7 Things I Hate In Fiction

No matter what genre of fiction or medium of story-telling you’re into (even if you’re into nearly all of them, like me!), we all have our own little things in fiction that we don’t like. Sometimes it’s the little things that can absolutely ruin an otherwise potentially good story for us and make us seriously think about leaving it unread/unwatched/unlistened to.

For your enjoyment, therefore, I have compiled a list of my own fiction bugbears with expositions. Maybe you won’t agree with them all. That’s okay. I’m not for one second suggesting any of these are hard and fast rules about what constitutes a bad story. These are just things that, for me, are a bit of a turn-off. So without further ado and in no particular order…

Obvious Morals

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely think it’s a good thing for stories to say something meaningful about real life. I’m not knocking stories that have morals to them. I’m not even knocking controversial morals. Quite the reverse, a good story definitely should have true and important morals or observations about life. But there’s nothing that puts me off reading a book or watching a film/TV show/play quite like that horrible sinking feeling you get in the first five minutes when you think to yourself: ‘I think I know where this is going…’

Even if it’s something I profoundly agree with, that’s not the point. I don’t read stories to be preached at, whether I agree with the message or not. Entertain me, and by all means make me think, but don’t preach at me.

Excessive and/or Long Fight Scenes

On TV and film, I can just about(!) put up with drawn out fight scenes, but in novels… boy, I find them tedious. They’re often either too detailed (and so, the pace is dragged right down at what should be the most exciting part) or else they’re not detailed enough and I lose the thread of what’s going on entirely. If you’re going to write a fight scene, I want it to be described in such a way that I feel like I’m really there witnessing it, which must by necessity include experiencing the danger and urgency of being in a battle. It can be done with words, but only a few writers seem to be able to do it in a way I find truly enjoyable.

More on fight scenes here.

Unnecessary Profanities

Sometimes in adult fiction, a little profanity may be justified, if it becomes the character (remember boys and girls, a character’s voice can have a profound impact on their identity). After all, in real life, people do sometimes use foul language. However, I find that in fiction, it loses its effectiveness very quickly and can come across as a fairly amateurish attempt at generating tension. Therefore, use it sparingly. If you’re struggling, watch the soaps for some inspiration: Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and so forth.

No, really, hear me out. I don’t have a lot of good things to say about soaps, but I’ll give them this: because they’re usually on before the watershed, the writers of these shows are forced to generate tension and outright screaming matches between characters without using a single profanity. Study these carefully if you’re really struggling to write tense dialogue without the potty-mouth.

Flashbacks

As a rule of thumb, I find that flashbacks tend to interrupt the pace of the narrative too much. In addition, I often find that they are simply used as a way to info dump the backstory and as we all know, info dumping is bad, bad, bad. I might, possibly, maybe let you away with them if the story absolutely requires that one character tells another character a lengthy, detailed story about something that happened in the past (Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, frequently include flash back style chapters where one witness is telling Poirot their version of events) but on the whole, I find flashbacks a bit of a drag.

All Action; No Substance

If I wanted a meaningless thrill ride, I’d just go to Alton Towers. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of excitement is needed to keep up the momentum of your story, but if the protagonist is doing nothing but jumping over walls, dodging bullets and crashing helicopters from the outset, I won’t have any opportunity to get under the his skin enough to sympathise with him or understand his goals and motives.

All Substance; No Action

The opposite is also true. I know I want to understand the characters’ goals and motives, and I know I want the odd profound or emotional scene but I don’t want to be bored to tears either. Sooner or later, we need a bit of excitement.

Call Your Story Confessions of an [Optional Adjective] [Noun]

This will make me hate your story before I’ve even read it. See my previous post On Titles.


Well that was cathartic for me at any rate.

Did any of that ring true for anyone else? Or maybe you actually love flashbacks, lengthy fight scenes and tedious titles? Maybe I’m alone in disliking these things…

I know! Why not leave a comment below and share your own fiction pet-hates with the rest of the world? You might feel better if you get it off your chest. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!

The Church Mouse

My original plan for today had been to blog about works of fiction that are nevertheless based on true events but I also had a niggling feeling that it’s been ages since I’ve put any of my own stories on Penstricken.

