November 2022 Short Story Reading Post

Photo of handwritten notes — key sections extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied version of my November 2022 tweets about short stories. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post (that links to where they are first mentioned, but there’s often further discussion).

A short post this month! I was travelling for most of it, and also preparing and giving a writing workshop on short stories at World Fantasy, and an academic paper at the WIP conference at UQ. However, it is still a relatively long post, so the rest is below the cut…

If you’re nominating for awards, I’d love to have this whole reading/commentary/critique project considered in appropriate non-fiction categories. (I’ve discussed over 400 stories!) I’ll put up a master eligibility post soon for ease of linking, but the category tag link will do the same trick: https://tanaudel.wordpress.com/category/short-story-reading-posts/

A new spin-off article/post/piece! “Some Ways to Retell a Fairy Tale“, published in Text, began as a series of observations on retellings I came across in this reading project.

Fascinations and encroaching interests this month include:

  • what’s happening at a more granular level, within a mood
  • the value of trying to change an ending (as an intellectual exercise)
  • restraint, and a lack of striving
  • using an attempt-attempt-result structure

Background and related posts:

  • This project is me studying story structure in real time (and often working my way back to well-known maxims from first principles! See Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories for detail.
  • How I select these stories.
  • Each dot point is one possible three-mood shape — one way of reading the shape of the story. I use “mood” very broadly.
    • Very often I am working my way back to well-known maxims from first principles — this is me studying story structure in real time.
  • Previous posts are under the short story reading notes category.

And so, to begin…

  • Ishq” — Usman T Malik (Midnight Static, 2014; Nightmare Magazine, 2015; Midnight Doorways, 2021 — the narrator recalls his mother’s tales of the love of her sister and a street vendor, in the narrowest street in Pakistan…) 7,304
    • reach — hold — release
    • desire — envy — understanding
    • so would be — struggle — so they were
    • distance (a tale) — connection (my family) — personal (so to me)

It’s a story with a number of perspectives and distances happening, and a useful example of how three-mood shapes operate on a not-entirely-linear story.

I’ve read many stories relating a narrator’s family’s stories from a city the narrator no longer lives in/knows well, but very unexpectedly the way the weight of that was handled here chimed with the way Ibbotson’s short stories of pre-WW1 Vienna feel to me. It’s something about who in the story bears the weight of memory and/or separation.

I also really like the… awkward isn’t the right word, because it’s deliberate. But I like he way the story doesn’t quite settle on how much it’s going to disclose of personal connection (on at least two tracks), and where in time/story space it’s going to situate the history it’s recounting

There’s an interesting genre-related emotional progression between this and the Ibbotsons and a Chekhov I just read — where the intensity of the story is acknowledged/situated. More on that when I get to the Chekhov and/or reread the Ibbotsons.

That first dot point is a lovely classic dawning-horror shape, and the story is all-in on that. The words are pointedly chosen from the beginning, which gives it a great B-movie intro vibe: a road “whose turns occasionally narrowed to choke points”, “a slow red flow of taillights bleeding out of the roughs and fairways”.

Some more Gothic/adventure-y versions of a story like this would have a glass-shattering escape/exit trajectory near the end (in the “rubicon”/”choices” mood). But this story moves continually inward. Choices simply tighten the growing horror. There is no exit from the landscape initially established, and choices lead into narrower chambers.

It’s all foreshadowing.

  • The Lady with the Dog” — Anton Chekhov (1899 — a holiday affair isn’t as ephemeral as planned) 6,723 (depending on translation)
    • idle — involved — intense
    • dalliance — obsession — committed
    • interested — caught — landed
    • ordinary — deeper — extraordinary/’extraordinary’
    • surface — under skin — soul
    • every day — every day — every DAY

The posture of the main character’s action is interesting — a slight forward inclination, deepening, and then tipping past the point of balance.

It’s also interesting to see the extent to which the main characters mirror each other. They have a similar journey from interest (if not intention) to the ending, but proceed at different paces, passing and overtaking each other.

I mentioned earlier that I can see echoes of this style of story in some of Ibbotson’s. But it also reminded me of Margery Sharp’s The Eye of Love, in the question of just how grand an attachment is being depicted, or how dramatic a downfall?

It is clearly intense for the characters, but the reader is kept a little distance apart — although not so far as to observe with completely detached irony. The everydayness of the semi-objective tone calls the grandeur into question, while not questioning its reality for the characters.

