Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 42: "—And He Built a Crooked House" by Robert A. Heinlein


Heinlein, Robert A. " '—And He Built a Crooked House' ." Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1941.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.


ISFdb Rating:   8.71/10
My Rating:        7/10


"Outside, the night was cold and wet, but in the small living room the curtains were closed and the
fire burned brightly.
"


Ambitious experimental architect Quintus Teal conceives of a house in the form of a tesseract. His persistence convinces friend Homer Bailey to invest in having it built, since his socialite wife would be proud to own and show off such an unusual house of the future. Constructed quickly, the house on the outside is an unimpressive cube, but on the inside it is a vast structure with eight rooms. As the house is four dimensional, however, when Teal and the new owners attempt to leave they instead find themselves in a different room, as each part of the house loops into another. Moreover, the views through some of the windows are from various parts of the country and perhaps even the world and beyond into other worlds. Not just looping, the house extends itself well into the other dimension.

The trio, with Teal in the lead, attempt to find a way out of the tesseract house.

An enjoyable story and a good concept. The characters are basic Heinlein and annoying more often than not, but they suit the story that at the same time delivers a scathing version of Los Angeles. The story is both satirical, poking fun at LA and its inhabitants, at architecture and the idea of the modern aesthetic, while maintaining its focus on mathematical and geometric logic.

I am generally mixed about Heinlen, but aside from the annoying protagonist and comical tone, I did enjoy this one.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Briefly: Little Eve by Catriona Ward (2018)


Ward, Catriona. Little Eve. UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, July 2018

Rating:     8/10


Little Eve at the ISFsb
Little Eve at Goodreads

Tor Nightfire edition, 2022


Catriona Ward's gothic novel Little Eve is difficult to describe. Not because it is surreal or unclear or overly complex, but because revealing its plot is a disservice to the reader. The novel begins in 1921 with the discovery of a brutal scene, then falls back to 1917, the latter stages of the Great War, to tell its story. The story reveals itself to the reader in mostly episodic sequences, as characters living on an isolated Scottish island go about their daily activities, picking mushrooms and mending clothes and taking part in a snake ritual. As we read, the story becomes increasingly complex, with characters from the outside world seeping in, and the occasional time jump. Yet as it is complicated it also begins to piece itself together.

This is as vague as I dare describe the plot, since I would urge readers of darker, psychological fiction to pick this one up. I enjoyed it immensely. The novel revolves primarily around two teenaged girls at the isolated island, where they live with their Uncle, two women and two other children. They attend school at the nearby village, and have various encounters with outsiders, most of whom see them as odd. Tensions rise among the island members, through their outside interactions, their individual desires, and their often strained relationships between one another, all under the watchful eyes and strict leadership of their Uncle. The situation is fascinating, the characters intriguing, and Ward manages to consistently maintain both the suspense and the tension, along with its powerful atmosphere in that stormy environment, as the story builds to its reveal.

Despite selling poorly and being available at the time of publication only in the UK, the book received the 2018 Shirley Jackson Award for best novel, which is awarded for dark psychological fiction. Following the international success of The House on Needless Street, which I also enjoyed immensely, Little Eve was reprinted with an introduction by Ward, and made available in North America.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 41: The Dunwich Horror by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft, H. P. "The Dunwich Horror." Weird Tales, April 1929.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.


ISFdb Rating:   8.75/10
My Rating:        7/10


"When a traveller in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean's Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country."


And so begins the tale of the town of Dunwich and a horror it recently experienced. Like many a Lovecraft story, the setting is lonely and isolated, but compared to the more urban centres of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and the ports and seas of "The Call of Cthulhu," Dunwich is mostly detached from the known world. The story keeps us mostly at an isolated house in the hills and its environs (with side visits to the library), and of course such tales must be in isolated regions otherwise their secrets wouldn't be so secretive and the curious general public would be milling about.

