Two horror shorts by Jason Arnopp

A few months back, I read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Jason Arnopp’s The Last Days of Jack Sparks, a fiendishly clever and twisted piece of unreliable narration that tells of the title character’s last days, in a posthumously edited manuscript that…well, it’s hard to explain. The short version is, Jack Sparks gripped me from the get-go, creating a rich world all through a compelling narrator’s voice, then plunging me into a twisty, unpredictable, bizarre story of ghosts, haunting, and the supernatural. So, finding out that Arnopp had not one but two short pieces available for incredibly low prices online, I wanted to check them out and see if Arnopp was a one-trick pony or not.

51kdfssa4ilBased off of A Sincere Warning about the Entity in Your Home, the answer is definitely not. Taking the form of an anonymous letter written to a new homeowner, the letter tells the story of the home’s previous occupant, who came to realize that they were feeling less and less well-rested the longer they lived in the house. And then, there’s the night she wakes up in the middle of the night and understands why. Entirely crafted in the second person, A Sincere Warning features so much of what made Jack Sparks so great – great, unsettling horror, yes, but also a wonderfully complicated narrator whose voice tells you more about them than any exposition ever could (and who begins to reveal more and more the longer the letter continues), written with supreme control and a wonderfully natural feel. The second-person narration works better than you’d think, adding to the unease, but really, this one is a testament to how good Arnopp is as a natural writer of dialogue, making it all feel real and plausible. It’s slight, sure, but that comes along with the tight length, and really, it’s hard to argue that adding more would have made it any better. Still, it means it’s a bit of a popcorn read – it’s just a good one. (Also, apparently you can have the story sent as an anonymous letter to a friend, which sounds like an amazing idea.) Rating: **** ½

28961798But once I finished A Sincere Warning, I found that Arnopp offered a free novella for signing up for his newsletter. As a result, not long after, I found myself reading American Hoarder, which finds an unnamed narrator discussing the fabled “lost episode” of the titular reality TV show. You can guess from the title what kind of show this is, and Arnopp has a lot of fun giving us the perspective of a jaded, long-suffering professional on shows like these, with discussions about the ideal arc of the show (initial help leads to first effort, which has to relapse, which has to try to redeem), the best houses, the most disturbing collections, and so forth. But we know, given the nature of most of Arnopp’s work, where this is going – and it won’t be pretty. Hoarder doesn’t work quite as well as Warning does – the horror here feels a little more abstract, and the ending of the story doesn’t really give a great final sting so much as it feels a little confusing. (The ending of the main story, anyways; there’s a nice little stinger that will appeal to fans of Jack Sparks.) Nonetheless, I still enjoyed American Hoarder; once again, Arnopp’s knack for bringing voices to life is really great, and how much he’s able to really build not only this character, but the whole setting of the story, in such a short time makes for a solid read. It’s not his best, but it’s still a good story, and the writing is so enjoyable that I’m fine with some of the weaker plotting. Rating: ****

A Sincere Warning about the Entity in Your Home (Amazon) | American Hoarder (

Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell / ****

9780307947475In some ways, I wish I had read Karen Russell’s short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove before I started reading the stories and work of George Saunders, because there are so many times that I couldn’t help but compare the two writers. Both are writers who eschew the literary pretensions that come along with so many modern “literary” writers, instead dabbling in magical realism, horror, and other fantastic elements. Both are dryly funny, mixing satire and odd humor with more thoughtful content. Both write beautifully, crafting exquisite phrases and fascinating descriptions that make their stories more satisfying than many whole novels by lesser writers.

And yet, the Saunders comparison hurts Vampires so much because of the fact that Saunders is, quite frankly, better at stories than Russell is. Take the title story, which follows a pair of vampires as they navigate their centuries-long relationship. It’s an offbeat story, with imagination to spare, but falls back into the cryptic, symbolic, vague ending so popular with “literary” fiction. That problem haunts the similarly promising but ultimately frustrating and irritating “Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979”, in which a young man seems to be getting messages from the cosmos via a swarm of seagulls…and nothing else ever becomes clear or meaningful. And while “Proving Up” opens with a science-fiction take on the Homestead Act and the way we all find meaning in our possessions and property, the ending doesn’t feel of a piece with the rest of the story before it, and left me wondering what I was supposed to get out of it.

And yet, some of the stories are pure joy. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is a hilarious riff on sports tailgating, one that finds spectators cheering the “Food Chain” game, hoping against hope for the underdog krill to finally devour whales, all as the narrator gradually reveals more and more of his own personal history. There’s also the gleefully weird “Barn at the End of Our Term,” in which a number of former American presidents find themselves reincarnated as horses in a country barn for no apparent reason. Both of these stories steer into their absurdity, embracing the anarchy and silliness and letting the richness come from not only the weird world, but also from the way Russell keeps it grounded in her characters. In similar ways, there’s “Reeling for the Empire,” which follows a group of Japanese girls who have been drafted into silk production for the Empire…by means of turning into silkworms. The result is fascinating and incredibly strange; yes, it’s ultimately a little overlong, and feels a little aimless, but the imagination and writing are superb. Best of all is “New Veterans,” the story of a massage therapist who’s assigned to help veterans returning from the Middle East conflicts. What starts as the most grounded and plausible story takes a surreal turn early on, and ends up becoming a thoughtful, complex meditation on memory, healing, pain, and regret, all while managing to be a story about a very vivid tattoo whose realism becomes unsettling.

