Long praise for the short story

“I don’t really like short stories, but I actually thought they were okay.”

Not the greatest accolade ever received, but from my father, that was high praise. No- I’m just kidding about that last bit: he was never one of those stereotypes who was short on praise (although he did fulfil the stereotype ‘never let your kid win unless they deserve it’: the man took table tennis seriously) but he’s not a short story fan.

I heard that comment, or similar, from a few people – particularly friends and family who probably thought they should support my efforts when I released ‘Basement Tales‘ – one or two of them even commented that they looked forward to when I released a ‘real book’ – by which they meant a novel.

It’s not just casual readers who feel that short stories aren’t ‘real fiction’: that they’re either a build-up to, or a break from, writing a novel. Critics can be just as biased: yes, they may recognise the classics like, say, for example,  The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, but there is definitely often still a sniffiness about the short.

Many Bookshops too can struggle to position short collections – and I understand why: it’s a chicken and egg situation: do they not stock them because people don’t read them, or do people not read them because they can’t find them?

I love the short story – if that hasn’t been made clear elsewhere  : I love reading them, and I love writing them.

That’s not to say I don’t love novels – reading and writing – I’ve written elsewhere about the process of publishing my short story ‘The Five Votive Candles of Joe Wray‘ in the ‘Burning: An Anthology of Short Thrillers‘ collection – and how it ballooned over the course of a few days from a target 12k max piece to a 24k+ behemoth. Ultimately I cut the story back, losing two considerable subplots in the process and the end result was a tighter, leaner story that appears in the collection.

I did, for a brief moment, wonder whether there was enough material there to expand it into a full novel – and I think there probably was – it has a three-act structure, there are enough differentiated characters in it, and while I hope I managed to get ‘character’ into each of them in the short, they were fully realised enough in my mind at least to expand beyond what ended up on the page with, again in my mind, interest.

I didn’t for several reasons:

  1. I’ve already got five novels I want to start/ finish which are definite ‘novel length’ material
  2. I think it works better as a short
  3. I have qualms about working on an idea originally envisioned as a short, or even a novella piece to add another circa 50k words on to it. It never works, does it? (Short answer- yes, sometimes it does)

There are clear differences in short stories and novels (“Yeah – one’s longer.” thanks, helpful guy in the back, you can go home now.) and that’s another article somewhere down the line, but for now, here are five writers as prodigious in their short story output as their novels. Chances are you’ve read them – if not – you’re missing out, if so –  why not dip back in on a Sunday afternoon: it won’t even take you too long…

Ray Bradbury

Book cover of Ray Bradbury S is for Space
This is the copy of S is for Space I have…well worn.

Of course, any lover of fantasy fiction will know the great Bradbury novels- the likes of Something Wicked This Way Comes, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles probably the best known  – but in his life, Bradbury published a total of 11 novels. Now that’s not bad going – and not one of them is a dud (If you haven’t read  Green Shadows, White Whale – his fictionalised account of working on Moby Dick with John Huston, you should do), but it would suggest an almost slow-working writer if that was an output over 60+ years. If one weren’t to take into account he released almost 50 short story collections.  Those are collections which include masterpieces like “The Scythe” “The Small Assassin” “The Veldt” “A Sound of Thunder” and oh so many more. Many of them found second homes through the likes of The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and of course The Ray Bradbury Theater tv series, and while there’s no denying Bradbury was a master in whichever form he wrote in, he is, for me the consummate short-story writer.