In our isolated house lives Lavinia Whateley, her aged father and her unusually quick-developing Wilbur, who is toddler-sized and skilled when he is less than a year old. Who is the father of this devilish child, and what strange creature is he and grandpa hiding in the newly reconstructed portion of their house? This is not among my favourite of Lovecraft's stories, but I award points for mood and atmosphere, which are highly effective throughout. Lovecraft's melodrama is sometimes too much for me, with the learned townsmen studying and desperately translating documents, and later swooning at indescribable horrors, and the story, as many of his stories, is somewhat overlong since we get the point and don't need have it stretched out. This is why as a teen I believe I read only one of his collections, and I believe I read it intermittently, goaded on by Lovecraft-reading classmates.


For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 40: The Monkey's Paw by W. W. Jacobs


Jacobs, W. W. "The Monkey's Paw." Harper's Monthly Magazine, September 1902.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.


ISFdb Rating:   8.75/10
My Rating:        9/10



Art by Walt Sturrock
"Outside, the night was cold and wet, but in the small living room the curtains were closed and the
fire burned brightly.
"


On a dark and stormy night, Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son Herbert are visited by an old acquaintance of the father's, Sergeant-Major Morris. Unlike the homely Whites, Morris is a man of the world, a travel with vast experience who had been stationed in India and has returned with many tales. Among these is the tale of the monkey's paw, a talisman that bestows upon its owner three wishes, yet with the warning that the wishes are granted via malicious means. Morris was the last person to own the monkey's paw, and tosses the wretched object into the fire, from where it is quickly rescued by Mr. White. Sure enough, later that night the White's decide to make a wish, partly in jest, and ask for two hundred pounds to clear their mortgage.

“Well, I don’t see the money,” said his son, [...] and I bet I never shall.”

Ominous words indeed.

Because I read this story at the young and impressionable age of ten or eleven, it has stayed closely with me, and I enjoy it with every re-read (which has been numerous). Aside from nostalgia, it is well constructed, remaining simple yet tight, and contains an impressive layer of emotions for a story so short, from the tight-nit family with their playful understanding of one another, to the mother's affecting grief and the father's anxieties over the ominous paw. That last sequence, wonderfully illustrated by Walt Sturrock, alone contains more contrasting emotions than many a novel. There are some great phrases, terrific mood, and the story's enclosed space and oppressive weather create the perfect atmosphere. To contrast all this darkness, that instance of the streetlight at the end gives a tiny glow of relief amid such horrible circumstances.

The story is readily available throughout the web, and I urge anyone who has not yet experienced the story outside that The Simpsons episode, to do so. Once read, you can read the following paragraph.


For many years following its initial publication in Harper's Monthly, "The Monkey's Paw" was a staple in ghost story anthologies, a practice that continues but in a lessened form. Interestingly, the story is not a ghost story, but an example of an early zombie, or living dead tale. Mr. White's wish to make his son alive again presumably brings the animated corpse of the boy to come rapping at their front door, and not the spirit of the boy. While subgenres at the time were not as defined as they are today, so that many terror tales or stories with a supernatural element were relegated to the popular ghost story form, this misclassifying can lead to a transformation or misreading of the text. As a ghost, there would be a formless spirit somehow managing to tap on the door, yet the understanding that it is the walking corpse of their child brings with it a powerful element of horror that would be deprived from a reader with a ghost in mind. Jacobs makes it clear that Herbert was killed by falling into "some machinery," and Mr. White reminds his wife that he was only able to recognize the boy because of his clothes (as he was evidently horribly mangled). It is this shredded and bloodied figure Jacobs expects us to imagine standing behind the door, the image Mr. White so desperately wants to spare his wife from seeing, and not a translucent image of a boy nor a bedsheet blowing in the wind.

Wonderful stuff.


For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 39: The Veldt by Ray Bradbury


Bradbury, Ray. "The World the Children Made." The Saturday Evening Post, 23 September 1950.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.