I want to be clear – I liked a lot about Vampires in the Lemon GroveYes, I couldn’t help but compare the collection to another author, one whom I love. And yes, it might not help that the collection’s weaker stories are in the first half, setting things off to a lackluster opening. But the more I look over the contents, the more I find to like about the collection. Moreover, the fact that Russell is so open to genre fare – to fantasy, to science-fiction, to magical realism – that’s no small thing. Yes, I’d like her to lose her most “literary, New Yorker” tendencies. But there’s a lot here to enjoy, and I’ll definitely try on more of her work for size.


Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi / *****

pumpsixandotherstories-paolobacigalupiOne of my favorite little things about picking up a science fiction short story collection by an author I’ve never read is figuring out what kind of sci-fi I’m getting into. Is this going to be the hard, science-focused work of an Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Charles Wilson? The softer, more adventurous style of something like Star Wars or Dean Wilson’s Coilhunter? The darker, slightly satirical cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson? Am I getting steampunk or post-apocalyptic, philosophical or scientific, satirical or exciting? Or, best of all, will I get some weird blend of all of them?

In many ways, that last one is what I got with Pump Six and Other Stories, my first exposure to the work of author Paolo Bacigalupi. There’s no small amount of cyberpunk to this world; in most of these stories, there’s a sense of a world ruled by corporations and technology, one in which the world and society have changed as a result of the two blending together. From the living organic skyscrapers of ”Pocketful of Dharma” to the bioengineered crops of “The Calorie Man,” from the genetic supermen of “The People of Sand and Slag” to the human art projects represented by the title of “The Fluted Girls,” Bacigalupi is fascinated by the directions that technology is taking us, and where it could go if it’s unchecked by humanity or morality.

And really, that’s more where Bacigalupi’s voice comes through. For all of his fantastical (and often nightmarish) visions, Pump Six is ultimately a series of stories about situations in which humans have allowed their morals to be subjugated by the world around them – a theme that makes for a bleak set of stories indeed. Clans grapple with legacies of violence and xenophobia, and a priest is forced to think about what must be done to end it. A man murders his wife and finds that the world moves on just as merrily as it did before. The last thinking man in a city realizes that the world around him has no interest in knowledge, work, or survival, and no one minds. People are treated like commodities, societies are left to starve in the name of corporate profit, genetic engineering makes monsters in the name of progress – but whatever the situation, the world seems to move on without a single worry.

That all makes Pump Six sound like a more overwhelming and crushing experience than it really is. No, this isn’t exactly a collection of rainbows and kittens, but focusing on the bleak themes doesn’t do justice to the sheer life and imagination on display in these stories. Within a narrow window of pages, Bacigalupi doesn’t just manage to tell a story; he creates complex ecosystems, full societies and worlds with their own history and sense of progress. And his characters get no less care, with Bacigalupi bringing them all to life with the careful sketching and outlining of an artist. Look no further than the tragic life of “The Yellow Card Man,” a man struggling to survive a world that he was once on top of, and constantly battling against the indignities and cruelties that fate has dropped on him. What could easily be a portrait of simple misery becomes more compelling and tragic in his hands, becoming as much a story about how this all happened as it this man’s life.

No, you’ll never mistake Bacigalupi for an optimist. But you’ll also realize within a page that you’re in the hands of a master, a man with ambitious, fascinating visions not just about technology, but about people and their relationships with the world around them. More than that, he brings sharp craft, careful prose, and great storytelling to bear. It all makes for a phenomenal collection, and one well worth reading. Just don’t expect a happy ride in the process.


Pastoralia, by George Saunders / *****

europastoraliaThere may be no short story writer alive than George Saunders, and that’s no small praise; indeed, you could even argue that with his talent, he ranks among the great writers of the day, full stop. (How his talent will hold up in novel form, I look forward to discovering when his first novel is released next week.) Veering between social commentary and dark satire, between biting comedy and empathetic character studies, Saunders brings his bizarre, off-kilter worlds to life with his rich, fascinating prose and compelling dialogue. His second short story collection, Pastoralia, is no exception, making me laugh out loud frequently while never shirking from his craft.

As always, Saunders love of bizarre, excessive amusement/theme parks is evident, whether it’s the recreated Stone Age cave of the title story (where the actors are expected to stay in character even when no one else is around, and the corporate management communicates through bizarre, rambling memos) or the intricately structured strip club of “Sea Oak.” But he also loves his misfits, whether it’s the bullied young man of “The End of FIRPO in the World,” the harried title character in “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” or the motivational speaker attendee of “Winky”, who just wants to work up the nerve to kick his sister out. Indeed, pretty much every character has their struggles, their neuroses, their fears, and all of them fear that life has passed them by – and in most cases, it has.

