Posted in Short Stories

“There was a sound of thunder.”

I’m not sure where or when it originated, but there is a theory known as “the butterfly effect”.  It’s premise is that a butterfly in, say, Peoria could flutter it’s wings and ultimately it would lead to a typhoon in the Indian Ocean.  In recent weeks, I’ve heard this theory used in stories about time travel.  If someone goes back in time and changes one little thing or perhaps one big thing, the “present” world would no longer be life as we know it.  Stephen King’s novel, 11/22/63, deals with this idea and the BBC science fiction television show, Dr. Who, uses this concept even if they haven’t necessarily called it that on the show that I’m aware.

Now I have read Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Sound of Thunder”.  I learned of this story because it was mentioned in King’s novel. It involves a character named Eckels who is an avid hunter.  He hires a company with a Time Machine to take him into the past about 65 million years so that he can shoot a T-Rex.  In “Jurrasic Park” fashion, he heads back to Dino land with the assistance of several guides (who have been there before).  He’s severely warned to stay on the “Path” that’s been laid out for him.  Venturing off the path could cause him to step on a mouse – or a butterfly – and cause all kinds of changes to the present (like which president got elected).  Eckels’ encounter with the T-rex is more intense than he thought it would be and he tracks mud and other things into the time machine and brings it back to a slightly different present.  “There was a sound of thunder” is the line that chillingly ends the story.

Bradbury’s writing has always interested me.  I read one of his more autobiographical novels a number of years ago, Dandelion Wine.  It opens with a great paragraph of a boy waking up on his first day of summer vacation.  In “The Sound of Thunder”, Bradbury writes a paragraph describing Eckels’ first step from the Time Machine that is reminiscent, at least in style, if not content, of that opening paragraph:

The jungle was high and the jungle was broad and the jungle was the entire world forever and forever.  Sounds like music and sounds like flying tents filled the sky, and those were pterodactyls soaring with cavernous gray wings, gigantic bats out of a delirium and a night fever.

I find it fun to read stories and novels that are related to other stories and novels that I’ve read.  King also mentioned a short story by Shirley Jackson (of “The Lottery” fame) called “The Summer People”.  I might have to read that one sometime soon.

Posted in Fiction

Blockade Billy by Stephen King

Each July for the last five years, my former book club, The Indy Reading Coalition, would collect a short story from each member for the rest of the group to read.  As I wasn’t a short story reader prior to this, I enjoyed the change of pace.  For the last few years, I always wanted to find a short story about baseball, but never could.  I seemed to gravitate toward Ring Lardner, but eventually would give up and choose something different.  The final July (2011) of our club, another member chose “Casey At the Bat” by Ernest Thayer, and I finally felt somewhat satisfied that baseball got a little bit of representation in my book club before we decided to call it quits.

However, that still had me thinking about baseball stories and not knowing where to look for more.  I had read W.P. Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe, a number of years ago.  That’s the novel on which the movie, Field of Dreams, was based.  That was a great book, especially when I found out the the film’s character, Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones), was actually another reclusive, controversial author, J.D. Salinger, in the novel.  And the film contains one of my all-time favorite movie lines: “Is this heaven?with the response “No, it’s Iowa”.

All that to point to the book I just read yesterday, Blockade Billy by Stephen King.  It’s a novella (80 pages) about, you guessed it, baseball!  The story is told by George Grantham, a former member of the New Jersey Titans in the late 50’s.  He’s talking to Stephen King in the present day from what he calls a “zombie hotel”, an appropriate term for a nursing home, in a Stephen King novel, perhaps?  It’s the story of William Blakely, a player from the Davenport Cornhuskers (another Iowa reference) who is reluctantly called up to the major leagues to catch for the Titans.  Reluctantly, in that they had nobody else they could get.  While Blakely ends up being called “Blockade Billy” and performs well, the team doesn’t make it to the playoffs.  Blakely is an odd character that doesn’t seem to have it all together.  When told what to do, he simply repeats the words that were told to him.  The coach and owner of the team discover that Blakely has an even stranger and scarier (it’s Stephen King) background story.  I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that if you’ve ever gotten mad at an umpire (and who hasn’t?) you may find this story kind of satisfying.

Blockade Billy/Morality   [BLOCKADE BILLY/MORALITY] [Hardcover]

The entire story is told in the words and mannerisms of Grantham and sounds much like a Ring Lardner story.  Lots of details about various plays that probably only an old baseball player would remember.  But any baseball fan would love.  I sense from the story that Stephen King, himself, is a huge baseball fan.

While at 80 pages, this story would not have probably passed for a short story with my book club, but it only took me one day to read it.  However, now, I’m looking for another baseball story or novel.  Any suggestions?



Posted in Fiction

“There are only filberts in here.”

A co-worker of mine recommended the book, The Spellman Files, by Lisa Lutz.  I had never heard of the book or the author.  I believe this is the first in a series of books.  I wasn’t sure what to think, but the back of the book compared the heroine to a combination of Bridget Jones and Columbo.  I thought perhaps I needed to give the book a try and I’m glad I did.