I know what I’ll do! I thought. I’ll write a story based on true events! I just need to decide what true story to base it on…

At about the same time as I was thinking all this, I found evidence that a mouse had taken up residence in my house and that gave me just the idea I was looking for. So without further ado, I give you…

The Church Mouse

by. A Ferguson

Based on a true story

[1]

The Landlord and Landlady were busy today, pulling out the furniture and hoovering behind every nook and cranny where I’d been, or even might’ve been. They even shoved their infernal vacuum nozzle into my room. I wasn’t in at the time, praise God. I was out scavenging, but they’ve definitely been here. They’ve cleaned up all my business, sure, the bits they could reach anyhow. They’ve settled down now. Their telly’s been on for hours.

Ah, that’s it off now. Finally. They’ll be going to bed soon, I can hear them moving about. He’s washing the dishes, like he usually does just before bed. She’ll be upstairs already then. I’ll give them an hour, once I’m sure they’re asleep and then I’ll–

Wait. Snifffffffff. What’s that?!

Sniff, sniff?

Chocolate and.. sniff?… raisins and caramel by goodness! Ohh, mamma mia… sniffffffffff! Oh yes! A Cadbury’s Picnic if I’m not very much mistaken! Ohh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, I’m eating well tonight! 

No! No… no, no, I mustn’t yet, he’s still out there… gotta wait… gaagh! Hurry up and leave, already!

I think… yes, he’s gone. I can hear him on the stairs. I should wait but… oooh, I have to have that Picnic! Maybe, I’ll just have a peak… he won’t be back now till morning anyway… and that smell, it’s so strong… it must be…

Yes! There it is, right outside my door! That idiot’s left a whole chunk of the stuff just lying around in this little plastic box for me. I’ll just pop in, grab the choccie and…

Ow! The door just fell on me! It’s not very heavy, though, that’s something. If I just back-peddle like this I can pull out the choccie and… yes! I’m free! Haha! Oooh, my precious little Picnic, I can’t wait to get you back to my room… ! Hehehe!

[2]

Ooh! Another day, another Picnic! Maybe I’ve got the Landlord and Landlady all wrong. Maybe they really like me and want me to stay? Eh? Nah, don’t be silly. I’ve had all night to think about this and I don’t think that door closed on me accidentally last night! It’s just dumb luck, really, that my bum was still hanging out the back or who knows what might’ve happened…

I should leave it, I know. I’ve still got plenty left over from last night but… ooooooh, that smell just drives me wild! I got out okay last night, I’ll probably be okay again just as long as I’m careful. I know it can be done and… oh mercy, I won’t be able to think straight with that sitting outside my front door all night long.

Just need to watch. Make sure, take care, always beware. Don’t let them outsmart you. You can do this, just… take care. Beware. Don’t let carnal passions cloud your judgement. Use your brain, take your time, claim the prize.

Good… good, it’s the same kind of trap as before. Nothing that’s gonna snap my back or open my skull. I’ll just do what I did last night, leave my bum in the doorway and… gagh, the choccie’s a bit smaller tonight though… tucked right away up at the back it is, I can’t quite reach… ooooh, but it’s right there, I can almost taste it! Just another half inch…

Woosh! Rats, rats, ratty-rats! The door’s closed! Ohh, no, no, no, no, no, no, please God, let me out! Let me out! Ooh, God forgive me, I know it’s my fault, I… I got greedy and I’m sorry! Please, God, let me out! Please… I’m sorry, I’m sorry… please!

[3]

Ngh! What? I must’ve fallen asleep. But it wasn’t a dream. I’m still here, in the stupid box with the stupid choccie. I don’t fancy it quite the same anymore. I feel sick. I can’t move. They’re here. The Landlady, she sees me. She’s calling to her husband. They’re so… big! 

Aaaagh! He’s picking up the box! What’s he doing with me? Where’s he taking me? To eat me? I hear humans burn up smaller animals before they eat them! Maybe he’ll leave me if I just sit very still but… oh no, it’s a forlorn hope! What else can I do?

Please, please, please, please, Lord God Almighty, rescue me from the hand of this monster! I know it’s my fault, I promise I won’t ever be greedy again I’ll… oh, Lord, please have mercy on me a sinner!

Agh! The light! He’s taking me outdoors, into their car… where are we going?

