“Stories Time!”

Tonight is my book club’s annual “Short Story Month” (where instead of reading a single book, we read short stories; each member picks a story for the group to read); this year we had eight of our nine members suggest a short story. I finished reading the last of them last night and… I liked them all! A few brief thoughts follow:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”

This story was totally NOT what I was expecting. I guess I should’ve known that Fitzgerald was capable of a story like this since we read his “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” a couple of years ago, but this one blew me away. The protagonist is a young man sent off to prep school where he disappointedly marvels at the “exceeding sameness” of his classmates. He does bond with one of them however, and is invited to spend a holiday with the family at their home out west. His new friend Percy brags that his father is the richest man in the whole world and owns a diamond “as big as the a Ritz Carlton” hotel. The visit leads him to a kind of domestic Shangri-La which Percy’s father stops at nothing to protect. A fantastical story which I enjoyed quite a bit. I also discovered on YouTube a copy of an old radio theater adaptation of the story which I listened to with amusement. I’ll try to add a link to that when I find it again.

Jack London’s “A Piece of Steak”

This one was my pick. I read it during one of my favorite high school English classes. It’s a classic story of the age old struggle between youth and experience. Dramatically taking the form of a wily old prizefighter’s bout against an “up and coming” contender who has strength but not experience. London’s descriptions of the characters are extremely well done. Sadly, I’m reaching the age where this theme is of more interest to me than I’d like to admit…

Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

This was probably the third or fourth time I’ve read this story, which is found in many anthologies. Taking place during the American Civil War, it deals with the execution – by hanging – of a man who tried to sabotage the bridge in the title of the story. What the reader is treated to is a Twilight Zone-esque tale with a twist of an ending. Good stuff.

Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki Tikki Tavi”

I haven’t read Kipling in awhile, but he did happen to write one of my all-time favorite stories, “The Brushwood Boy.” <insert goosebumps> This particular story deals with the time honored, proverbial fight between a Cobra and a Mongoose, and is set in colonial India. It reads a bit like a children’s tale but, I believe, still makes great reading for adults. It called to mind for me a book I read one summer during my college years that dealt with the history of The British East India Company and all the exotic lands it controlled. Sadly, looking back today, I can recall almost nothing of the details of that book. 😦

“Casey at the Bat” – a poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

Short and sweet. This famous poem is not dissimilar from the “Tortoise and the Hare” fable where overconfidence meets its comeuppance. Today’s readers can scarcely know how popular this poem was in its day, and how deeply woven into the public consciousness it was.  My dad would frequently quote from it (a favorite taunt of his during any kind of game where he held the advantage was “it’s looking dark in Mudville…”) and I suspect it was well known in his family when he was growing up. This poem, like several of our stories this month, touches on a classic theme too – in this case the “hubris” of “The Mighty Casey.”

“A Shameful Affair” by Kate Chopin

This one may have been the least memorable of this group, and I’m not sure I like the ending, where the readers kind of left to speculate about just what has happened. I think I know, but am also anxious to hear what my fellow club members think tonight. The story, in a nutshell, is about a bored “aristocratic” girl who has a dalliance with a rough around the edges farmhand (who is an eminently more likable character than she is) and the consequences that follow.

Alice Hoffman’s “The Conjurer’s Notebook”

This author may be the “discovery” of this year’s Short Story Month for me. It certainly wins the Oscar for “Best Character” in the form of the female character, Dorey, who lived (by her wits) through the holocaust, marries an American soldier and returns to America, where she meets his possessive grandmother, Violet. I loved this story and am eager to read more by this author. As Hoffman describes, Dorey is one of those people who “knew how to deal with what happened to them in this world” while “others do not.”

A.M. Burrage’s “Smee”

I’ve read this story many times. It’s one of my favorite ghost stories ever, and I’ve written about it here on this blog before, so I’ll just refer you my previous post.

Links to most of these stories are posted at my book club’s website (see blogroll to the left) if you’d like to read some of them for free.

What about you, do you have experience with any of these authors or stories? Are any of them among your favorites? Would you recommend other stories by them?

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“…out of the darkness beside me the whisper came: `Brenda Ford’.”

I divide the people I know who are avid readers of ghost stories into two groups:  Those who’ve read “Smee” by A.M. Burrage and those who have not.  It’s not particularly horrible.  It’s not graphic.  It’s not violent or gory. It’s not necessarily the best written ghost story I’ve ever read either. But it never fails to turn the skin on my forearms into gooseflesh.

A party of twelve people in a large old English house with “lots of unnecessary passages and staircases” decides to turn out the lights and play a sort of grownup version of hide and seek.  The rules of the game, Smee, are as follows (described by the author):

It’s much better than hide and seek. The name comes from “It’s me”, of course. Perhaps you’d like to play it instead of hide and seek. Let me tell you the rules of the game. Every player is given a sheet of paper. All the sheets except one are blank. On the last sheet of paper is written “Smee”. Nobody knows who “Smee” is except “Smee” himself – or herself. You turn out the lights, and “Smee” goes quietly out of the room and hides. After a time the others go off to search for “Smee” – but of course they don’t know who they are looking for. When one player meets another he challenges him by saying, “Smee”. The other player answers “Smee”, and they continue searching. But the real “Smee” doesn’t answer when someone challenges. The second player stays quietly beside him. Presently they will be discovered by a third player. He will challenge and receive no answer, and he will join the first two. This goes on until all the players are in the same place. The last one to find “Smee” has to pay a forfeit. It’s a good, noisy, amusing game. In a big house it often takes a long time for everyone to find “Smee”.

(I have no idea where the house pictured below is, but I do not doubt it could host a robust game of Smee…)

Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it?  Well it would be, if you weren’t playing in a house that also had a spectral inhabitant.  In this story, the presence of the spirit becomes known by degrees – First by a seeming mis-count of the number of players in the game.  Oh well, no problem, the counter must’ve just counted himself twice, right?  Let’s try again.  Twelve this time.  That’s much better.  Second, by the young son of the hosts, who thinks he found ‘smee’ in a large cupboard (‘touching a hand’) but when the lights come on, there’s no one there.  Oh well, no problem, kids have such active imaginations – especially in a house with all the lights off.  But when the narrator himself thinks HE has found ‘smee’ and sits with her on a window seat for some time, well… you can just read for yourself.  It may be found on-line at: http://www.scaryforkids.com/smee/

Enjoy – and let me know what you think of “Smee.”  Don’t be shy, it’s jus’mee…

(A.M. Burrage)