Writer and editor Paul Mandelbaum gathered the childhood writings of 22 distinguished authors—including Margaret Atwood, Pat Conroy, Michael Crichton, Allan Gurganus, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Joyce Carol Oates, William Styron, John Updike, and Tobias Wolff—for the collection First Words, which is a real hoot for fans of any of the featured writers’ more mature works and is also an inspiration for aspiring authors everywhere. For today’s story, I read a short piece that Stephen King wrote at age 9 and lent to the anthology—spelling errors and all! Certainly a pleasure to read (including the editor’s annotations about how this early work prefigures King’s later published writings), and also interesting to learn that King’s aunt paid him a quarter a story to encourage his writing habit— an investment that clearly brought favorable returns. Algonquin Books published the collection originally, and King’s tale can be found on the publisher’s blog here. — Art Taylor
I picked up the Centipede Press edition of Paul Cain’s works, The Complete Slayers, after reading Michael Dirda’s review in the Washington Post. The stories, most of which appeared in Black Mask in the 1930s, are spare and uncompromising—more minimalist than either Hammett or Hemingway ( contemporaries and obvious points of comparison) and bleaker than either as well. “Black,” the first story in the collection, reminds me in some ways of Hammett’s Red Harvest: a lone man comes into town and pits two rival groups against one another. Both terse and tense—a little too much of the former for my taste, ultimately, but certainly with enough of the later quality to make up for it. — Art Taylor
Sandra Seamans’ “My Little Corner” is one of my favorite blogs—an invaluable resource for anyone interested in writing short stories and for those reading them too. She’s been doing great work recently pointing folks to some terrific short fiction on the web for Short Story Month, and I was pleased that she led me recently to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Molly’s Bed” in Driftless Review—a fun little tale that offers a glimpse at the much wider world of its main character. Check it out. And be sure to follow Seamans’ blog, too! — Art Taylor
Another Stanley Ellin story, one that originally appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1968 and was a finalist for the next year’s Edgar Awards. As with many of Ellin’s stories from this period, this one has a frame narrative and is set in Europe (Italy again, in this case). The story is about the last bottle of a famed vintage, the wine merchant who currently has it, and the uber-rich wine collector who simply must have it. That would seem to be the drama here, but two other characters—the editor of a wine journal and the wife of that millionaire oenophile—are the ones who provide the real tension. The twist in this case struck me as particularly satisfying: not just a dramatic turn of plot, but a twist of character that seemed both surprising and completely realistic. Recommended. — Art Taylor
Today, I happened upon “Five Stories From Flaubert” by Lydia Davis, in the November 2010 issue of Harper’s. The very brief stories are, according to the headnote, “adapted from letters Flaubert wrote to his lover Louise Colet while he was working on Madame Bovary” (and the stories were published in the wake of Davis’s translation of that novel earlier that fall). The stories are “The Cook’s Lesson,” “The Visit to the Dentist,” “The Coachman and the Worm,” “The Chairs,” and “Pouchet’s Wife.” The one that resonated most with me was the third in the series, about a man who attributes his urges to the tapeworm living inside of him and about a battle that’s both with another and with oneself at the same time. It’s tremendously fascinating how much character and plot gets packed into two paragraphs, but what also impressed me was a quick nod toward another story, about relatives of the main character’s—hints of another tale within this one, only glimpsed but equally gripping. Looks like the stories are only available through a paywall, sadly, or I’d point in that direction. (And originally published, best I can understand, in The Paris Review, but for subscribers only there as well.) — Art Taylor
Back when I was in elementary school in Richlands, NC, our teacher would regularly have a “Catch-Up” Day. I was always confused when there were no French fries.
In addition to this being the Ketchup Edition of my Story A Day In May plan, it’s also the Laura Ellen Scott Edition, since everything here relates to her in one way or another. Over the last four days I’ve read four stories. The last two were from the collection French Quarter Fiction: The Newest Stories of America’s Oldest Bohemia, an anthology which Scott gave to my wife and me and which benefits Hurricane Katrina Relief. Tara and I each picked a story—largely at random, by title. Julie Smith’s “House of Mischief,” more an anecdote (with commentary) than a story, tells the story of a brief love affair from the perspective of the house where the relationship large unfolds (or at least the more physical parts of the relationship). The second, Jeri Cain Rossi’s “A Bus Named Cemeteries” is also the tale of a brief relationship, with a dark little twist at the end.
I also read another story from this year’s Wigleaf Top 50, for which Scott served as the series editor this year (a project she’s been involved with for a couple of years, in fact). Amy Benson’s “Crime Is Down All Over,” originally published in PANK, follows a couple slowly heeding the wife’s father’s advice to “lay in provisions” for any number of potential emergencies: “bomb, drone, wave, fire, a great poisoning of the well.” An intriguing tale, skillfully wrought, that the final line, at least on my computer, turns up garbled a little—not sure if intentional somehow or not…..
Finally, I also read a story by Scott herself—a novella, in fact, that I’m hesitant to say anything about publicly since it hasn’t yet been published. But I will say this: It’s masterful, as always with her work
And I’ll try to keep better on track now that I’m back in town from a long weekend away. — Art Taylor
Originally published in The Georgia Review and anthologized in both New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2005 and New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond, Tom Franklin’s “Nap Time” proves that a story doesn’t need a tightly constructed plot to deliver high tension and intense drama. A husband and wife with a colicky baby begin to confess some troubling impulses stemming from the struggles of fresh parenthood; admitting shameful fantasies leads to sharing dark memories; and then….
“Nap Time” is barely over five pages, but boy do those pages pack a wallop, with a closing few lines that are provocative, ambiguous, and ultimately haunting. — Art Taylor