I wish I could move. I’m so afraid, every part of my body feels like it’s turned to stone. All except my bowels; they’re working overtime. Whatever he’s doing, oh Lord, let it be over soon. To die in terror, trapped in this dungeon, tiny even by my standards and drowning in my own business…

He’s stopped the car.

Oh… rats.

This is it.

Here it comes. He’s picking me up and taking me outside and opening the box… he’s shaking it at the ground. In one sudden motion my petrified body and the choccie fall to the ground and land among the long grass on the roadside. I’m out! I’m free! I’m out of here! Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, God! Thank you kind Landlord! I’m free!

* * *

Mr. Mouse fled through the grass and the bushes for hours. He swore never to succumb to gluttony again.

In the winter of 2017 he became a church mouse. He devoted his life to the ministry and service of the church and was ordained as a minister in 2018.

He died peacefully at the age of three in 2019 and was buried on the grounds of his parish along with the piece of Picnic which he had preserved as a memento of the day his life was spared.

THE END

8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read: The Count of Monte Cristo by A. Dumas, The Afrika Reich by G. Saville, The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by R. Winder, The House of Silk by A. Horowitz, The Gospel of Loki by J.M. Harris, I, Robot by I. Asimov, Deception by R. Dahl or Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well this might be a great idea or it might not be, but I thought it might be fun to knock together a couple of two or three sentence book reviews based on a selection from my bookshelf. Who knows, if it’s a hit, I’ll maybe do it again… maybe with movies or TV shows. But for today, it’s books.

I selected the books for review entirely at random. They are not necessarily of the same genre, nor are they necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

What I have written about them are my entirely own impressions and opinions, compressed, squeezed and crammed into a few short sentences. So, without further ado…

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Justifiably a classic of the genre; a good wholesome historical adventure story and love story rolled into one. It helps to know a thing or two about the period of the Bourbon Restoration to fully appreciate everything that’s going on but don’t let it put you off if you don’t have any knowledge of that period. Oh, and make sure you read the unabridged version translated by Robin Buss. It is the best.

My rating: 5 stars

The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville

If alternative histories and non-stop heart-pounding thrill-rides are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this. Personally, I can’t help feeling the protagonist should have died from his injuries- or at least been slowed down enough to be caught and executed by the Nazis but I suppose that’s what we have suspension of disbelief for.

 My rating: 3 stars

The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by Robert  Winder

Historical fiction featuring William Shakespeare as the protagonist. This novel is set shortly after the Gunpowder Plot and tells the fictional story of the last play Shakespeare (never actually) wrote: Henry VII. In some respects, the story is quite exciting; filled with personal danger for Shakespeare and his troupe. While the narrative does drag at some points, it is beautifully written in a way which brings many of the real historical characters to life and is kept afloat by its interesting premise and a goodly dash of humour. It also includes the full script for the fictional play this novel focuses on.

My rating: 4 stars

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Many have tried to capture the magic of Sherlock Holmes in books and films throughout the years. Few have done it as well as Anthony Horowitz does it in The House of Silk, balancing fidelity to the original creation of Arthur Conan Doyle with a fresh and exciting new plot for modern readers. It has everything in it you ever wanted from a Sherlock Holmes story; mystery, excitement, a dark secret to uncover and a quality of narrative which draws you right into the heart of Holmes’ London. Parental advisory: the ending is a lot darker and more disturbing than anything A.C.D. might have written.

My rating: 5 stars

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris

This novel is an imaginative reexamination of Norse mythology, given from the unique perspective of one of its central villains: Loki, the god of mischief. This novel is full of sharp and occasionally dark humour and a very compelling antihero. Downsides? The first few chapters felt more like a list of cosmic anecdotes forming a backstory, which made it a slow read at first but it does pick up. I also found the narrative voice of Loki a little irksome, but then again, the Loki character is probably supposed to be irksome so I suppose that’s a good thing.

