Short Story Shout-Out
I’m a huge fan of short stories, and it’s been a great pleasure to review multi-author anthologies, as well as collections by such writers as Lee A. Jacobus, Garnett Kilberg Cohen, Jennifer Woodworth, Dale Bridges, Wendy J. Fox, Adetokunbo Abiola, Paula Bomer, Melody Mansfield, Steven Schwartz, and Jessica Francis Kane.
But recently something occurred to me: given the wealth of literary journals publishing new stories every day, why limit myself to anthologies and collections? Why not say a few words every now and then about individual (recently published) stories that I have found especially moving, funny, thought-provoking, or wonderfully strange? So this will be the first of what I hope will be somewhat regular posts about just those kinds of stories. The pieces discussed in this post come from two fairly new journals: The Offing and Pear Drop.
In the “wonderfully strange” category, I’d put the following story, by Bosnian playwright Tanja Sljivar: “Stillborn: A Monologue Delivered by Duchess Sophie von Chotek, Assassinated in 1914 with Husband Archduke Franz Ferdinand.” The stage directions at the start of the story tell us that the duchess will be delivering the monologue from her coffin.
One of the things I loved about “Stillborn” is the way it gets at the mysteries surrounding even famous, world-changing personalities and events: in this case, the assassination that sparked the First World War. The duchess first tells us that she was pregnant at the time she was killed. Then, she assures us that she wasn’t. Later, when she mentions calming words she spoke to her husband in Sarajevo’s City Hall, before the two of them were driven to their deaths, she acknowledges that the specifics of those words are lost to time: “That thing I said … could have been a big secret, it could have been both beautiful and ugly, it could have been I love you, it could have been don’t get hysterical, don’t make a fool of yourself, you’re making yourself look like a peacock, it could have been it will all be over soon. …”
The story reminded me how the absence of certainties, or even likelihoods, about historical figures or events never holds us back from making vivid stories from whatever fragments are available, even if those fragments consist largely of rumors or hearsay. In fact, it’s at times when mystery meets tragedy that creating stories may feel most essential.
This journal has published a number of really funny, and thought-provoking, stories by Scott Pilkington, a self-described “expert in crisps” who “enjoys green tea, whiskey and investigating the physical manifestations of the universe with Google Image Search.” I was especially taken by two connected stories, “First Time Buyers” and “A Visitor,” told from the point of view of “an estate agent … tasked with the impossible: offloading Planet Earth to wary and reluctant customers.”
In “First Time Buyers,” two gentlemen come by the office of the agent, who takes out a globe so the three of them can look over Earth’s features. The agent begins by describing the property as “barely used,” and here’s a bit of what happens from there:
“I mean, there’s a little bit of wear and tear.”
“What’s that?” one said, pointing somewhere in Eastern Europe.
“Oh that’s just Chernobyl.”
“Had a bit of an accident there.”
“Yes, but it’s fine now.”
“Just don’t ever go there.”
Things don’t improve from this point. In the second story, “A Visitor,” it’s God who stops by the agent’s office, to check in on a particular market prospect: again, Earth. When the agent brings out the globe once more, things don’t go any better than they did with the two gentlemen. Here’s just a sampling of how God reacts to what’s become of his/her creation:
“That’s just London, God, don’t panic, it’s just London.”
“WHAT LIVES THERE, A FUCKING BLIND ROBOT?”
“WHERE’S … IT USED TO BE GREEN, WHAT IS ALL THIS SHIT?”
“That’s … it’s … it’s called infrastructure.”
“First Time Buyers” and “A Visitor” are as funny as they’re dark, and they get at uncomfortable truths in fresh ways.
A final word: If a recently published story has knocked your socks off and you would like me to feature it in a future Short Story Shout-Out, please reach out to me at smallpresspicks (at) gmail.com. And if you have the time and inclination, please say a few words about why you were especially taken by the story (or stories) you’re recommending. Thanks!