Sunday, June 21, 2015

Making the Case for the Short Story

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

Stephen King

I guess you could say I am a fan of Stephen King.

I haven't liked all of his books — full disclosure: I haven't read them all, not even close, but I've read enough to know that he's going to be good most of the time. As such, I figure he is worthy of my admiration.

I consider myself a writer, but I'm a slacker compared to King. Do you think he has written a lot of novels over the years? You're right. He has. Dozens of 'em. He's also written several collections of short stories, which is what "Skeleton Crew," which was published on this date in 1985, was — a collection of short stories. He has published about a dozen of those.

"Skeleton Crew" was his second collection of short stories. I prefer his early collections because they really are short stories. His later collections are more like a handful of novellas in a single volume. In that sense, I guess "Skeleton Crew" was a bit deceptive if you started reading without glancing at the Table of Contents. The first story truly was novella–like, but the rest really were short stories. There were roughly 20 stories in that book and a couple of poems; the poems were only a few pages long, and some of the stories weren't much longer than that.

Actually, that first story would have made the book worthwhile all by itself. I wasn't terribly impressed with the poems, but the legitimate short stories ranged from entertaining to astonishing.

I got interested in reading "Skeleton Crew" when I saw one of the short stories, "Gramma," dramatized on the second–generation Twilight Zone TV series in the '80s, but I suppose I was already predisposed to like the short story format. When I was in elementary school, I remember reading a series of short story collections that leaned heavily to the horror genre. Just the sort of thing a 9– or 10–year–old boy loves to read — you know, with plenty of zombies and such — and my buddies and I passed them around.

Those weren't single–author collections, though. In that respect, I guess they were more like anthologies, although not as voluminous as the ones I used to slog through in college.

As a writer, I found King's introduction to be the most satisfying I have read. It was a discussion of the art of writing, why writers write, that kind of thing. Near the end, he said he hoped the readers would enjoy the collection. "I suspect you won't like it as well as you would a novel," King wrote, "because most of you have forgotten the real pleasures of the short story.

"Reading a good long novel is, in many ways, like having a long and satisfying affair. ... A short story is a different thing altogether — a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger. That is not, of course, the same thing as an affair or a marriage, but kisses can be sweet, and their very brevity forms their own attraction."

I hope "Skeleton Crew" reminded readers of "the real pleasures of the short story." It certainly reminded me, and it is a lesson that has stayed with me all these years.

In his introduction, King told readers that the collection spanned much of his life, from early in his writing career (the late '60s) to the time the collection was published. Trust me when I tell you there are treasures for every taste.

Each of the short stories is rewarding in its own way. People who avoid King because they aren't fans of the horror genre should read "The Reach," a charming tale about a great–grandmother who was born on an island off the coast of Maine and had been there her entire life. It's the kind of thing that King's fans share with non–King fans as evidence of his range as a storyteller.

Much of it, though, is the kind of King writing you've been conditioned to expect — although I would argue that he, like Alfred Hitchcock, is misunderstood. He doesn't write horror stories so much as he writes suspense stories, thrillers. That's a lot more difficult to achieve in the pages of a short story, and King did a great job of it in "Skeleton Crew."

If you read "Skeleton Crew," don't skip King's notes at the end. They're possibly the best observations on books and writing that I have read:

"Not everyone is interested in where short stories come from," King wrote, "and that is perfectly proper — you don't have to understand the internal combustion engine to drive a car, and you don't need to know the circumstances which surrounded the making of a story to get a bit of pleasure from it."

As I said earlier in this post, I am a writer. I like to think I'm a good writer — although I suppose that is a matter of opinion — but I don't think I am so good that I cannot learn from others, and King really is one of the best — if not the best — of his generation. So I enjoyed reading what he had to say about writing 30 years ago, realizing how successful he has been since he wrote those notes.

For King's part, he seemed almost apologetic — and appeared to encourage some readers to skip his notes altogether. "I've included a few notes here on a few of the stories — such things as I thought might interest the casual reader," he wrote. "But if you're even more casual than that, I assure you that you can close the book without a qualm — you won't be missing much."

With all due respect, yes, you will be missing much.