream? Or all-too-real?
Either way, the narrator cannot endure its frightful memory and so plans to kill himself via morphine overdose at his story’s conclusion. But—alas!—his retelling breaks off with the arrival of some thing—Dagon, perhaps?—outside the narrator’s window, with the clear implication being that his end will be a lot less peaceful than previously hoped.
Is the story interesting? Sure. But is it scary? Not so much.
Sorry, Lovecraft’s fish-faced horrors just don’t frighten me. They’re too silly. I understand what his cosmic horror is going for—in fact, I even kind of admire it—but I don’t particularly enjoy it.
It pains me to say that Neil Gaiman—one of my all-time favorite authors—absolutely adores HP Lovecraft—one of the authors I most detest—but adore himIt pains me to say that Neil Gaiman—one of my all-time favorite authors—absolutely adores HP Lovecraft—one of the authors I most detest—but adore him he does. Which is why, of course, he wrote this humorous short story, in which Lovecraft’s most famous monster, Cthulhu, grants a human named Whateley a rare interview.
Cthulhu, it seems, wants to recount his—her?—its?—life story, from his (we’ll arbitrarily go with male pronouns) swamp-soaked youth on a distant planet beneath a blood-red moon to the present, in which Cthulhu lies dead—or possibly just asleep—beneath the Earth’s oceans. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fthagn. But one day soon, Cthulhu promises, he shall rise once more to glut upon “carnage and destruction, sacrifice and damnation, ichor and slime and ooze, and foul and nameless games.” Or, as Gaiman's Cthulhu so pithily puts it, “[f]ood and fun.”
Honestly? It’s a surprisingly enjoyable tale, thanks in no small part to Gaiman’s flourishes of humor. I particularly liked finding out the real reason the dinosaurs disappeared—spoiler alert: Cthulhu & Co. were craving BBQ—although I also quite liked that the great dead god is not above a stale parrot joke.
Of course, the story is also peppered with dozens of references to various Lovecraft stories, enough to please any Lovecraft fan. As a non-fan, however, most of those references went over my head. But you know what? I can live with that. ...more
A mini-adventure featuring Doctor Who's9th Doctor, a.k.a. the tough guy regeneration, a.k.a this cool leather daddy right here:
A mini-adventure featuring Doctor Who's9th Doctor, a.k.a. the tough guy regeneration, a.k.a this cool leather daddy right here:
Personally, he’s never been among my favorite Doctors. But you know what? I loved—absolutely loved!—this short story. In fact, the only (non-Neil Gaiman) Doctor Who story I like more is George Mann’s Doctor Who: Engines of War, which probably isn’t a coincidence as the two stories share several traits. But I’m getting ahead of myself!
First, the plot. In a nutshell:
The story begins with the Doctor on—no, not present-day Earth—but a planet called Karkinos in the far-off future. There the Doctor manages to defeat a rogue entity known as a Starman, but accidentally loses his weapon—a strange, silver-colored orb—in the heat of battle. Luckily, Ali, a young girl who witnesses the fight, recovers the orb, but then refuses to return it to the Doctor unless he promises to take her on his next adventure. Begrudgingly, the Doctor complies, and soon he and Ali are off to Ancient Babylon, where he hopes to defeat a Starman even worse than the one on Karkinos. But—twist!—good King Hammurabi, famed throughout history for his wisdom and justice, turns out to be less-than-welcoming to foreigners, and before you can say, “State-sanctioned execution,” the Babylonians are planning the Doctor’s death. Can Ali save the Doctor from the Babylonians? Can the Doctor save the Babylonians from the Starman? And can anybody learn how to work that dang silver orb?
I’m sure you can guess the answers, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a fun premise that’s elevated—highly!—by Higson’s willingness to defy your Doctor Who expectations. Not only does the story begin off-Earth, it also features a companion that’s—spoiler alert!—not human. I mean really not human. I mean walking-talking-space-crab not human. All of which makes for a refreshing change of pace.