My rating: 3 stars

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

What can I say about I, Robot that hasn’t already been said? Almost every robot character that has ever appeared in sci-fi since owes something to this collection of short stories which are set at different points in the lifetime of robopsychologist, Dr. Calvin (though she is not a character in every story, the stories are largely told from her perspective). Each story is generally centred around the Three Laws of Robotics (Google it) and the problems caused by human and robot interpretations of these laws. I found the pacing a bit slow occasionally, but all in all it’s a good read and an essential addition to any sci-fi buff’s bookshelf. This book sets the standard for everything modern sci-fi readers expect from a robot story.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Deception by Roald Dahl

As a child, I loved almost everything Roald Dahl ever wrote. Deception is certainly not for children but it is an excellent collection of short stories all dealing with theme of lies and deceit. Some of the stories are quite dark (for instance, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ deals with a woman who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb then feeds it to the police) while others are a little more lighthearted. I loved it. I think you will, too.

My rating: 4 stars

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Lewis is probably more famous for the The Chronicles of Narnia and his assorted theological texts but this book (the first in ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’) is well worth a look anyway. Hard sci-fi fans, don’t waste your time. This is a story about a man who travels to Mars, but Lewis’ idea of space is clearly grounded in his interest in mythology rather than modern cosmology. Treat it as a fairy-tale rather than a sci-fi, though, and it’s a darn good read.

My rating: 4 stars


Phew! Well, that was different!

Until next time!

A Fanciful Tale of Heroes and Call Centres

It’s been a while since I posted one of my own humble stories, so I’ve quickly knocked together this little bit of nonsense for your enjoyment. Unlike a lot of the stories I’ve published on the site before, this is not a rejected competition entry. I wrote it for no purpose other than to amuse myself and hopefully, dear reader, to amuse you as well. I suppose it’s best described as a fantasy (since it features heroes guilds and all that kind of stuff) but it also draws heavily on some of my own less fantastic experiences. It also happens to be a little experiment in writing a story using minimal narration; it’s almost entirely dialogue. As ever, this story is entirely my own work and has never been published anywhere else, whether online or in print. I hope you enjoy it.

—-

I Need A Hero

by Andrew Ferguson

 

Brrp, brrp.

Brrp, brrp.

‘Good afternoon, you are through to the Free National Heroes Service. My name is Colin, how may I help you?’

‘Yes, good morning, I’d like to book a knight please, for three o’clock tomorrow.’

‘Oook, if you just give me a minute I’ll take some details off you…’

‘OK.’

‘Now you do understand I can’t guarantee it’ll be a knight because—’

‘Why not?’

‘Well you see—’

‘It really needs to be a knight, I always get one. If you check your records you’ll see, I always get a knight.’

‘Oook… well, let me just take your details then and I’ll have a look for you, OK? What’s your name please?’

‘Shona Forrester.’

‘And your date of birth?’

‘Age of Esfin, 03, 36.’

‘Aaaand your address?’

‘0/1 1236 Esclimber Way’

‘That’s great, thanks. Oook, you don’t seeeeem to be registered on our system just now but that’s OK, I’ll just add you on—’

‘Sorry, what do you mean I’m not registered? I’ve had heroes out here loads of times and I’ve always got a knight. It’s never been a problem before. Has it all changed now?’

‘No, madam, as I tried to explain before, we’ve only ever had three categories of hero available. You can have a warrior, a mage or a ranger. And you’re definitely not on our system either, but that’s no problem, I’ve just added you on now.’

‘Oh! So I can’t have a knight then?’

‘I’m afraid it’s out of my hands madam, the best I can do is put you down for a warrior and I’ll put it in your notes that you wanted a knight. That way Control will see that on their screens when they come to allocate heroes and will do what they can to accommodate you.’

‘So I should still get a knight then?’

‘I really wouldn’t like to make any promises, madam, but the Controllers will do their very best if there’s one available. You will definitely be able to get a warrior but that’s all I can say for certain until you’re assigned a hero in the morning.’

‘It’s never been a problem getting a knight before but right, whatever… well, OK. Can I go now?’

‘Nooo, not quite yet, I still need to take a few details off you first if you don’t mind. Now was it AM or PM tomorrow you wanted this for?’

‘PM, three o’clock please.’

‘OK, now because we’ve only got so many warriors on at one time, I obviously can’t give you a cast iron guarantee that it’ll be exactly three o’clock. It just depends what’s available. Normally what we’d do is book you in for an AM or PM slot just now and you’ll be assigned a time by the Controllers depending on when there’s a warrior available. So I’ll put you down for PM and put it in your notes that you’d prefer it for three, is that OK?’

‘Well what time is he likely to arrive then?’