If you look at those stacked readings of the final mood, you can see the disconnect of tone and experience which creates that effect.

“The Lady with the Dog” is frequently described as a story without a traditional ending, which I find interesting because it fairly obviously does have an ending — it’s just that the end is the beginning of the rest of their lives.

(Compare, for example, Munro’s “Passion” (see here in the August notes) which reflects on an earlier extramarital attraction from much later in life.)

If “The Lady with the Dog” were fantasy or SF, this mood progression/story shape would neatly fit a prequel/origin-style story: how a situation which you do not need to have described to you came to be. The ending is the realisation of which story is going to follow.

The implication of this type of story is that you know enough about the genre to know what story happens next (the ingenue has become a wicked stepmother, the urchin has turned into a wizard, etc).

“The Lady with the Dog” is doing the same with a (then-) contemporary realist setting. Rather than the ‘traditional’ ending meting out justice or education, the pathos and understanding and wry humanism of the ending come from realising all that must lie before its characters.

That turn is particularly interesting in this story because the story COULD have been — and shares 75% of a mood progression with — a biter-bit/comeuppance story-shape, the whole point of which is to land hard on a big (welcomed/hilarious/terrible/belated) lesson.

Note: I read this because George Saunders is doing a deep dive on the story, and I wanted to get my thoughts down before reading those posts.

  • The Found Recollections of Revalor’s Last Oracle” — Elsa Sjunnesson (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — an oracle, commanded to choose her own successor from among the blind women of her country, questions the foundations of her life) 3,265
    • fear — reverie — determination
    • alone — connection — place
    • loss — (past) faith — purposeful
    • controlled — questioning — in control

This is not a “conflagration” story, but its arc is similar, offset by a few degrees.

The “conflagration” stories are often: “trodden upon — unbearable — conflagration”. Here, it’s “isolation — understanding — purpose”. But both shapes follow someone in an unjust position finding a truth (their own or the world’s) and acting/stepping out in that knowledge.

The big shift is from fear to certainty. It becomes a story rather than simply a change because that shift it goes via recollection. But those moods echo out in little ways through the story:

  • Fear“/”isolation” is not just the narrator’s, but the Queen’s and the previous Oracle’s and the potential future Oracles’ and the people who question the oracle.
  • Recollection“/”connection” is largely the narrator’s, but not exclusively — it is pursued through the queen’s memories, through the links between people.
  • And “determination“/”purpose” gathers many characters together — even the Queen gains greater certainty

So while each of the three ‘moods’ is focussed on e.g. the narrator (depending on the story it might be centred instead the reader’s experience, or an aesthetic), it ripples out into other aspects of the story: theme, interactions, description…

(See also the notes on word choices in Madeline Ashby’s “You Are Cordially Invited…”, above.

  • The Day When the Last War is Over” — Sergey Gerasimov (Apex Magazine, 2022 — after the last war, the remains of what once lived wake and carry on for a little while) 3,813
    • tentative — stumbling — [gentle] disintegrating
    • habit — effort — peace
    • reach — investigate — release

This is a story of death and release, but both harder (more thorough-going!) and in a way kinder than many.

It reminded me in its gentle grieflessness of one of my favourite Bruce Dawe poems, “Somewhere Friendly” (in “Condolences of the Season” and fugitive online locations), although that (quite literally) runs in the opposite direction.

“The Day When the Last War is Over” is a story and world that runs softly down. There are no immense efforts, and those that do exist break apart like ash, and create no new outcomes — and on that day, in no longer matters that they don’t.

There’s no deep grief IN the story (in the reader is another matter!) — not the way there is, for example, in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach“. There it matters to the people in the poem that the tide of the world has drawn out; there’s still a crying-out in its melancholy. That is, this story is a crying-out, but not for the people in it. There isn’t any “ah love, let us be true to one another” — quite explicitly the opposite. All that is past.

I found the restraint of the moods in “The Day When the Last War is Over” striking. Looking back at some of the other stories that end in “release”, it is almost always preceded (within the story) by struggle. This story begins after all that is done.

Here are just a few examples:

  • “Ishq” — Usman T Malik (notes above)
  • “Clockwork Bayani” — EK Gonzales (October notes)
  • “The Warm Equations” — Michael Swanwick (August notes)
  • “One Day the Cave Will Be Empty” — KJ Chien (July notes — internal links are acting up at the moment)

But in this story, even “tentative” and “stumbling” in that first mood-progression are a little too strong.

