Small is Beautiful – or, why the short story matters by Tim Lees
It seems that publishers love blockbusters – or better yet, a whole string of blockbusters, especially where fantasy, SF and horror are concerned. So I suppose we must assume the public likes them, too. And some of these books, I’m sure, are very, very good – I just wish I had the time to read them. Yet it strikes me that fantastic literature has always flourished in the short form, and that this, in many ways, is its ideal expression – a single idea, a single mood, which, if done well, will stay with the reader for a long time. Think of it like this: pressure of a pound per square inch isn’t much when applied with the flat of a hand. But when applied with the point of a pin? That’s going to leave a mark.
For a writer, a short story is an attractive proposition. A novel may take years to write; it’s a colossal undertaking. But a short story – well, there are writers who can knock one out in a couple of hours (I’m not one of them), and even with innumerable revisions, a short story is likely to be finished long before a novel, and ready to send off, for the customary round of rejections, until finally – finally! – someone buys it.
But the short story is an exacting form. What to include? What to leave out? Hemingway famously reckoned you could leave out the most important part – the punch-line, as it were – and it would still resonate through the rest of the tale. There are horror stories that work like that – H.G.Wells’ “The Red Room”, for example, in which almost nothing happens – and it’s terrifying.
A few dull paragraphs in a novel can be overlooked, but in a short story, they’re damning. Likewise, a novel can take time out from its main themes to indulge in whatever diversion happens to intrigue the author (a brief history of ferret-breeding, say), but a short story has to stick firmly to its purpose – most of the time. Sometimes there’s a little sleight-of-hand goes on. I remember a story by Pete Townshend (yes, that Pete Townshend) called “Tonight’s the Night”. It seems at first to be a lurid tale of sexual misbehavior, recounted at second hand; but its real theme is the narrator’s alcoholism. Nicely done. Oh yeah – and the narrator’s name is “Pete”, just to give it an extra bounce.
Short stories, though, for all their brevity, are capable of doing a wide variety of things. They can explore an idea, or set up a mood, or give a glimpse into a world that can sometimes – if you choose the details well – be even more intriguing than the worlds outlined in whichever 600-page paperback you pick up at the local bookstore. And in SF, fantasy and horror, it’s short stories that have created and defined the genres, back in the golden days of the pulps and their more up-market relatives. Check out H.G. Wells’ Thirty Strange Stories, and you’ll see a lot of the themes that became staples over the coming years. Ray Bradbury, predominantly a short story writer, brought literature and humanity to the pulps, and his early stories remain classics of their kind. New Wave SF took things further still, and it’s notable that, for the first part of his career, J.G. Ballard wrote mostly short stories, many of which have a decidedly horrific bent (he’d been a medical student, after all). In Europe, writers like Kafka, Schultz, Calvino and Primo Levi pursued a tradition of the fantastic – again, with plenty of shorts. South and Central America offered magic realism – some big novels, certainly, but also short fiction – take a look at Samanta Schweblin’s work in A Mouthful of Birds.
So that’s the major names out of the way.
All of which leads to the announcement that I have a new collection out. The Ice Plague and other inconveniences (incunabulamedia.com) covers the range of weirdness from the mildly off-kilter to the full-on surreal, offering up some twisted versions of SF, crime fiction, horror, apocalypse and even space opera. Preparing it for publication, rereading stories I wrote long ago, I was struck by one particular factor.
The key to all these stories isn’t really the element of fantasy, as prominent as that may be. It’s the characters. They’re people who want something. Sometimes it’s obvious what they want. The hobos who happen on an alien incursion in 1930s America are dreaming of wealth and a better life. The lone traveler in “Unknown Cities of America” is looking for his ex, but also for another, different America few people believe exists. The lonely boy in “The Leopard Girl” just wants to fit in – but allies himself with the outsider, instead.
Adding an element of the fantastic here brings the characters’ dilemmas into sharp relief. “The Ice Plague” itself is about an epidemic, but one that highlights the narrator’s own emotional difficulties, as he struggles to come to terms with his own life. There’s a term for this, if we can go all literary again. T.S. Eliot called it an “objective correlative”, and I daresay he’s entitled to do so. But I call it, FUN.
And stories should be fun. Or else why read them?
The Ice Plague By Tim Lees
Tim Lees’s fiction has been compared to that of Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury, Franz Kafka, Ted Chiang and Mervyn Peake. In this, his latest collection, you’ll meet a couple of artistically-inclined hit-men (“Scenes from Country Life”), a woman caught up in an interdimensional war, whose friends are far worse than her enemies (“Love and War”); you’ll visit a Heavenly realm invaded by monsters (“Gumps”), and witness a terrifying ritual which nonetheless sustains the peace and stability of the world – and causes hell when it’s disrupted (“The Shuttered Child”). From familiar city streets to strange, inhuman landscapes, from the fields of England to the unknown cities of America, these are stories which push the boundaries of genre and show human life adapting to the weird, the alien – and the outright terrifying.
Purchase a copy here
Tim Lees is originally from Manchester, England, but now lives in Chicago. He’s the author of the much-praised historical fantasy, Frankenstein’s Prescription, and the “Field Ops” books for HarperVoyager: The God Hunter, Devil in the Wires and Steal the Lightning. When not writing he has worked a variety of jobs, including film extra, conference organiser, academic researcher, and worker on the rehab wards of a psychiatric hospital. His website is https://timlees.wordpress.com/ and his latest collection, The Ice Plague and other inconveniences is available here: https://incunabulamedia.com/fantasy.