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.

Posted in Fiction

” ‘What’s to be afraid of, lass? Come and kiss me.’ “

I’m counting Rudyard Kipling’s story The Man Who Would Be King as a short novel (novella?) as opposed to a short story.  I don’t know if there is any formal rule about what constitutes each.  If anybody out there has any knowledge on this topic, feel free to let me know.

The title of this story has been familiar to me for a long time, but I’ve never been familiar with the plotline.  I know a movie was made in the 1970’s with Sean Connery.  After reading the story, I might have to see if I can watch it.  From what I can tell, it may not exactly follow the book.  I’ve also discovered that the Dreamworks animated film, The Road to El Dorado, was based on this story, although only loosely.

Product Details

The narrator is an English newspaper man in India.   The research I’ve done has most believing this person to be Kipling himself.  He just doesn’t name himself as such.  The narrator encounters two quirky English vagabonds during the first few years of his career. Their names are Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot.  They tell him of their rather odd plans to become Kings of Kafiristan, a country by or province of Afghanistan.

A number of years later, when the narrator has become an established newspaper man, Peachey Carnehan comes crawling into his office.  He tells the story of their eventual coronation in Kafiristan, in which they not only become Kings, but are looked upon as actual gods.  Given the fact that they started out as nothing but vagabonds (with a few guns) the story is humorous because it is so absurd – or perhaps it’s absurd because it’s so funny.  Hard to say.  It’s also somewhat disheartening to see the villagers so readily accept anyone.  Maybe this is the point of what Kipling is trying to get to, but due to the absurdity, I’m not sure.

One of the items in their contract is that they will stay away from liquor and women.  This becomes problematic when Dravot decides he needs a wife.  The villagers offer up a girl to Dravot who is rather fearful of both the men since they are reported to be gods.  When Dravot says ” ‘What’s to be afraid of, lass?  Come and kiss me’ “, the girl buries her head in his beard and bites him on the hand.  The bite draws blood bringing into question their status as gods – because gods don’t bleed.  This is the beginning of their downfall and Dravot is eventually killed.  Carnehan survives in order to make his way back to the newspaper man to tell him the story.

I haven’t done a lot of research on the meaning of this story, if their is one.  I liked the basic absurdity of the whole thing – and don’t really need to understand anything about it in order to enjoy it.  My initial guess is that Kipling is trying to make some sort of statement about the way governements and religions can dupe the “people”, but that seems a little beside the point, so I’ll settle to just enjoy it for what it is.  It kind of reminds me of something that Kurt Vonnegut might write.

Posted in Fiction

“…where mortals dance in defiance of the dark…”

“Life turns on a dime” says Jake Epping in Stephen King’s novel, 11/22/63.  So do great stories.  A wonderful scene occurs in the novel when, Jake, a Maine English teacher in 2011,  who is George Amberson, a Texas English teacher in 1961, chaperones  the Sadie Hawkins dance with the new Librarian, Sadie Dunhill.  The dance takes the reader back in time thanks to King’s incredible ability to bring attention to the little details that make up the differences between our current decade and the one fifty years ago.  After the DJ plays Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop”, he requests the presence of the two chaperones to dance to music that they listened to as teenagers (or so he thinks).  At this point, the opening notes to Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” can be heard even though it’s only a book with words.  George/Jake and Sadie then perform the “swing” of their lives and none of their lives (there’s about four or five between the two of them) will be the same again.


Dancing and “In the Mood” are recurring themes in this story, the first full length novel of King’s that I’ve read (I know, and I call myself a reader!).   What surprised me most about the book was the hopefulness about life it expressed.  I’ve been told that this book is a little different from much of King’s work.  Since I don’t have anything to compare it to at the moment, I’ll simply say that the “King” of horror can be sentimental – and without being (too) sappy.  Brutal murders and mutilations do occur frequently and play a major role in the plot.  But as George/Jake points out, in expressing what one might call his “world view”:

It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shoots and echoes, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life.  Behind it?  Below it and around it?  Chaos, storms.  Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns.  Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand.  A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.

As the title and cover of the book imply, Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of John F. Kennedy plays a central role in the novel’s plot. It’s not surprising that Oswald is the historical figure who King focuses most of his narrative, making him a fairly well-developed character.  I can’t write too much about the plot without giving away the many great twists and turns that readers deserve to discover and enjoy on their own.   One more scene, though, warrants mentioning.  The suspense that King builds as Jake/George  ascends  the stairs of the six floors in the Book Depository to confront an animal-like Oswald is nothing short of brilliant.

On a final note, the novel makes an intriguing case for the idea that gunning down people for their ideals only makes those ideals stronger and last longer.  Perhaps the dark doesn’t win, after all.

Posted in Short Stories

“…a belt-loosening silence about the fires…”

I have come to learn that Kipling’s short stories have been put into a number of different categories.  I was familiar with his “Just So” stories and his “Jungle Book” stories.  This week I read a story called “The Courting of Dinah Shadd”, which is considered one of his “Soldier Stories”.  I believe this is one of several stories involving the same characters.

The narrator camps out with his troops and as they begin to settle in to the “belt-loosening silence about the fires”, one of his comrades, Terance Mulvaney, an Irishmen, begins to tell the story of how he met his wife, Dinah Shadd.  As the story progresses, the reader begins to understand what the narrator already knows.  Mulvaney likes his drink and likes his women.

Mulvaney bemoans the fact that after all the time he’s spent in the army, he is still only a private.  He then goes on to explain that after courting Dinah Shadd, one of his colonel’s daughters, and after getting “serious” with her, he happens upon another young lady, Judy Sheehy, and for no other reason than because he can, he begins to “court” her.

Of course, eventually, the two women meet up with Mulvaney at the same time – along with their mothers.  Mrs. Sheehy gives up on Mulvaney actually choosing her daughter over Dinah Shadd, but not without cursing him, of which one of the curses is that he’ll never be more than a private.

Mulvaney’s story within a story is told in an Irish brogue that is brilliant writing but also sometimes agonizingly frustrating to a reader that is unfamiliar with this accent.  I’ve found that I get more out of stories written this way if I read it quickly as opposed to reading it slowly and trying to understand what each syllable and word means.  I can also figure out better what the character is saying if I read it out loud.  This isn’t always practical and is difficult to do sometimes without getting strange looks from others.