The Spellman Files - by Lisa Lutz

I’ve been watching the TV series, Pysch, over the last few months and found this novel to have some similarities.  The Spellmans are a family of private investigators that consist of the Mom and Dad (Albert and Olivia), their adult daughter, Isabelle, the narrator and heroine, their 14-year old daughter, Rae, and Albert’s brother, Ray (yeah, Rae and Ray have the same name).  They also have an older son, David, who is not a part of the family business (he’s a lawyer), but nevertheless, tends to get dragged into the family’s mishaps.

While The Spellman Files does not have continuous references to 80’s pop culture or have the likes of Ally Sheedy popping up as a serial killer with bad teeth like Psych does, the smart wit of the characters and the clever plot lines in which the characters find themselves made me think of the TV show.  The characters are all rather quirky as they take on assignments from clients to follow wayward husbands, suspected criminals, and at times, each other – or in the case of Rae, she follows people just for recreational purposes.

Psych: The Complete Fifth Season

Isabelle is 28 years old and has always lived in the shadow of her perfect brother, even though he chose not be a part of “Spellman Investigators”.  She keeps a list of all her ex-boyfriends, their occupations, hobbies and final words.  During this novel she meets what she refers to as “Ex-Boyfriend #9”, a dentist – without going into too much detail, her parents prefer lawyers over dentists.  As with most dysfunctional families, she has a love-hate relationship with all of them.

Rae and Ray gave me the most laughs.  Ray is a former frugal, tee-totaling, health-nut.  I say former because when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer around the time of Rae’s birth (hence, her name), but then recovered (after Rae was born), he decided to turn over a new leaf and became a junk food junkie, alcoholic, woman-chasing, gambler.  Rae, who tends to be in an on-again, off-again war with her Uncle namesake, and is too young to really be a part of the family business, nevertheless, does everything she possibly can to help out with the cases (even when she’s not asked) – and is actually very good at surveillance.  One point of contention between the two of them is that Uncle Ray eats all the bridge mix except the filberts.  Rae also hangs out at Isabelle’s bar, the Philosophy Club, much to the dismay of the bartender, Milo, to whom she pours out all of her teenage angst over ginger-ale (after each sip she makes a “hard-liquor grimace”).

I’m probably not going to read the rest of the series immediately, but I highly recommend them for anyone wanting some fun, but smart, comedy.  I’ll have to put the rest of the series on my list for the near future, though.

Posted in Short Stories

Death by seafoam

I’ve had several conversations over the years about the differences between original fairy tales and their Disney-fied versions.  I decided this week to read Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of “The Little Mermaid”.

Little Mermaid: Original Story (ISBN10: 0679887571; ISBN13: 9780679887577)

To my surprise, it is apparent that the Disney creators actually read the original story.  Several small details that were exquisitely described by Andersen are in the movie.  Specifically, this includes the fireworks on the prince’s ship and the little mermaid’s red hair.  Well, in the story, she just has a lot of red flowers in her hair.  In the movie, her name is Ariel, in the story she has no name.

However, there are differences.  While the little mermaid is entranced by the world of humans, it is also told to her that humans have immortal souls, while mermaids do not.  The only way a mermaid can get an immortal soul is to get a human man to forsake his parents for her (in other words, get married), then she can become one with his soul.  If a man marries another woman then, the mermaid would turn into seafoam on the morning of the wedding.  I will point out that the story does not indicate what mermen have to do.

Much like the movie, the little mermaid makes a deal with the devil…I mean, the sea witch… and exchanges her voice for the chance to have legs and live on land with humans.   She attempts to attract the handsome prince that she saved from drowning (like in the movie).

The big difference between the story and the movie, though, is the ending.  I believe this tends to be where most of the differences between stories and their Disney versions occur.  As you may have guessed, the prince does not marry the little mermaid and she turns into seafoam.

But the story doesn’t end there.  After the little mermaid is turned into seafoam, she is floating around in some sort of mermaid purgatory where other mermaids who have been turned into seafoam tell her that she can get an immortal soul and go into heaven if she does good deeds for 300 years.  Every child that she makes laugh will take some time away from the 300 years.  Every child that cries, will add time to the 300 years.

The movie version has Ariel live happily ever after with her prince on land as a human with her father’s blessing.

Given the fact that I am reading Rudyard Kipling’s stories, I may have to do some comparisons of his Jungle Book stories to the Disney version, although I’ve already read that Walt Disney simply used the characters from Kipling’s works to make his own movie.

Posted in Fiction

“I never promised I would write the truth.”

I’ve never read the novel, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.  I’ve seen the movie version from the 90’s.  The story always seemed to be more for children with a maybe overly optimistic view of life.  When I realized that Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer-prize winning novel, March, was the story of the father of the March family, who was absent from Alcott’s novel because he was fighting for the Union cause in the Civil War, I became intrigued.  The novel is written from March’s point of view both in a narrative format and in the form of letters to his wife, Marmee (whom I couldn’t picture as anyone other than Susan Sarandon – see above mentioned movie from the 90’s).  The difference between his letters and the reality of the war was powerfully striking.  Early on, March refers to the letters to his wife and reveals to the reader that “I never promised I would write the truth.”