And I should add: there is emotion here, but it is largely the soft decay of old anxieties, the unravelling of language and connection.

  • Deathflower” — Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe (Weird Horror, 2022 — a grieving widow buys a potplant, but it has a taste for blood, and its roots in secrets) 3,600
    • grief — alarm — horror
    • complacent — jump-scare — dread
    • contacted — approached — pursued
    • recovering — setback — overtaken
    • spark in the real — emergence of the unsettling — revelation of the other reality

Sliding towards the other end of the characters-emoting scale, here.

That final shape is a classic horror shape — horror/gothic perhaps, but in gothic it would tend less to the final mood being one of overwhelming confirmation and more to a sense of lingering unease and suspicion that there’s something outside one’s usual reality.

But all these shapes contain a strong, linked, logical and (within the story) irresistible/inevitable escalation. There is no escape.

The main character struggles (to a degree), but the story is about inevitability rather than struggle. This not a story of release/acceptance of loss, but of succumbing to it. The protagonist is already mired in grief, already losing the world. She was never going to get away.

  • Every Her That Ever Was” — Joanne Anderton (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — an archivist falls in love with one of the archived personalities, and begins to collect her variations) 2,485
    • affection — obsession — dust
    • whole — pieces — emptiness
    • interest — fascination — coldness
    • connection — distraction — loss
    • (gratitude — doubt — bitterness)

This story has a disintegrating shape — starting with a very strong and hopeful connection, which falls apart. The reason is the protagonist’s actions — not holding too tightly, not betraying the object of her affection, but focussing incorrectly.

I was talking to Joanne yesterday and described it as a “golden goose” story shape, and it is closely related to that shape. But that does imply focussing too narrowly on one specific aspect, rather than the whole, and “Every Her…” is slightly the inverse: focussing on the whole of the beloved to the exclusion of the moment in time. And on what what believes a person to want and be, rather than considering what they actually are here-and-now. (Also, of course, focussing on the gift rather than whether the recipient wants it.)

The bracketed variant story shape is from the other side: The story is very much from the protagonist’s point of view, but the beloved’s emotions are present in a thin, insistent strand, and I wanted to look at them in parallel, because they are key to the story. You can imagine how changing them would make the story different and shift the point or weight of tragedy. A relentless gratitude against a dissipating focus, or a much earlier contempt, for example.

That “coldness” in the dot points could have been “coldness/desperation”.

  • Early Evening Soul” — Kel Coleman (Speculative City, 2022 — the protagonist arrives to collect a recently-dead soul that’s delaying its departure) 5,261
    • irritation — exasperation — sympathy/affection
    • opposing — humouring — connection
    • intention — variation — change
    • insistence — attraction — truths
    • grumpy benevolence — antsy persuasion — repentant revelation

There are some inverted echoes between this story and the last (“Every Her That Ever Was”). Flip these moods and you can see those points of irritation vs connection. The disintegration vs building of affection or at least understanding.

“Early Evening Soul” is a story which is (or appears) to be about accomplishing a specific task. That means you can find the attempt-attempt-result structure in there fairly easily. But those aren’t the moods here, although the characters’ *reactions* to failure/success strengthen those moods.

And the story twists that structure by shifting the audience’s understandings of what is being attempted with each attempt, as the protagonist reveals/justifies/adjusts the plan.

And those clarifications call attention back to the moods — the deeper reasons for irritation or exasperation or affection.

The clarifications, interestingly, don’t always fall quite where the mood shifts. One appears in the transition between the first two moods (quite literally during a taxi ride).Another appears well into the final mood, which makes sense, because acknowledging it underscores that deepened sympathy/affection, and throws it into greater focus by reminding the reader of the (now clarified) reason for the initial aggravation.

  • Hyphemata, or Seeing Underwater Above” — Ra’Niqua Lee (Uncharted Magazine, 2022 — the advantages and disadvantages of devil-lovers, viewed from a restaurant near a drowned town) 1,367
    • positioning — pasts — looking through
    • waiting — deaths — seeking
    • tolerating — considering — appreciating
    • upsides — downsides — layers
    • peaceful — wry — content

It’s not a very straightforward story, and it’s not a story in which much at all happens, or even definitely happened, although it’s a story in which things that happened *are*.

