Ms. Katherine Anne Porter has a Pulitzer Prize – yet, until a chance encounter with a quote of hers on a quote website (don’t ask) I had never heard of her. So, when I was browing in Half-Price Books this past weekend and encountered a $1.00 collection of her short stories, I picked it up. After all, Pulitzer Prize for a novel aside, Ms. Porter is known best and renowned most for her stories, so it seemed like a win.
And it was. Mostly.
Admittedly, I skimmed a couple of the stories – there are twenty-five in all – but mostly I was captivated. Porter writes deceptively simple stories about the dark side of humanity. Not the Stephen King dark side, with killer clowns and cars, but a kind of darkness that comes from reality. In the opening story, ‘Maria Concepcion,’ a woman who’s been cheated on goes about her life until the man who wronged her returns to town with the other woman, then gets her revenge. In ‘Rope,’ a new country wife thinks about her unhappiness and dwells on a rope that her husband carries around.
“The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter” contains “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” which is a 1939 book Porter published – actually a collection of three novellas dealing with similar themes, namely death.
Compared often to another Southern short fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor, Porter is definitely a writer worth checking out. There are even moments where her writing reminded me of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (especially in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”) albeit an American gothic version.
Surely this book can be found in many a library and used bookstore – that’s where I got mine. Even if you pay full price, it’s worth the investment.
I don’t see this volume leaving my bookcase anytime soon.
Dark Delicacies is a horror store in Burbank, California. Run by the husband and wife duo of Del and Sue First, it’s one of those places where the horror elite appear frequently to do readings and signings. Over the years, Del and Sue have made friends with a great number of these folks, particularly writers. The writers have repaid the Firsts for their friendship and hard-work by contributing new, original stories to this 2005 collection – “Dark Delicacies.”
The twenty stories in this collection come from names both famous and new. Big names like Ray Bradbury and Clive Barker appear, as do pieces from less familiar names such as Lisa Morton and Steve Niles. (I mean this as a semi horror novice – maybe if you’re a huge horror buff all these names are celebrities to you.)
Clearly, the writers were free to write whatever they wanted. There are stories in this collection that involve homicidal maniacs, spacemen, mysterious divers, vampires, and heck – cannibal glam rockers.
That’s right – Cannibal Glam Rockers. Nancy Holder contributes a story called “One Twelve-Steppin’ Simmer of AA” that is about two rock stars trying to overcome their addiction to human flesh through the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Sounds weird, right? It’s actually quite wonderful, as many of these stories are.
Ray Bradbury contributes an elegant tale about coming back from the dead called “The Reincarnate.” There’s a great twister of a piece called “The Outermost Borough,” by Gahan Wilson that surprised me immensely. William F. Nolan’s “DePompa” is a wonderfully weird tale of a young man obsessed with the death of a James-Dean-esque celebrity.
However, the most startling piece in the anthology doesn’t involve monsters at all. Whitley Streiber’s “Kaddish” is a horrifying look at America if the separation of church and state didn’t exist and the Christian right took over everything from government to media to politics. In this world, a prison warden struggles with the fact that maybe he (via his belief in God) doesn’t know everything. There’s no vampires or serial killers, just a bleak look at a religion-centered America. It was horrifying to read.
There’s truly a lot of good stuff in this anthology. If you like horror, it’d be a good pick.
However, the collection contains 25 amazingly well-constructed short stories. In my book, that constitutes a total win.
Perhaps the grand dame of literary horror, Ms. Jackson is best known for her twisted story, “The Lottery,” which is featured happily at the end of this collection of her lesser-known works. (“We have always lived in the castle” and “The Haunting of Hill House” aren’t in these pages, by the by. These two, scarier, full novels are worth a read, if you’re looking for truly scary stories.)
The stories gathered here showcase Ms. Jackson’s remarkable ability to write unsettling pieces. In the book’s opener “The Intoxicated,” a party guest finds himself discussing end of the world theories with the party hosts teenage daughter. In “The Daemon Lover,” a woman spends several delicately detailed hours waiting for her fiancee to arrive to whisk her away to be married, only to wind up on a search for him and the potential realization that he’s gone forever.