Of course, Higson’s story is also bolstered by its aforementioned similarities to Mann’s novel. Both authors: 1) have a cinematic way of writing; 2) refuse to over rely on the reader’s pre-existing familiarity with series characters (my biggest pet peeve!); and 3) use their stories to lead up to key moments in the revived TV series. Mann’s leads up to the events of the 50th anniversary special, while Higson’s leads up to the moment the Doctor takes Rose as a companion.
That’s right, my fellow Whovians! This entire short story takes place between the final moments of "Rose”, a.k.a. the revived TV series’ premiere episode! How? I’ll never tell. You’ll just have to read it yourself to find. But I will say . . . wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. Hope that helps! ;)
A young boy plays with his toy helicopter on the beach. Nearby a sick man lies in serious need of help. The young boy, howev**spoiler alert**
A young boy plays with his toy helicopter on the beach. Nearby a sick man lies in serious need of help. The young boy, however, does not offer any assistance, so the sick man—he cannot move—is forced to stare at the sea and dream—of scuba diving, of Sputnik, of monstrous, man-eating amoebas.
Are you confused yet? Good. You should be. That’s precisely what Theodore Sturgeon is aiming for in this disorienting short story. Who are these characters? How do they connect? And where the heck are they? Only at the very end of the story do the answers become clear—for both the reader and the sick man—as they coalesce around a single, suddenly apparent fact: the sick man is an astronaut who has crash-landed on Mars. Thus, the sea is not a sea, but a dusty Martian plain, and the child is not a child, but a figment of the sick man’s imagination, a mere memory of his younger self called up comfort. For the sick man isn’t sick, but dying. The crash has fatally injured him—that is why he cannot move—and so he is dying, cold and alone, some 141 million miles from the nearest human being.
Yet even as the astronaut grasps the gravity of his situation, he finds a strange joy in his predicament—He has made it to Mars! Humankind has made it to Mars!—which tempers the horrifying realization he and the reader have just made. Er, somewhat.
It’s a clever concept, but one I admired more than actually enjoyed. If it sounds appealing to you, though, you can read it online for free over at Strange Horizons magazine. Enjoy. ...more
Unlike them, however, Brown is seldom remembered today, which is a shame as he wrote many interesting little stories—and I do mean “little”. Brown was master of the short short story, with many of his works totaling one page or less. Sometimes much less.
The half-page “Answer”, which relates what happens when people all across the universe unite to built the super-computer to end all super-computers, to finally calculate an answer to that most vexing of questions: “Is there a god?” To say anymore, however, would spoil the tiny story’s sinister surprise . . .
Of course, some of Brown’s most famous stories are considerably longer.
“Arena”, arguably Brown’s best-known work and the basis for the Star Trekepisode bearing the same name, puts an intergalactic twist on the idea of single warrior combat. A superior alien race—at the end of its evolution and fused into a single being—decides that only one of two lower species will be allowed to survive and so evolve into a similarly advanced state. Humanity—natch—and the “Outsiders”, which look living red spheres covered in tentacles.
[image error]src="/image..." alt="Outsider sexiness! As depicted by David Schleinkofer for Reader's Digest." />
Thus, the (questionably) superior species selects two champions at random, plops them down into the eponymous arena, and tells them to get to killin'. Winner lives. Loser dies—along with the rest of his species. No pressure!
Personally, I prefer Brown’s shorter stuff, but whatever your preference, short or long, there’s plenty to choose from in this entertaining collection. The stories—by turns, creepy, clever, and amusing—are all quick and easy reads, and the themes are pure early 20th century sci-fi, i.e. anxiety about technology, science, warfare, and, most especially, first contact.
All in all, it’s a great introduction to Brown’s work, although it would be equally good for familiar fans who just want to revisit some of his famous stories. Not bad for a 99 cent Kindle purchase! ...more