Alex Brown said (in Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction for September 2022), “This is a hard story to pin down, but I think that’s what I like most about it… It made me feel in a way I can’t really explain…”

And the three-moods readings not only reflect that shimmering structure but also show how it still shapes itself into a story:

It is someone shuffling a deck of apparently contradictory cards, and feeling (bittersweet) peace with how they are dealt, considering all the circumstances. A spinning sequence of refracted reflections, and then the camera pulling back to show not the whole, but the fragments that cast those lights.

The fragments and segments of the story stack up into bigger moods, and then into the progression of a whole story. The breaks between those sections contribute to the sense of a jagged reality — of reality’s jaggedness.

  • The Lightning Seller Visits Greenvale” — A. C. Wise (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — the narrator recollects long-ago summers with his brother, and the rumours of a man who sold bottled storms, and returns once more to his childhood town) 4,759
    • restless — lost — choosing
    • stuck — left — reprising
    • chase — lose — hold
    • cut-off — returning — (re)entering
    • young — older — young

Those descriptions of the story’s pattern highlight its innocence-and-experience shape. Not so much a re-evaluating as a return to what has always been valued, and a reward for recognising it, and a replacing of restlessness with peace (even if it’s the peace of memory)

It’s more a commemoration than a coming-to-terms, and a shift from the forward-looking of youth to a backward-looking (although at a point early enough in a life to do something with that)

  • LAGBOT-45.” — Oyedotun Damilola Muees (Omenana, 2022 — an AI is called as a witness in an assault case against a billionaire) 4,955
    • formal – affectless — affected
    • separate — observing — intersecting
    • parameters — boundaries — taking steps
    • role — curiosity — intervention

This story follows an approaching-shape, a narrowing of distance — not so much between the definition of human and AI as between the impact of the latter on the former.

It’s very restrained emotionally on the surface, being primarily made of the Lagbot’s logs. (This restraint is not actually that common in AI/robot stories!)

But you can see the progression from presence/recording to more active interest, to decisions to press a little further past the surface.

And it’s easy to imagine another author really pushing on all those buttons, keeping roughly the same shape but heightening the mood — interest into fascination, curiosity and observation into obsession, decision into rebellion. Which makes this measured telling more interesting.

ALL THE NOVEMBER STORIES

  • Ishq” — Usman T Malik (Midnight Static, 2014; Nightmare Magazine, 2015; Midnight Doorways, 2021 — the narrator recalls his mother’s tales of the love of her sister and a street vendor, in the narrowest street in Pakistan…) 7,304
  • You Are Cordially Invited to an Evening of Horror at the Secret Hills Golf and Country Club” — Madeline Ashby (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — a couple attend an ominous Halloween party (in accordance with established local tradition)) 3,858
  • The Lady with the Dog” — Anton Chekhov (1899 — a holiday affair isn’t as ephemeral as planned) 6,723 (depending on translation)
  • The Found Recollections of Revalor’s Last Oracle” — Elsa Sjunnesson (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — an oracle, commanded to choose her own successor from among the blind women of her country, questions the foundations of her life) 3,265
  • The Day When the Last War is Over” — Sergey Gerasimov (Apex Magazine, 2022 — after the last war, the remains of what once lived wake and carry on for a little while) 3,813
  • Deathflower” — Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe (Weird Horror, 2022 — a grieving widow buys a potplant, but it has a taste for blood, and its roots in secrets) 3,600
  • Every Her That Ever Was” — Joanne Anderton (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — an archivist falls in love with one of the archived personalities, and begins to collect her variations) 2,485
  • Early Evening Soul” — Kel Coleman (Speculative City, 2022 — the protagonist arrives to collect a recently-dead soul that’s delaying its departure) 5,261
  • Hyphemata, or Seeing Underwater Above” — Ra’Niqua Lee (Uncharted Magazine, 2022 — the advantages and disadvantages of devil-lovers, viewed from a restaurant near a drowned town) 1,367
  • The Lightning Seller Visits Greenvale” — A. C. Wise (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — the narrator recollects long-ago summers with his brother, and the rumours of a man who sold bottled storms, and returns once more to his childhood town) 4,759
  • LAGBOT-45.” — Oyedotun Damilola Muees (Omenana, 2022 — an AI is called as a witness in an assault case against a billionaire) 4,955

2 thoughts on “November 2022 Short Story Reading Post

  1. Pingback: November 2022 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: 2022: The Short Story Reading Project (also an awards eligibility post) | Kathleen Jennings

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