Captain March serves as a chaplain in the Union army and staunchly promotes the abolitionist movement.  Through his friendships with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, March assumes the role of educated idealist as he declares his intention to fight with the Union at the age of thirty-nine.  His fellow comrades, however, view his ideals with disdain and eventually he is “asked” to take a position teaching slaves considered “contraband” on a southern plantation, Oak Landing, captured by the northern army.

The comparison of ideals to the real world of war emerges as the central theme to the novel.  March’s gradual understanding that not everyone involved in the war looks at the world with the moral certitude that he does develops him into a remarkable character.  He doesn’t always act with the courage that comes out of his mouth when confronted with life and death situations.  In spite of his fear, he continues to be, in the words of one of his pupils, “a good, kind man”.   The change that takes place within him after teaching and working at Oak Landing and attempting to keep it from being recaptured is hauntingly sad:

And now a year has passed since I undertook to go to war, and I wake every day, sweating, in the seed store at Oak Landing, to a condition of uncertainty.  More than months, more than miles, now stand between me and that passionate orator perched on his tree stump pulpit.  One day, I hope to go back.  To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was that day; that innocent man who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was that he was meant to do.

Eventually, March becomes gravely ill and Marmee is summoned to Washington, D.C. Her arrival at his bedside to see a an educated slave woman, Grace Clement, nursing March with an emotional attachment that goes beyond duty and March’s reciprocation of that emotion is one of the more heartbreaking moments in the novel.  While it is never quite clear that March’s feelings for Grace ever went beyond an emotion, it was, nevertheless, something that could stand in the way of his relationship with his wife.

The reader gets a brief glimpse into Marmee’s mind during her visit to Washington.  She is portrayed by Brooks as an outspoken, easy-to-anger woman, a person ahead of her time in fighting for women’s rights to do more and be more than the confines of her society would allow.  At the same time, much of her outspokenness and anger gets funneled into a passionate love for her husband and daughters and an ability to teach her daughters to think and act for themselves.  Just as her husband’s ideals go through rigorous changes, Marmee must come to terms with the war and its effects on her marriage:

It was folly to let him go.  Unfair of him to ask it of me.  And yet one is not permitted to say such a thing; it is just one more in the long list of things that a woman must not say.  A sacrifice such as his is called noble by the world.  But the world will not help me put back together what war has broken apart.

I knew that if I stood again…and heard him promise to go to war, I would hold my piece, again, even knowing what terrible days were to follow.  For to have asked him to do otherwise would have been to wish him a different man.  And I knew then that I loved this man.  This inconstant, ruined dreamer.

Posted in Short Stories

“We’re quits now.”

I ‘ll put a SPOILER ALERT on this post although I’m not sure it’s necessary.  I read Jack London’s short story, “Semper Idem” this weekend.  It was only five pages and while the ending wasn’t exactly surprising, it wasn’t what I was expecting.

A man called Semper Idem is taken to the hospital after he tries to kill himself by cutting his throat.  A calloused doctor at the hospital is able to “miraculously” heal the man.  According to the doctor, his ability to heal the man was due to the position in which Semper Idem was standing when he committed the act.  After Semper Idem regains consciousness, the doctor explains to him how he should have positioned himself to “finish the job”.  Not long after Semper Idem is released from the hospital, he returns after another suicide attempt – this time he is dead.

At the beginning of the story another hospital staff is bemoaning the fact that a different patient had died.  After Semper Idem returns to the hospital, the doctor tells the other staff member “We’re quits now”.  As though there is some sort of competition between the two of them.  The question arises to me as to whether they are competing to save patients or competing to kill them.  I’m not sure.

The darkness in this story didn’t seem to work as well as the darkness of “Moon-Face”, the Jack London story I read last week.  It still has many of the themes that have become familiar to me in reading London’s work.  It just wasn’t as satisfying as “Moon-Face”.

Posted in Short Stories

“My days are peaceful now, and my nights sleep deep.”

I think “Moon-Face” by Jack London is my favorite short story that I’ve read so far this year.  Who knew that London would be so good at writing black comedy?  The story reminds me somewhat of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” in it’s brevity and creepiness.  The comedy puts a slightly different spin on the tale of “getting even”.

The narrator’s only complaints about his acquaintence John Claverhouse, is that he has a moon-shaped face and a positive outlook on life.  Oh, and he also doesn’t like his name.

…but Claverhouse!  I leave it up to you.  Repeat it to yourself – Claverhouse.  Just listen to the ridiculous sound of it – Claverhouse!  Should a man live with such a name?  I ask of you.  “No,” you say.  And “No” said I.

The narrator begins to belittle Claverhouse and then plots his financial demise.  Claverhouse continues to be the bright and sunny optimist throughout all this.  The narrator eventually decides there is only one way to permanently put an end to Claverhouse’s maddening happiness.  The development and implementation of the narrator’s scheme to squash Claverhouse’s sunny disposition is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time.  But afterwards, the narrator is able to say that “My days are peaceful now, and my nights sleep deep.”

The story is only about five pages…so go read it.  You’ll get a good laugh out of it.  Unless of course you are an eternal optimist…then, maybe not so much.