People on the High Line

Several years ago–I have no concept of how long ago; time and its passing literally have no meaning to me anymore–I started what I called “the Short Story Project.” I wanted to become a better short story writer; it’s a form I’ve always struggled with, and it always seemed to my hypercritical self that whenever I was successful in writing a short story, it was more of an accident than anything I had planned when I embarked on writing the story. I’ve also become a little bit easier on myself on that score–sometimes, not every idea will work as a short story, and writing isn’t something that can ever be forced without it showing to the reader–and I did have a wonderful period of productivity with short stories after setting course for the Project–which not only entailed writing them but reading as many of them as I could. After all, what better way to improve my own short story writing skills than by reading good stories? I have, over the years, collected any number of single-author collections as well as anthologies, and yet, with few notable exceptions prior to the start of the Project, had rarely ever cracked their spines. Lately, as I have struggled with time and focus while I’ve been working on this revision of the Kansas book (aka #shedeservedit) I find myself unable to focus much on reading novels; my mind inevitably wanders, or I will set it down and not get back to it for days. So, this morning I decided, before getting in my work on the book for the day, to read some short stories over my coffee this morning, and I wound up reading four of them; all of them marvelous in their own unique, distinctive ways. The stories I read this morning were, in order: “Better Days’ by Art Taylor, from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; “Mischief in Mesopotamia” by Dana Cameron, also from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; “Hop-frog” by Edgar Allan Poe; and finally, “To Build a Fire” by Jack London.

Maybe I wasn’t the only one on our stretch of the North Carolina coast who picked up the Washington Post on a regular basis, but I doubt anyone else it like I did–scanning the bylines, measuring the thickness of the paper and the heft of it, stifling the envy.

So begins Art Taylor’s “Better Days’, which won the Macavity Award for Best Short Story and was a finalist for both the Agatha and the Anthony Awards. Art is one of crime’s best short story writers (and one of my favorite people), and it’s easy to see why he has won every award under the sun for crime short stories. Art’s stories are always tightly written, with characters so real and honest and human that you can’t help but care about them, as well as having a bit of an edge to them. He manages to capture the resigned despair someone whose career path didn’t quite go the way he wanted perfectly; the former Washington Post journalist downsized and back in coastal North Carolina, working for the local paper while still thinking about his past with an uneasy regret. The story focuses on a love triangle between the main character, the local bar owner he’s been seeing, and a newly arrived tourist on a yacht with money to burn. This story tightly plotted, flows perfectly, and the characters are people I wouldn’t mind spending some more time with. In some ways it kind of reminded me of John D. Macdonald; maybe it’s the sea and boats and so forth that put me in mind of Travis McGee. Highly recommended.

I sat across from a row of decapitated kings, gods, and heroes waiting for them to speak to me. I didn’t know a word of their language, and they’d been dead–their monuments erected, sanctified, and decaying–long before anyone speaking my language was born. Still, I waited, if not as patiently as they did.

That’s the opening paragraph of Dana Cameron’s “Mischief in Mesopotamia,” originally published in the November 2012 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and it went on to win both the Agatha and Anthony awards for Best Short Story the following year. (I initially met Dana the weekend she won the Agatha; she’s been a constant source of joy for me ever since.) The story features her series character Emma Fielding, and reading the story is my first encounter with her–and now I am going to have to go back and read the entire series of novels with Emma (you may also know her from the television films made from some of the books in the series, with Melrose Place alumnus Courtney Thorne-Smith playing Emma). Set on a tour of museums and archaeological sites in southeast Turkey, Emma and her group happen to be on-site when a museum robbery occurs–and Emma solves the crime through her keen observations of her fellow tour group members. The voice is delightful, as is Emma–there’s a hint of my fiction goddess Amelia Peabody about her–and the story is enormously satisfying.

I never knew anyone so keenly alive to a joke as the King was. He seemed to live only for joking. To tell a good story of the joke kin, and to tell it well, was the surest road to his favor. Thus it happened that his seven ministers were all noted for their accomplishments as jokers. They all took after the king, too, in being large, corpulent, oily men, as well as inimitable jokers. Whether people from fat by joking, or whether there is something in fat itself which predisposes to a joke, I have never been quite able to determine; but certain it is that a lean doer us a rare Avis in terris.

Yes, that first paragraph made me squirm a bit as I started reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-frog,” which I suppose can be held up as an example of how things don’t age well (the notion that overweight people are jolly, as evidenced here). The story itself, which is about a court jester who is also a little person (“dwarf”) and crippled at a royal court, mocked and laughed at and the butt of the jokes of the King and his advisors, along with another female who is also there for their entertainment–whom Hop-frog appears to love, eventually reaches his own breaking point when they mock him one time too many and when the female begs them to stop, the King throws wine in her face and humiliates her. There is a costume ball coming up, and Hop-frog chooses this for his revenge, convincing them all to dress up as “ourang-outangs”, which will require covering themselves with tar and pitch and fake fur….and they waltz right into his punishment, as they are set aflame and are burned alive. This is based in actual history–Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror details the “the dance of the burning fools,” where King Charles VI of France and some of his buddies costumed themselves in such a manner with the same outcome–some of them caught fire and were burned to death, although the King was not one of the victims. When I was rereading that book in the early pandemic days, I came across this true story and thought it might make for an interesting short story; doing further research, I discovered that Poe had written a story based on this actual event, and bookmarked it to read later. As with everything classic, my education in Poe is limited; but all the earmarks of a Poe’s story’s justice are here: justice is meted out to the foolish king and his cruel advisers…but it’s not one of his better efforts, which is why, undoubtedly, it’s not as well known.

Day had dawned cold and gray when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail. He climbed the high earth-bank where a little-traveled trail led east through the pine forest. It was a high ban, and he paused to breathe at the top. He excused the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock in the morning. There was no sun or promise of sun, although there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day. However, there seemed to be an indescribable darkness over the face of things. That was because the sun was absent from the sky. This fact did not worry the man. He was not alarmed by the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun.

I originally read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” in high school. It was assigned for us to read when we were studying short stories and fiction; it was assigned as an example of the theme “man v. nature.” I’ve never forgotten the story–I loathe the cold, as Constant Reader is aware, and London does an amazing job of getting that frigid climate across to the reader. The man is never given a name–his name doesn’t matter–and neither does the wolf-dog by his side have a name; their names don’t matter. This story is about human hubris–he isn’t worried about the cold, despite being warned about it, and he wants to get back to his camp. His job was to go upstream and see if its possible for logs to be floated downstream when the temperature is warmer and the waters of streams and rivers and creeks not frozen solid. His mission accomplished, he is heading back to his actual camp, with some food stored under his shirt next to his body and a pack of matches in case he needs to start a fire. The dread in this story builds slowly and smoothly as he begins to suspect he made an error in not respecting the cold for its ability to kill him; occasionally London goes into the perspective of the animal who is also beginning to sense the man–food and fire provider, nothing more–is out of his depth. Eventually he succumbs to the cold, after a series of misadventures that come about because he isn’t paying enough attention and is careless. Whether that is because the cold has affected his ability to think and reason clearly is never part of the story or his own consideration. Even now, after all these years, the story has the ability to make me wince and shiver and think yikes, there’s no fucking way I’d ever go outside when it was 75 degrees below zero, let alone make a trip of many miles through wilderness on foot.

And on that note, now I am finished with my morning and its back to the spice mines with me,