Roald Dahl

Cover of Roald Dah's Kiss Kiss
Kiss Kiss – Roald Dahl

Dahl was probably the most important writer for me as a young child – among his 17 children’s novels I still count Danny, Champion of the World as one of my favourite books. He only wrote two adult novels –Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen – a tale set in the aftermath of the atomic bomb drops in Japan which was received poorly by critics, and My Uncle Oswald – a memoir based, in part, from two of Dahl’s short stories. And oh, the short stories he had to draw on – 12 collections of adult shorts. Possibly the best-known collection ‘Kiss Kiss’ produced, amongst others, the likes of “The Landlady” “William and Mary” “Royal Jelly” and “Lamb to the Slaughter” but there are many more  – and, like Bradbury’s many of which found wider reception through TV. (for anyone of a certain age it remains impossible to hear the theme song to Tales of the Unexpected without wanting to do a slinky little dance move…)

Shirley Jackson

Early cover of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery
An early cover of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery

An admission of guilt here. I was aware of Shirley Jackson in my late 20’s. I’d seen both adaptations of The Haunting of Hill House and read the book as I was working my way through Stephen King’s recommended books and movies lists in Danse Macabre. It wasn’t until my short story ‘First Born‘ was published by Joe Monks in his ‘Agony in Black’ collection that I found people were telling me how much it reminded them of Jackson’s The Lottery (‘reminded them of’ is a polite way of saying, “Boy, you really ripped that one off, didn’t you?”). So I sought out the story via the collection headlined by the same. And yes, there are definite similarities. (My son still sends me bitter messages about how he actually came up with The Kite Runner and someone invaded his dreams to get there first, presumably via time machine, before he wrote it down…so maybe it’s a family trait.) Well, at the end of the day it was a genuine coincidence, but what it did mean was an introduction to the wider range of short stories that Jackson wrote – and while she created six novels in her lifetime, she released seven collections, and published more than 100 short stories…I haven’t read more than two collections, but I need to get back to reading more of them – even if just to check I haven’t been inadvertently borrowing…

 W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham - collected short stories Vol 1
W. Somerset Maugham – collected short stories Vol 1

By the time I’d read and re-read Dahl, I started looking for other writers to read. This became the natural trinity of Stephen King, James Herbert and W. Somerset Maugham – one of these is not like the others, right? (Right- Herbert never wrote short stories)

Of course known for his twenty  novels such as Of Human Bondage (not what a fourteen-year-old was expecting from the title, but I persevered), The Moon and Sixpence and my personal favourite  The Razor’s Edge, Maugham was also a pretty prolific short story writer – with almost 200 original pieces published between 1900 and 1962, many of which were published across 16 collections.

It’s been a long time since I read Maugham’s short pieces, but I think I might have thought up my post-writing reading today…

Clive Barker

Clive Barker's Books of Blood Vol 1-3
Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Vol 1-3

I’ve written elsewhere about the influence of the Pan Book of Horror Stories series as a teenager just starting to write myself, and there were some brilliant stories in those collections (my all-time favourite short being one of them), but they tended to be of a bygone decade. When Stephen King described the ‘Books of Blood‘ series and their author, Clive Barker as “the future of horror” I knew I had to check them out (and like so many books that have disappeared from my collection over the years, I wish I had kept hold of those early editions…). All I can say is, that for once, King’s praise wasn’t hyperbole (the man can be a little over-enthusiastic about some of his recommendations). Published between 1984 and 85 the collections showed that short stories can project an author into the stratosphere. While he hasn’t written short stories in a while, the material in BoB has been adapted in various guises – from graphic novel format (Tapping the Vein) to movies (anthologies and full-length features) and TV series.

And of all the collections mentioned – probably the best, and certainly the darkest,  pun…

“Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red.”

*

Four of the five authors here have something in common: their collections are made up of mixtures of previously published and original tales. In one of the workshops I run, I talk about the state of publishing today and quote that it is the best of times and the worst of times. There are more ways to get your work published – online and in print, but that does not equate to getting your work seen: so many of the publications which debuted works from the authors mentioned above, are no more. The outlet for ‘new short fiction’ is both growing in new forms (particularly online), even as it, like many other publishing endeavours wither and die in their more traditional homes. Whether this is good or bad for the short story writer is another tale. What I believe is paramount, is that the short story format is seen as real art, and one to be embraced by any lover of stories.

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