‘I honestly couldn’t say for sure, madam, that’s entirely down to Control, I’m afraid. An afternoon booking could be any time between twelve o’clock and half eight.’

‘OK, make it AM then.’

‘Are you sure that’s OK? That would be any time then between nine o’clock and twelve.’

‘It’ll have to be, it’s no use him coming at all if he’s any later than three, half three at the latest, so I’ll go with AM. Can you let me know roughly what time that’s likely to be? I’ll be at work in the morning so I’ll need to ask my neighbour to let him in.’

‘Like I already said madam, I’ve no way of knowing until you’ve been allocated a hero what time it’ll be, except that it’ll be in the morning between nine and twelve. I can get Control to give you a call once you’ve been allocated if you like?’

‘Fine, thank you.’

‘Nooo problem, now I just need to check your eligibility to use this service—’

‘Why do you need to do that? I’ve had heroes out before, loads of times.’

‘I’m sorry madam, but there was definitely nothing at all on our system for you. Are you sure you didn’t use a private guild last time?’

‘No, I’ve always dialled this number. There must be something wrong with your system.’

‘Mmm, maybe but I need to check your eligibility anyway or my system won’t let me make the booking. Is that OK?’

‘How long do you think he’ll be anyway? I mean, I need to know when he’ll be back from his quest so I can make sure there’s someone in. I’ll be at work till two.’

‘Well, that really depends. I was actually just about to ask you exactly why you need a hero. I mean, is there any one else who can go for you?’

‘What difference does that make?’

‘Well, you see even though this as a free service, we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so it’s really only those who are completely unable to go on the quests themselves that we can provide this service for.’

‘Bu—!’

‘And there’s no way I could guess at how long your hero will take to complete his quest unless I know what it is. Also Control need to know in advance if he needs any special equipment; things like enchanted armour or really bulky things like rune stones or armoured horses might take a bit longer to arrange.’

‘Well, he won’t need any of that so there’s no problem.’

‘I’m sure there isn’t, but I need to ask you what his quest will be anyway or I can’t take your booking.’

‘I just need him to go to the supermarket for me. I need him to pick up some things for my son’s birthday and I can’t go ’cause I’ve got work!’

‘The supermarket?’

‘Yes. It’s never been a problem before today!’

‘I’m really sorry, you’ll need to go with a private guild for something like that.’

‘But—!’

‘I am really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. This is a free service and we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so we really can only provide this service for extremely dangerous or difficult quests and to those with a household income of less than twelve-thousand quil per year. Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

‘…’

Click.

‘Bye then.’ Click. ‘Geeeeeez… Unbelievable!’

‘Let me guess,’ said Colin’s supervisor. ‘It’s young master Forrester’s birthday again?’

‘Yeah!’

‘Hmph! That’ll be his fifth birthday this year then!’

‘Hills Like White Elephants’ – A Masterclass in Dialogue

There is an old and for the most part true adage among writers that a good writer will ‘show and not tell’. In other words, a good story ought not to be a technical report of events; rather, the reader should be made to mentally witness the events and understand for themselves what meaning there might be hidden behind them. In my opinion, there are very few authors who do this quite as well as Ernest Hemingway, and for the sake of this post I want to take a look at the way he accomplishes this using character dialogue in the short story, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ (first published in Men Without Women 1927).

‘Hills Like White Elephants’ is set in a bar at a train station in the middle of nowhere and focuses on a very awkward conversation between an American man and a girl who have been apparently having an affair. The girl is pregnant and is travelling for an abortion. She is having second thoughts about it, or perhaps more accurately is having second thoughts about the affair she is having with this (perhaps older) man. He, on the other hand, is desperate for her to have the abortion so that their life can continue as it was before she got pregnant. What is so remarkable about this story is that absolutely none of this is explicitly stated. It is simply implied, not only through what the characters say but what the characters are also not saying. Indeed, there is very little narration in the story at all (only three or four short paragraphs); the vast majority of the story (which is just shy of 1500 words long) is made up of dialogue between these two (ex?)-lovers.

This is ‘showing, not telling’ at its very finest. There’s lots that can be said about this tiny little gem but the thing I really want to talk about is Hemingway’s extraordinary use of dialogue through-out this story.

