Short Stuff

I’d like to read more, but I don’t have time to read a long, involved story.

There’s a solution for that. It’s called a short story.

 Short stories are those that can be read in under an hour – often not more than 5,000 words (beyond 7,500 is called a novella, and they are often published alone in little books, like Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption,  J.A. Jance’s The Old Blue Line, or Shirley Goodness and Mercy by Debbie Macomber) and they are often grouped together in anthology volumes, anthology meaning, literally, a collection of stories, the same way a CD album is a collection of individual songs.

Short stories are an art form of their own, still carrying the same structures of their longer novel cousins (plot, themes, metaphors, etc) but in a very short package. Some are complete stories (think of Ray Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day, or Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery) while others might just give you a slice of life, a few hours in the life of an individual with no clear beginning and no clear end, leaving you to wonder what might come next (some stories by Anton Chekhov, or Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants). They can be happy or sad, comic or dramatic, or full of irony (The Necklace, by Guy de Maupassant). Sometimes an anthology might consist of short stories on a single theme (love, loss, westerns, adventure), or they could be a mix of anything. And the beauty of an anthology is you can read one or two stories, or the whole thing, depending on your time and interest.

But short stories don’t carry the same weight as novels.

Of course they do! Many writers are known more for their short stories than for their novels – Alice Munro is considered one of the premier short story writers, having won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature in part for her short stories. Ray Bradbury is another prolific short-story writer, not quite horror, not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy, just imaginative. His philosophy was to write one short story a week, because out of 52 short stories, you were bound to have three or four that were really good. Short stories are easier to sell, if not to anthologies then to magazines – many a writer got their start in The New Yorker, Collier’s, or Atlantic, let alone Good Housekeeping and Readers’ Digest. Some of the most popular authors – Isaac Asimov, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler – carved their name writing for pulp fiction magazines.

Short stories don’t always stay short, either. Many popular films started out as short stories – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (published in The New Yorker) (Did you realize this one takes place in Waterbury, Connecticut?), All About Eve, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 3:10 to Yuma, Shawshank Redemption, Minority Report, Brokeback Mountain, Rear Window, Total Recall, and many, many others.

A little story can go a long way. If you’re pressed for time, check out the stories in these collections, and more!

Best Short Stories of Jack London

Ray Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales

Collected Short Stories of Louis L’Amour, Vol. 4

Children of the Night: Best Short Stories by Black Writers

Dancing Through Life in a Pair of Broken Heels

No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories

Beautiful Days

Amish Front Porch Stories

Bring Out the Dog: Stories

Complete Stories of Edgar Allen Poe

Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers

20th Century Ghosts

Whale of a Tail

whole-body-of-a-sperm-whaleThe Book of Lists – a wonderful book of eclectic knowledge by David Wallechinsky – lists Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, as the Number One Most Boring Classic of all time.

I can’t disagree.

It’s not an easy read, combining flowery Miltonian prose, poems, sea shanties, Shakespearean asides, and some detailed exposition on whaling. The only way I made it through at all was by looking for the thematic and quote references used in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan for a term paper (and there are a long list of them).

Don’t judge me. An easy English credit with an A is still an English credit.51K5TZOIvtL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_

Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit to revenge the loss of his leg to a white whale, was based on a number of true stories – an actual white whale named Mocha-Dick, and the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in the Southern Pacific in 1820. The book was first published in 1851, but never gained ground. By the time of Melville’s death more than 30 years later, only 3,000 copies had been sold.

When cut up and rehashed to a sensible, modern vernacular, Moby Dick is a good, straight adventure novel at heart, the story of a man who feels wronged by a whale and will do anything, risk anything or anyone, to have his revenge, and a giant marine mammal who’s been around enough not to fear a wooden fish filled with pesky mariners. And there have been a number of decent movie adaptions to capture that fatal showdown.

imagesThe most recent, and most intriguing, is In the Heart of the Sea. This one gives the story a twist by going back further, to tell the tale of the Essex, as Melville is learning the facts and trying to write Moby Dick. Starring Chris Hemsworth, current action-hero, it’s a worthy film that covers all the points without getting bogged down in Melville. It’s the story behind the story, so to speak.

The “classic” Moby Dick tale comes from 1956, starring Gregory Peck, with a screenplay by Ray Bradbury. A masterpiece of its time, it’s dated for today’s audiences.0027616862945_p0_v1_s192x300

A longer but more modern version is 1998’s Miniseries, starring Patrick Stewart as Ahab (and Gregory Peck as Father Mapple, originally played by Orson Welles). Running four hours, it won Gregory Peck an Emmy award for Best Supporting Actor.

If you’ve hacked through Moby Dick, or enjoyed watching one of the films, there are similar books and films certain to keep your whaling interest. Leviathan, by Eric Jay Dolin, will give you a history of whaling in America. In the Heart of the Sea began as a book by detailed historian Nathaniel Philbrick.  War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz uncovers the true story of an ultrasonic submarine detection program run by the US Navy that was causing whales to beach themselves. To learn more about several different types of whales, try The Grandest of Lives : Eye to Eye with Whales by Douglas H. Chadwick. For stories that mimic Moby Dick but aren’t about whales, try Ray Bradbury’s Leviathan 99, or, of course, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. If you want to go for the thematic stretch, you could include the musical Sweeney Todd here, too. “To seek revenge may lead to Hell/ but everyone does it and seldom as well.” Of course, the perfect summer trip is to recreated whaling village Mystic Seaport, where you can walk the decks of the whaler Charles W. Morgan and feel the wind of the sea in your hair.

Whales Charles_W_Morgan_2008aren’t fish. They’re aquatic mammals: they breathe air, give birth to live young (ones that weigh a full ton), and feed them off milk just like any other mammal. They are known to be intelligent, and the scenario of Moby Dick, of such a mammal remembering who may have harmed it and seeking out revenge of its own, is entirely in the realm of possibility.