Even if they’re not horror by the standard definition, they’re nervous-making, and really interesting to read. Jackson was a master of story creation, and knows how to wield a twister of an ending.
Her most famous story, ‘The Lottery,” is the final piece in this collection.
And it’s hands-down the star of this show.
Jackson’s short story reviled readers upon its original 1948 publication in The New Yorker. The story details a small town gathering for their annual lottery. Various families are introduced, and it seems to be business as usual. Each family draws a small piece of paper. The Hutchinson family gets the one with the black spot, and a second round results in the wife being the “winner” of the lottery. Except that this lottery is one you don’t want to win, as it results in being stoned to death by the rest of the townspeople as a sacrifice. (For what, we’re never told.) The story is quick and leaves a lot to be questioned, and it’s unforgettable.
Though I found this entire collection to be lovely, my suggestion for those seeking thrills and chills would be to start your Shirley Jackson search somewhere else – perhaps with one of the more famous novels she wrote.
However, missing out on “The Lottery” would be a huge mistake, and a disservice to yourself as a reader.
It’s that good.
If you want a marvelously creepy quick read, I highly recommend you get your hands on some H.P. Lovecraft.
This genius of the darkness was also a master of the short story format. Recently, I discovered a marvelous website called Dagonbytes.com which hosts online versions of some classic horror literature (in addition to being just a mecca for horror fans in general) and their Lovecraft collection is simply grand.
Since today’s blog was decidedly non-horror, I decided to throw you a bone.
Bone. Horror. Get it?
Below is one of my favorite horror short stories – “Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft.
It’s the story of Pickman, a painter, and Thurber, our narrator. It’s creepy and tingly and has a nice twist at the end. If you’re looking for a fast thrill, or want to better understand the reverence paid to Mr. Lovecraft, you can’t do much better than this.
Read “Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft
For example, Roman Polanski is a wonderful film director.
He’s also a child molester.
The two things are not mutually exclusive.
His talent doesn’t make him a good person, and his crime doesn’t make him a bad director.
I preface this entry this way because, in talking about the literary institution that is Flannery O’Connor, you really can’t not mention that she may have been a racist. It’s a subject of debate, but she was indeed a “conservative Southerner.”
A recent biography of O’Connor by Brad Gooch explores both sides of the argument, and comes to a decision that O’Connor was (in the words of the Catholic Herald article about Gooch’s book) “racist but only within the context of her time.“
O’Connor was a Georgia woman who grew up in a different time than the one we live in now, which is not to justify her bigotry, but only to try and keep it in perspective.
Her potentially (or likely) being a racist doesn’t make her a bad writer.
Far from it, she’s quite remarkable.
Classified often in the “Southern Gothic” tradition, her work is often gritty and non-apologetic in it’s portrayals of people, both white and black. People are flawed and dishonest and mean.
In her most famous collection of short stories – “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – we’re introduced to a plethora of characters with failings. In the title story, there’s an escaped criminal called “The Misfit” who kills a family out on a ride. Then there’s the little boy at the heart of “The River,” who lies about his name to get Baptized against his mothers wishes. In “The Life you Save may be your own,” a drifter wins the respect of an old woman, who give him her handicapped daughter to marry. He leaves her in a diner after the marriage. There’s also a con-man masquerading as a bible salesman who literally leaves a one-legged girl trapped in a hayloft.
Yeah, these people pretty much suck.
However, they’re thrillingly written by a masterful writer who knows her voice and the people she’s writing about.
All in all, the collection contains 10 short stories, and a greater number of tricky characters. It’s absolutely worth a read.
[For more information/If you're interested -- Film or Television versions were made of "The Life you Save May be your own" (starring Gene Kelly and Agnes Moorehead - of Bewitched!), "The Displaced Person" (starring Samuel L. Jackson), "A Circle in the Fire," "Good Country People," and "The River."]