The first five hundred words or so of the story feature the two characters having the most trivial of discussions: what they are drinking. They simply do not mention their relationship, their feelings about each other, the pregnancy, the abortion or anything else of significance before this point.

Five hundred words! That’s almost a third of the story done with already and they haven’t given any hint whatsoever that they are anything more than casual acquaintances. I should also mention that during this time, the characters knock back no less than three drinks each. This is a long, drawn out conversation about nothing punctuated by awkward silences. Hemingway doesn’t need to describe the awkward silences. They’re apparent to the reader through the fact that they get through so many drinks while saying so little. If we had any doubt that the silence was a tense one, we only need to look at how quickly their trivial conversation turns into conflict:

‘Yes,’ said the girl. ‘Everything tastes of liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.’
‘Oh, cut it out.’
‘You started it,’ the girl said. ‘I was being amused. I was having a fine time.’
‘Well, let’s try and have a fine time.’
‘All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?’
‘That was bright.’
‘I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?’
‘I guess so.’

~ E. Hemingway 1927

Maybe I’m just more laid back than most, but it strikes me that these two characters are having anything but a ‘fine time’. This is a tense and awkward discussion about anything other than the one thing that’s on both of their minds.

When the conversation finally does come around to ‘the operation’, the two characters continue to dance around the subject and each other. They never once talk about a baby or an abortion, or even the fact that they have had any kind of physical relationship. Instead, Hemingway nudges the reader towards an understanding of what is going on for these two characters through their vague and awkward dialogue. The best clue we have that the girl is going for an abortion (rather than some other kind of ‘operation’) is that they are both clearly very uncomfortable about it. They talk about it with euphemisms, like how it is a ‘simple operation’ to ‘let the air in’ and so forth. This euphemism itself also gives us a clue that the girl is having something removed from her body… something they’re both embarrassed to talk about but are both desperately concerned about.

Hemingway goes on to make it apparent, through the characters’ dialogue, that these two characters have very different feelings about their situation. The man consistently tries to goad the girl into going ahead with the abortion using reassuring phrases such as ‘It’s perfectly simple’ and ‘You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it’.

There is one interesting point where the girl explicitly asks him, ‘And you really want to?’

Does he give a straight answer? No. Instead he tries again to persuade her:

‘I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.’

Even in the middle of this conversation about the actual issue they are both facing, the two characters utterly fail to communicate. They’re playing verbal tennis with each other but it is clear that they are on different wavelengths entirely. The man continually tries to persuade her that everything will be all right and that their relationship will go back to how it was when the abortion is complete; the girl, on the other hand, increasingly realises that this is not the case. When she does, she drops the conversation. She’s no longer interested in hearing his persuasions; her mind is set. Again, this is not explicitly stated by any narrative; it is simply made clear by the dialogue:

‘I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do -‘
‘Nor that isn’t good for me,’ she said. ‘I know. Could we have another beer?’
‘All right. But you’ve got to realize – ‘
‘I realize,’ the girl said. ‘Can’t we maybe stop talking?’

~ E. Hemingway 1927

Notice how the girl interrupts the man by finishing his sentence for him. She knows what he’s going to say. She’s heard him spin this line a million times before (he certainly spins it often enough during the story and goodness knows how many times before the story actually begins!). She isn’t interested in hearing it any more. In spite of his assertions that he cares about her needs, the man actually has no idea what the girl needs and is more occupied with his own fear that she might actually have this baby. The girl, on the other hand, seems to mature in wisdom almost immediately before our eyes.

This is all made clear to the reader with the narrator barely uttering a word through-out the entire story. Instead of simply being told the facts, the narrator leads us to this train station in the middle of no where and leaves us there to eavesdrop on a private conversation so that we can glean all the details for ourselves as we go.

Now that is what I call showing, not telling.

Different Seasons

SPOILER ALERT:

Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Different Seasons by Stephen King is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’ve never been a fan of horror stories (but power to you if you like them) and for that reason, I’ve avoided the work of Stephen King for far longer than is healthy for someone who claims to love a good story. However, on my birthday at the end of last year, I unwrapped not one but two Stephen King books: Different Seasons and The Green Mile (I also unwrapped Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck and a 9 book collection of Poirot novels by Agatha Christie, but that’s not important just now). I haven’t got around to reading The Green Mile yet but if it’s half as good as Different Seasons then I might have just become a Stephen King fan. It’s a fantastic book.

