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Buckle up, gang. Here’s my “capsule-review-style” run-down of the stories I’ve read this fall that haven’t yet made it into a #52Stories post. This one may take a little while, so pack a lunch.
And I’ll go ahead and tag this with a big [SPOILER ALERT], because who has the time to be coy?
#30: “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe (1846)
The Premise: Montressor finally gets his revenge on the unsuspecting (and ironically- named) Fortunato.
The Payoff: I read this story in high school and decided it would be fun to revisit. It was…not fun, exactly, but not bad. The narrator, Montressor, begins the tale by arguing that Fortunato deserves revenge for his alleged injuries or insults, though it’s clear that Montressor isn’t looking for equal justice. He’s a madman, a villain in the truest sense, and the little we see of Fortunato gives no justification for Montressor’s dastardly plot. It’s revealed at the end of the story that this wicked deed was done 50 years prior, though the way Montressor obsesses over the slights Fortunato gave him sounds like the wounds are still fresh. While this story doesn’t have the impact of some of Poe’s more famous tales, it’s still worth a look if only to demonstrate how to give the villain center-stage.
#31: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
The Premise: A wife is made to take a long rest in a country estate…until she notices something unusual with her room decor.
The Payoff: I missed reading this story in college, but I’m glad I came back to it now. This tale of psychological horror is the story of a caged woman losing her sanity. The nameless narrator is the wife of an authoritarian doctor who infantilizes and controls his wife “for her own good.” The wife’s thoughts and feelings are downplayed or dismissed, and though she is being kept in the country house for the improvement of her health, it begins to take a toll on her sanity. What’s so effective about this story is that it’s not clear if there is actually any supernatural element to it. Gilman gives us a truly unreliable narrator, but leaves just enough doubt that you’re tempted to believe her. At one point, I wondered if her husband John was actually gaslighting her to cover up an affair, or if he was just a know-it-all chauvinist and she was losing her grip as a result. This one was wild, and I would definitely recommend it.
#32: “Something From Nothing” by Phoebe Gilman (1993)
The Premise: This charming children’s story follows the life cycle of a beloved blanket.
The Payoff: I didn’t realize that this was a children’s book until it arrived from the library. I found it to be a delight to read, both for the way the story was written and the detail that the illustrator put into each page. In this Jewish folktale, a tailor makes his baby grandson a beautiful blue blanket, and as the boy grows, the blanket is transformed over and over, becoming smaller and smaller each time. By the end of the book, the blanket is all used up and lost, but the story and memory remains, which is the final point. This is a sweet book. Pick it up at your local bookstore or library, and share it with your kids (or other people’s kids whom you know and like).
#33: “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell (1936)
The Premise: A British imperial officer stationed in Burma must deal with an elephant-sized problem.
The Payoff: In “Shooting an Elephant,” the narrator, a British officer stationed in the British colony in Burma, is forced to address the situation of a potentially wild elephant that killed a man and may need to be destroyed. This essay by Orwell may or may not be be based on personal experience, but it is surely a sobering critique of British imperialism and mob mentality. Orwell describes both the self-hatred of a soldier forced into a task he doesn’t believe in and the hatred he feels for the locals he is tasked with overseeing. Themes of racism and the fallout of imperialism loom large in this story, as the officer is essentially forced to put down an elephant that has already calmed down after killing a man, specifically because the officer feels pressure from the crowd to do so and he’s afraid of what might happen if he doesn’t kill the creature. The narration is in turns self-critical and self-pitying, and while the reader might feel some sympathy for the crowd dynamics at play, the narrator doesn’t seem to be presented as heroic or victimized. At the end of the day, he must take responsibility for his actions (morally, if not legally, as his actions are exonerated by his superiors). The metaphor for Britain’s treatment of conquered nations is transparent.
#34: “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury (1946)
The Premise: Sim is born on a planet where people live only 8 days, but he knows there’s more out there, including a possible way of escape.
The Payoff: Bradbury’s story is about a race of humans who crashed on a planet so close to the sun that their lifespan is reduced to 8 days, birth to old age. While the story is set in a far-off future of space exploration and advanced technology, the new lifespans reduce the humans surviving on this planet to neolithic cave dwellers who can only come outside for a few hours before the deadly heat or deadly cold kills them. The main character, Sim, is described as “the 5,000th in a long line of futile sons,” yet he is born with the collective memory that there might be a way to stop the aging process by escaping the planet. I have to admit, this is the second time in this project I’ve been disappointed by Bradbury. This is an interesting idea, but he doesn’t do anything with it. Sim and his mate Lyte eventually reach the capsule and survive past the 8th day. They go back to rescue others and bring them to the capsule, and the remnant of humanity escapes the 8-day cycle of birth and death. In the end, it feels like a dream. And that’s it. I was pretty disappointed, both times I read this.
#35: “A Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell (1924)
The Premise: A big-game hunter washes ashore on a private island where another famous hunter is eager to introduce him to a new challenge.