ISFdb Rating:   8.82/10
My Rating:        7/10


" 'George, I wish you'd look at the nursery.' "



Cover by George Hughes
George and Lydia Hadley have invested in a Happylife Home, where all their daily comforts are met. Their home will prepare and serve their meals, and even switch their lights on and off throughout each part of the home they are passing, as they are passing. Yet they believe that the best decision they made was to include in their home a nursery for the children. Very much like the Star Trek holodeck, the nursery can create whatever is on the minds of the children--it can produce their very desires. In the case of ten year-olds Peter and Wendy Hadley, who are currently interested in Africa, the nursery has created a veldt, an open space within a jungle, which includes a herd of lions in the distance who seem to always be chewing up some prey.

Yet something is off, the Hadleys notice, as the children's obsession begins to make them uncomfortable, as does the veldt and the ever observing lions. They decide that the children--and even they--have become too spoiled with the comforts of their new home, and make the ultimate decision to be less reliant on modern comforts. But are the children prepared for this great change?

Included in Bradbury's popular collection The Illustrated Man, "The Veldt" is one of his most read stories, and it is overall a really good one. The message is straightforward, as is the plotting which is paint-by-numbers, but the story works well as it places the reader on edge, is short with good pacing, and those looming lions--the looming dangers of technology and its ties to indolence--drive the narrative forward. There is nothing subtle or surprising, and its theme is well worn, even for 1950, but it becomes more prevalent each year so is never dated. The story predicts motion sensor lights and the holodeck, though we don't yet have tables that apologize to us for forgetting the ketchup. In fact, any smart gadget that would "forget" a pre-programmed step would today be considered faulty. In this world the table gadget is given personality, perhaps a little joke by Bradbury, or to indicate that those lions are not smoke and mirrors, but have desires of their own.

The story was originally title "The World the Children Made," but "The Veldt" is a more appropriate title. While the children made the world inside the nursery, the world that made a nursery that could drive the irrational drives of children was made by a society seeking comfort. The story's central focus, and where the tension lies, is in the veldt.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 38: The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson


Robinson, Kim Stanley. "The Lucky Strike." Universe 14, edited by Terry Carr. New York: Doubleday, June 1984.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.


ISFdb Rating:   8.83/10
My Rating:        7/10

This story is available online at Strange Horizons.


"War Breeds strange pastimes."


In an alternate World War II, pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets crashes the Enola Gay on a practice run, killing the entire crew. This tragedy leaves Captain Frank January in charge of the replacement crew and its plane, The Lucky Strike, on her voyage to drop a new kind of bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

An interesting story that explores the anxieties and doubts of January, aware of the destructive power of the atomic bomb, and struggling between his duty and the desire to abandon the mission. A good story with a strong first third, an overlong middle section, and a good but unsubtle finish. Essentially, the story presents an alternate scenario to end the war, to not drop the bomb on a populated area, but rather send a message by dropping the bomb onto an unpopulated area and force the Japanese to surrender as they are witness to the potential devastation that a nuclear strike can potentially wreak on a city. Of course, we can never know exactly how this would have played out in our reality, but Robinson is confident as to what the outcome would have been, and idealistically envisions such a scenario quickly leading to worldwide disarmament.

The historical elements and the crew's flight and its details were what I found most interesting, and whether accurate or not (though it probably is), the flight sequence is believable and creates more tension than January's anxieties, though undoubtedly heightened by those anxieties. I did wonder why a person like January would be selected as crew leader for the most important flight of WWII, since these high level decisions are made with scrutiny. There is a brief interplay with a psychologist early on, implying that it is easy to deceive medical officers, but this is slight and in itself not terribly convincing, or perhaps a scenario too familiar in war stories featuring conscientious officers. January is presented as more of an average American who would denounce the practice of a nuclear strike, than a soldier who would unwaveringly follow such an order.

The last section plays out conveniently for Robinson's message. January is sacrificed but Hiroshima and the rest of Japan are saved, and nuclear disarmament is to follow shortly. Harry S. Truman is depicted as the villainous leader who pushed for the strike, and the scientists behind the nuclear bomb are presented as military realists whose mission is to end the war without concern for civilian life.


For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.
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