I would offer one word of caution to anyone who, like me, does not usually like horror but is curious about Stephen King: Different Seasons may(!) not accurately reflect the kind of stories King normally writes. As I read through Different Seasons, I was surprised by how relatively mild the horror elements were until I got to the afterword, in which King (1982, p. 672) comments,

I write true to type … at least, most of the time. But is horror all I write? If you’ve read the foregoing stories, you know it’s not … but the elements of horror can be found in all of the tales, not just in The Breathing Method – that business with the slugs in The Body is pretty gruesome, as is much of the dream imagery in Apt Pupil. Sooner or later, my mind always seems to turn back in that direction.

It’s this little afterword which leaves me wondering exactly how King’s other novels compare to this collection. That being said, the four novellas contained in this collection (Rita Hayworth and Shawkshank Redemption; Apt Pupil; The Body; The Breathing Method) certainly have their own dark threads running through them.

I don’t really want to rabbit on about Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption too much since I’ve already raved about it in a previous post but it bears mentioning. It tells the story of a friendship which develops between two prisoners in the Shawshank Penitentiary and of the final dramatic exit of both men from that prison. It features pretty much nothing in the way of supernatural horror elements but neither is it shy about giving a gritty account of life in the Shawshank Penitentiary, where most of the story is set. There are, for example, a few brutal scenes of violence including rape, though these are not overdone in a way which would make the narrative needlessly crude. In fact, I found there to be something strangely heart-warming about the main plot and the way the story ends. What really made this story stand out for me, however, was King’s superb use of narrative voice, as mentioned previously.

Like ShawshankApt Pupil is a story that does not really contain any traditional horror elements. However, it is very dark; the darkest of the four in my opinion. It is set in the fictional Californian suburb of Santo Donato and focuses on a mutually destructive relationship between an elderly Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander (a.k.a Arthur Denker) and Todd Bowden, an ‘all American kid’ with an unhealthy fixation on the Holocaust. Unlike the other three, Apt Pupil is narrated in the third person.

The story opens with the protagonist, Todd, appearing quite uninvited on Dussander’s doorstep, having already learned of Dussander’s previous life as a Nazi and his specific role in the Holocaust. Todd begins by blackmailing Dussander, threatening to expose him unless Dussander tells him gruesome and detailed stories about the Holocaust. The relationship brings out the worst qualities in both characters, eventually leading both to actual acts of murder while their mutual fear of each other forces them to continue their toxic relationship. While this is a little darker than the type of story I would normally go for, I must say that the two main characters are a master-class in constructing complex relationships between characters. Each character is unique, memorable and serves a vital function in the story (as all characters should), yet their relationships are a complex and intricately crafted web of obsession, hatred and interdependency the like of which very few other authors could hope to equal. Despite being darker than the type of thing I would normally read, it is so well written that I would have to say that, along with ShawshankApt Pupil is probably my joint-favourite story from Different Seasons.

The Body, on the other hand, was probably my least favourite of the four. It is written from the perspective of Gordon Lachance; an author, writing about an incident in his youth when he and a group of his friends, all of whom come from dysfunctional families, learned of a dead body which one of their brothers had discovered but not reported to the authorities. Lachance and his friends set out in secret to search for this body so they can ‘discover’ it and become famous. Personally, I found the narrative a little on the slow side compared to the other three novellas and while King’s use of narrative voice in this story was very good, it doesn’t come close to Red’s narration in Shawshank. The ending was also a bit of a let down. On the plus side (if you don’t like anything too dark), it is comparatively light on the physical and psychological violence found in the previous two stories.

The Breathing Method is a story within a story and is probably the closest thing to a supernatural horror to be found in the collection, though any supernatural or fantastic aspects to this story are only hinted at. The story opens with David, the protagonist of the frame narrative, being invited along to a mysterious men’s club by his boss where the members mostly read, tell stories and play pool. The rest of the novella takes the form of another character, Edward McCarron, telling David and everyone else at the club a story about an unmarried pregnant woman he once treated who was determined to have her baby despite the social and financial difficulties this would have caused her. He also tells them about an unconventional method of controlled breathing which he teaches her to use when she goes into labour, which allows him to save the baby’s life when the woman is involved in a fatal traffic accident.