The Payoff: This story is one of those tales in which you’ve already heard the twist (General Zaroff is hunting humans!), but it was interesting to see how Connell works out the story. There’s a pretty obvious set-up at the beginning, as Rainsford scoffs at the idea that hunting is not sporting for the prey, stating that the animal has no understanding. When the hunter becomes the hunted (wah-waaah!), his tune changes. Zaroff is presented as a paradox–highly civilized yet showing no value for human life. In the end, Rainsford survives by incorporating skills and traps he learned in his big-game hunts around the world, as well as his experience in the Great War. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere as well.) His personal mantra was that he mustn’t lose his nerve, though as the prey, he now understands the fear of death in a way he hadn’t before. And while he is ultimately triumphant over the sociopath and his henchman who were hunting him, the ending is still a bit unsettling. In his vengeance, Rainsford is as much beast as man.
#36: “Lady of the Skulls” by Patricia McKillip (2005)
The Premise: Adventurers journey to an enchanted tower in search of treasure and an audience with the mysterious Lady of the Skulls.
The Payoff: This one took me by surprise, because it’s essentially a story about relationships, cosplaying as Lord of the Rings. The lady in question is a woman who was taken from a tavern (by the curse of a sorcerer) and put in an enchanted tower reflecting “the tower in her heart.” When the latest band of adventurers arrives in search of treasure and glory, she critiques and mocks their pomp and bravado. The author satirizes fantasy fiction that treats women as either set-dressing or idealized archetypes (the pure, untouchable maiden; the enchantress; the prostitute). Through the words of Lady Amarynth and the knight Ran, McKillip both critiques and employs fantasy tropes to describe how men and women idealize or vilify each other as a means of self-protection. By focusing this fantasy story on “one of those faceless women who brought you wine in a tavern,” McKillip forces the reader to re-examine the cliches of this genre and what they say about gender. I liked how this story shifted my perspective.
#37: “Raised in Captivity” by Chuck Klosterman (2019)
The Premise: A man finds himself sharing his first-class plane flight with an unexpected fellow passenger.
The Payoff: The titular story of this bonkers collection is short and to-the-point: the narrator is taking his first ever first-class flight on a business trip, and when he opens the lavatory door, he sees a full-grown puma. Once he establishes he’s not hallucinating, he has a conversation with another passenger about how this could have happened. That’s it. And while that description may not sound compelling, this story made me laugh out loud. Klosterman takes an insane premise and leans right into it. The dialogue is funny in an almost self-aware way. It’s unclear over the course of the story if the narrator’s new friend might even be in on it. I just loved this story, as well as this collection–I found myself reading the next six or seven stories, and frequently guffawing or gasping. Klosterman is a TRIP.
#38: “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” by Grace Paley (1974)
The Premise: A middle-aged woman has a romantic relationship with a non-committal cab driver, to poor effect.
The Payoff: Okay, I’ll say from the outset: I just didn’t like this one. I couldn’t really connect to the main character Alexandra. I thought Dennis the cabbie/rock-singer was a shallow jerk. It’s not a bad story, to be fair. I can see Paley’s skill; she’s not a bad writer, and the characterization was mostly effective. I just didn’t enjoy reading it. I don’t have much more to say about it.
#39: “Tower of Babylon” by Ted Chiang (1990)
The Premise: The men of earth built a tower to reach heaven, and God didn’t stop them.
The Payoff: I didn’t realize, until I saw the cover of the movie tie-in edition of the story collection, that Chiang wrote the story that became the movie Arrival (which I really quite liked). So that set up my expectations for “Tower of Babylon,” which is an alternate-history take on the Tower of Babel. In this version, the tower keeps being built until the people actually reach “the vault of heaven,” a granite ceiling hanging above the cosmos. Once they punch through, the main character finds himself carried upward in a flood of water, but instead of being destroyed by God’s wrath, he is deposited back near where he started. He later compares the physical reality of the world to a cuneiform cylinder, with the top being connected to the bottom. There’s obviously a fantastic element to this story, both in the descriptions of the tower and the resolution of the story. What surprised me was that Chiang seemed rather respectful of the Biblical source material and the discussion of God (YHWH) throughout the story. Once I realized the story was Biblical alt-history, I was bracing for the inevitable blasphemous critique of the God of the Bible. As far as I could tell, that really didn’t happen. Other than the obvious difference between the two stories, Chiang is careful to write this fictional account as ancient near-eastern folklore rather than a 21st-century satire of religious belief. This fact makes me want to read more of Chiang’s work–not because I am looking for more religious stories, but I find myself willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if he dabbles in religious themes again.
That’s all for now. Thirteen stories left in this project, with one month to go. Coming up this month: my thoughts on stories by Ambrose Bierce, Phillip Van Doren, James Joyce, Isaac Asimov, Truman Capote, Robert Heinlein (again!), Chesterton, O’Connor, Harlan Ellison, and a few others. It’ll be a photo finish, but I’m looking forward to it.
Your Turn: Have you read any of these stories? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!