Short Story

Short Story Review: Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth

Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth by Jorge Luis Borges is less than seven pages long, yet I remember it more vividly than entire novels I’ve read.

It starts on a blustery English coast with two young literary gentlemen discussing a local legend, and unfolds from there into a story that is part fairy tale, part murder mystery, part friendship chronicle, and part fever dream. The main location and central image is a labyrinth, constructed on a hilltop in England by an exiled king as a home and a refuge from a terrible vengeance.

The story shifts on every page, in nearly every sentence, like jewel in a ray of light. Just when you think you’ve seen every facet, another one slides into view, betraying the incompleteness of what you saw before. Like Iain Pear’s masterpiece of misdirection, An Instance of the Fingerpost, this little tale delightfully puts you off balance from the first word to the last.

I mention it here because I reread it as part of my short fiction binge this autumn. It falls solidly into the category of stories which seem to achieve as much as novels, and which also achieve what only short stories can, relying on a density of sensory impression and a strangeness it would be impossible to sustain for more than a few pages.

And for me, the spooky season is pretty much year-round, though my craving for the gothic is strongest from the autumn to the spring equinoxes.

Any good spooky short story recommendations?

Arthur Machen, the HG Wells of Horror

The Great God Pan, a short story by Arthur Machen about the intrusion into Edwardian London of a great evil, is one of the few genuinely disturbing pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s disturbing in the way that a horror film can spook you, or even a personal trauma. The story sets on you only after you’ve finished it and are putting the pieces together.

I was heartened to see this appreciation of Machen over at The Paris Review. If you don’t have time to read Machen, but want to understand his importance to the modern literature of the uncanny (an ever more important mode of expression for our literary mainstream), then the piece is worth your time.

Short Story Review: An Inhabitant of Carcosa, by Ambrose Bierce

At barely five pages, An Inhabitant of Carcosa delivers a disproportionately powerful jolt to the imagination. It isn’t a classic ghost story, but a weird tale, the kind most associated with H. P. Lovecraft, though there is more art in this story than in almost all of Lovecraft’s fiction.

A narrator awakens on a barren plane, his consciousness catapulted there after reading a passage in a book by an obscure metaphysician. Who is he? Where is he? What is Carcosa? The echoes of the magnificiently wrought details will give you almost all the answers you need.

Ambrose Bierce, the tale’s author, was a journalist, memoirist, and spinner of tales during the Civil War and The Gilded Age. Perhaps because his stories were on my high school English syllabuses, I have long ignored them.

I’m grateful that he was included in an NYRB Classics anthology I picked up when last I was in Providence, browsing the shelves of Lovecraft Arts & Sciences. A collection of Bierce’s war reporting, short stories, and essays is now on its way to my book-haunted garret in New York City.

Next up, Bierce’s The Damned Thing, which Joyce Carol Oates selected for her anthology of American Gothic Tales.

Short Story Review: Miao Dao by Joyce Carol Oates

Since a friend read aloud the entirety of The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood while we were sitting in Central Park at dusk, I have been on a short story binge.

The Wendigo took about two hours to get through and produced in me a sense of strangeness, horror, and wonder I have not quite experienced before.

I’ve mostly ignored short stories as an adult reader. Why take just a bite of an alternate world when you can have the full meal of a novel? But The Wendigo reminded me that there are certain mental states that only short writing can induce. Blackwood’s story depends on the evocation of an atmosphere, which a novel length work would attenuate to the point of inefficacy. Much of odd or uncanny fiction has been disserved by the modern literary market place, which makes novels the sole focus for anybody but the few people who read literary magazines.

But short stories, as Michael Chabon says in one of his essays, were at one time synonymous with the odd and uncanny, so much so that all short stories may be descended from ghost stories, depending as they do on the single unexpected turn or the use of brief atmospheric effects, like a magic trick or a poem. To avoid short stories is to miss out on just how weird and enchanting writing can be.

Kindle Singles, which is designed to showcase short fiction, has a number of great stories on offer this October in their Dark Corners series. They are perfect for a single sitting, to be read on whatever screen is at hand. It’s probably most similar to the way the Victorians, the first great market for short writing, would’ve consumed short fiction. They were published in newspapers and magazines to be read in the spare moments of a busy life. And they were somehow of the moment, more like news reports than novels.

I recommend Miao Dao, by Joyce Carol Oates. Before ascending to literary recognition, Oates wrote mysteries and the kind of Gothic novels popular in the 1970s. Think of a lurid cover with a woman in a dress fleeing from a castle with a single light on in the window, and you know the type. Miao Dao has that easy readability of pop fiction. But it’s also nearly perfect in its craftsmanship.

It’s about Mia, a young girl who is going through puberty and doing a bad job of coping. Assailed by bullies at school, domestic upheaval at home, and strangely attracted to the feral freedom of an empty lot infested by stray cats, Mia is a narrator who is more interesting after every page.

I don’t know how Oates does it, but there is a horror about this story that seems like it could only explode from a much longer fuse. Like the terror that can emerge from the sterilized corners of suburbia, where Miao Dao is set, the mental disturbance of this story comes out of nowhere, but strikes like an avenging devil. Spend 45 minutes with Mia, and you’ll have a chill that’s far deeper than any spooky film or TV show I can remember.