5 short stories

Top Five Short Story Reads from October 2016

Yes, I went the predictable route for October with horror stories. That said, this is a genre I do not often indulge in, so I intended to discover some writers new to me and, hopefully, new to you too.

Most of us are familiar with the usual horror greats: Poe, Lovecraft, King, et al. Some of us are familiar with the all-time queens of horror: Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter. My personal present-day favorites are genre-bending horror/speculative writers include the likes of Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Aimee Bender, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, et al.

For me, the best “horror” story fits this description by Neil Gaiman:

I like horror, but I tend to like it as seasoning. I’d get very bored if I was told I had to write a horror novel. I’d love to write a novel with horror elements, but, too much, and it doesn’t taste of anything else.

So, here are some terrific horror short stories by Usman Malik, Alyssa Wong, Ruskin Bond, Kelly Link, and Stephen King. I read many more from the writers I mentioned earlier and several others I did not even know of. Well, there’s always next year to share those with you all, right? [And, if you are looking for some horror classics, check out this earlier post.]

1 The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman Malik (Tor.com)

This first one is a bit of a cheat as it is really more a novella. Still, it is a delicious yarn of a tale by a Pakistani writer. And, it reminds me of long, convoluted stories that people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations tended to narrate — stories passed down through the ages, with each teller filling in memory gaps with his/her own embellishments. And, in a not-so-subtle nod to just such narrative traditions, this story includes just such a storytelling grandfather.

Also, it uses the story-within-a-story technique effectively, rather like A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

What I love also are the descriptive bits, but I won’t ruin it for you. Just settle back and savor this one — old-fashioned storytelling at its best.

For fifteen years my grandfather lived next door to the Mughal princess Zeenat Begum. The princess ran a tea stall outside the walled city of Old Lahore in the shade of an ancient eucalyptus. Dozens of children from Bhati Model School rushed screaming down muddy lanes to gather at her shop, which was really just a roadside counter with a tin roof and a smattering of chairs and a table. On winter afternoons it was her steaming cardamom-and-honey tea the kids wanted; in summer it was the chilled Rooh Afza.

 

As Gramps talked, he smacked his lips and licked his fingers, remembering the sweet rosewater sharbat. He told me that the princess was so poor she had to recycle tea leaves and sharbat residue. Not from customers, of course, but from her own boiling pans—although who really knew, he said, and winked.

2 Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong (Nightmare Magazine)

This story was one of the finalists in the 2015 Shirley Jackson Awards.

The narrator and protagonist here can read thoughts. Though this might not seem like an original premise in this genre, the story just gets progressively weird from there. Wong makes it interesting and horrifying enough for us to want to read till the end.

The vivid descriptions of these thoughts and what they do are quite amazing. Thoughts can be deadly — this story shows how.

As my date—Harvey? Harvard?—brags about his alma mater and Manhattan penthouse, I take a bite of overpriced kale and watch his ugly thoughts swirl overhead. It’s hard to pay attention to him with my stomach growling and my body ajitter, for all he’s easy on the eyes. Harvey doesn’t look much older than I am, but his thoughts, covered in spines and centipede feet, glisten with ancient grudges and carry an entitled, Ivy League stink.

 

“My apartment has the most amazing view of the city,” he’s saying, his thoughts sliding long over each other like dark, bristling snakes. Each one is as thick around as his Rolex-draped wrist. “I just installed a Jacuzzi along the west wall so that I can watch the sun set while I relax after getting back from the gym.”

 

I nod, half-listening to the words coming out of his mouth. I’m much more interested in the ones hissing through the teeth of the thoughts above him.

3 A Face in the Night by Ruskin Bond (NPR)

Ruskin Bond is one of India’s celebrated short story writers. This particular story is not necessarily his best horror story but it’s fun to listen to in this audio version.

It’s one of those classic horror stories that you’ve likely heard some version of if you’ve been camping and sat around a fire late at night with your fellow campers. You know what’s coming and you’re still hooked.

Here’s an excellent review of his Season of Ghosts.

He also edited the Penguin Book of Indian Ghost Stories, which has 21 stories from authors like Kipling to Ray and stories dating back to British India. The introduction, where Bond describes seeing the ghost of Kipling at a book launch party, is well worth the price of the book. And, Bond’s own story, ‘Topaz’, at the end is one of the best there.

Mr. Oliver, an Anglo-Indian teacher, was returning to his school late one night on the outskirts of the hill station of Shimla. The school was conducted on English public school lines and the boys – most of them from well-to-do Indian families – wore blazers, caps and ties. “Life” magazine, in a feature on India, had once called this school the Eton of the East.

 

Mr. Oliver had been teaching in this school for several years. He’s no longer there. The Shimla Bazaar, with its cinemas and restaurants, was about two miles from the school; and Mr. Oliver, a bachelor, usually strolled into the town in the evening returning after dark, when he would take short cut through a pine forest.

4 I Can See Right Through You by Kelly Link (McSweeney’s Internet Tendency)

Hard to do a month of horror stories without including some of my ongoing favorites like Kelly Link, even though I’ve featured her work before.

Get more of her free reads online.

Contemporary horror, with references to social media and popular culture, is interesting because there are many layers and you almost need a couple of rereads to get them all. Even then, I’m not sure I caught all of them in this one.

This is a long short story, so you have to take your time. That said, as with all of Link’s stories, it is immensely satisfying — in the many ways that a good story can be.

When the sex tape happened and things went south with Fawn, the demon lover did what he always did. He went to cry on Meggie’s shoulder. Girls like Fawn came and went, but Meggie would always be there. Him and Meggie. It was the talisman you kept in your pocket. The one you couldn’t lose.

 

Two monsters can kiss in a movie. One old friend can go to see another old friend and be sure of his welcome: so here is the demon lover in a rental car. An hour into the drive, he opens the window, tosses out his cell phone. There is no one he wants to talk to except for Meggie.

5 Herman Wouk Is Still Alive by Stephen King (The Atlantic)

Still the reigning king of horror. This story won the 2011 Bram Stoker Award. It is about 11 lives crashing together, literally. And, the tension ratchets up as only Stephen King can make it.

This is not a ghost story. But, nonetheless, more terrifying for it.

King’s language is cinematic, immediate, and pulls us in even when we’re cringing about what he’s showing and telling. And that’s how it should be.

Also, this is one of those stories to read again and again — for the sheer craft of it.

Brenda should be happy. The kids are quiet, the road stretches ahead of her like an airport runway, she’s behind the wheel of a brand-new van. The speedometer reads 70. Nonetheless, that grayness has begun to creep over her again. The van isn’t hers, after all. She’ll have to give it back. A foolish expense, really, because what’s at the far end of this trip, up in Mars Hill? She looks at her old friend. Jasmine is looking back at her. The van, now doing almost a hundred miles an hour, begins to drift. Jasmine gives a small nod. Brenda nods back. Then she pushes down harder with her foot, trying to find the van’s carpeted floor.

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