All in all, Different Seasons is an excellent collection and is probably a great place for a first time reader of Stephen King to begin, especially if you’re not wild on horror. More importantly than that, the quality of the writing in all four of these stories testifies to the fact that – no matter how famous he might be for writing horror – Stephen King is no one-trick pony. Different Seasons may be a little on the dark side at points but I would still highly recommend it to even the most avid of horror-dodgers.

A French Fiction Revolution

When I was a teenager, vending machines in schools were a controversial topic. Everyone and their granny seemed to be obsessing about how they could encourage children to eat healthily, lest the words ‘CLINICALLY OBESE’ should be (figuratively) branded on their foreheads. So one day, I came in to school to discover that the vending machines that had once given out sweets, crisps and fizzy juice had been replaced with these vending machines abominations, which produced healthy snacks and bottled water.

I was appalled.

Perhaps if they had replaced them with the kind of vending machines you can now find in the French city of Grenoble, I wouldn’t have been so disgusted. In October 2015, the small but vibrant French publishing company Short Édition distributed eight ‘Distributeur d’histoires courtes’ (that’s ‘short story distributors’ to you and I)[1] to be trialled in various public locations. These machines come fully equipped with more than 600 short stories, selected by the 142,000 Short Édition readers from among the 60,000 stories on the Short Édition website[2]. With such a wide readership selecting which stories were to be included in the machine from such a rich pool of stories, it’s safe to say the user will probably get a story worth reading. The user has three categories of story to choose from: a one minute story, a three minute story or a five minute story[1][2][3][4]. What they cannot choose is which genre of story they get[2], which could be almost anything- even poetry[3].

They are proving immensely popular, with over 10,000 stories having been dispensed within the first two weeks of the machines’ release, according to Short Édition’s co-founder, Quentin Pleplé[2]. Hardly surprising, since you only have to look (discreetly) at your fellow commuters on any given day to see that the vast majority of them will have their heads buried in a newspaper, a book or (more often than not these days) a smartphone. Clearly, there is a niche in the market for commuter friendly entertainment.

Let’s be honest. People like us, who know that fiction is better than reality, only read newspapers because we know we should, not because we find them half as enjoyable as a good story.

Reading full sized novels on the bus is all well and good of course, but it also has its downsides. For a start, books are usually too large to carry around in your pocket (especially if you enjoy a hefty tome, as I do). I also find myself getting frustrated if my journey ends when I’m halfway through a chapter (call me fussy, but I find the beginning of a new chapter is a very natural place to pause).

I think we all know that we all spend more time than we should staring at mobile phones and other screens as it is. Besides, there’s nothing worse than being rudely interrupted by some ignoramus who thinks it’s acceptable to try and phone you on your smartphone when you’re trying to read some e-book you downloaded.

And of course, live theatre on the bus is just plain dangerous.

Finally, it seems that the French are revolting.

But it’s not just the commuters who are benefiting from this revolution in story distribution. The authors whose stories are included in the distributeur d’histoires courtes earn a whopping 10% of all rents paid to Short Édition from those who have one of the newfangled machines[1]. To give you some context, it costs €500 per month to rent one of these beauties,[1] which means €50 is going straight into the pockets of the authors every month. That’s about £38 sterling, which is not to be sniffed at.

If you want to try out one of these devices for yourself and don’t live anywhere near Grenoble then I’m afraid it’s fromage à pâte dure at the moment. You can’t get them anywhere else. However with a bit of luck, Short Édition will soon expand[2][4] and… who knows? Maybe soon we’ll be seeing similar devices in every train station in the world!

Vive la révolution!

 


Sources:

1.   P. Bock (22/01/2016), ‘How A City in France Got the World’s First Short-Story Vending Machines’, The New Yorker. Accessed 30/01/2016

2.   A. Flood (13/11/2015), ‘Short Story Vending Machines Press French Commutors’ Buttons’, The Guardian. Accessed 30/01/2016

3.   C. Jobson (19/11/2015), ‘Short Edition: A Short Story Vending Machine that Prints Free Stories On-Demand’, Colossal. Accessed 30/01/2016

4.   J. Shepherd (10/11/2015), ‘Short Story “Vending Machines” to be Installed in Grenoble, France’, The Independent. Accessed 30/01/2016