In lesser hands, that would depressing, bleak fare. But Saunders’ prose and observational style make his stories uproariously funny at times, as characters lose themselves in imagining how others will treat them, engage in long dialogues with themselves, or the situations just get increasingly bizarre. From actors playing cavemen trying to ignore faxes to ghosts that do little more than angrily yell at everyone, from unlikely heroes to fantasy lives that far surpass anything in waking lives, Saunders infuses all of it with a sense of wry wit, but also affection for his characters that keeps the stories from being bleak. Instead, they become universal, clinging to big feelings and emotions that we all have, satirizing human (and corporate) foibles beautifully, and just generally entertaining with their absurdity, heart, and soul.

In other words, it’s more typical greatness from Saunders, who seems incapable of doing anything less than creating rich worlds and complex characters, all without missing a beat with his offbeat prose and rich descriptions. And if you can’t empathize with his flawed, failing, but still human characters, then I can’t imagine that you’ve lived any kind of life at all, because these are universal tales. Off the wall, funny, and satirical, and yet universal in the best way.



Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang / *****

51fhqvpotulLike many people (I assume), I had never heard of author Ted Chiang before seeing the remarkable film Arrival, based off of his story “Story of Your Life”. But given my deep love of that film – and the heady, complex concepts it covers – I was intrigued to see what kind of story could have inspired such a complex piece of work. That only deepened as I heard more about Chiang – his astonishing reputation, the comments that the film was much more like the story than you might expect, etc.

Chiang isn’t exactly a prolific author; he mainly writes novellas and short stories, and it’s notable that this collection represents a large percentage of what he’s written, period. And yet, almost every one of these stories was released to astonishing acclaim, awards, and praise; what Chiang may lack in quantity, he more than makes up for in quality, given than this collection features some of the most fascinating, astonishing, thoughtful pieces of science fiction writing I have ever read, period.

Much like you might expect from Arrival, Chiang takes on complex, heady ideas, and runs with them in imaginative ways that push them to their utmost. The opening story, “Tower of Babylon,” is essentially a retelling of the Tower of Babel story…at first. But in Chiang’s rendition, the tower has reached Heaven. Entire communities exist at various points on the tower, adjusted to life at that point. Plants grow downward, in an effort to reach down to the sun, which the tower has surpassed. Stars crash into apartments. Bricks fall from the tower and are more heartbreaking to lose than people, simply because of the time to replace. And if all that’s not enough, there’s what’s waiting for them at the top, which is both astonishing and inevitable, adding even more complexity to Chiang’s rich world.

Or take “Seventy-Two Words,” in which Chiang imagines an alternate history in which the idea of the golem – an inanimate object brought to life by a sheet of paper with its name – becomes a field of study and a way of life. The nature of names becomes its own science, as automatons are shaped and reformed throughout generations. And what’s more, by understanding how these automatons work, we come to understand how human beings work, on a biological and spiritual level, in ways that we never imagined. Perhaps you’re more intrigued by “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” an oral history of a movement to shut off the parts of our brain that perceive physical beauty, and the social ramifications that follow. And if those aren’t enough, there’s the incredible “Hell is the Absence of God,” set in a world where divine appearances happen often, divine powers are applied inscrutably, and one man struggles with whether or not to believe in a God he perceives as cruel and heartless.

Chiang is a truly astonishing author, one whose ideas and worlds are so rich that they could sustain whole series of novels, not just short novellas. Even his shortest work, a faux scientific journal article that’s only a couple of pages long, gives hints about an entire alternative history of the world that he’s created in just a few pages. And yet, he never loses the chance to invest us in his characters and their worlds, filling his pages with moral questions, minor details, emotional beats, and more. That, of course, is much of what makes “Story of Your Life” so rich, as anyone who’s seen Arrival knows; that story marries rich, complex, thought-provoking ideas with an emotionally resonant, devastating hook that makes the story all the more powerful.

Chiang is that rarest of things: an incredible author who, like George Saunders, seems happiest working in short bursts, and yet one who constantly leaves you wanting more. The stories in this collection are, no exaggeration, some of the finest, richest storytelling I’ve read, leaving me thinking about their images, ideas, worlds, and characters long after I shut the book. It saddens me that there’s not much else out there of his to discover, but I’m excited to go see what I can find, and then join those who wait for his every new release.


Michael Connelly short stories

As police procedural authors go, it’s hard to think of a more reliable or interesting one than Michael Connelly, who has been writing about Harry Bosch for more than twenty years at this point. Connelly’s novels are fascinating not just as mystery stories, but as snapshots of time – they’re uniquely contemporary, reflecting concerns of the time, and letting Bosch and the other characters age in “real time”, more or less. His short stories, by definition, aren’t as complex, and feel a bit less linked to their time and place; that doesn’t, however, make them less engaging to read, just somewhat less rich.

51a3-araeylConnelly’s Angle of Investigation, then, is interesting partially just for how its three stories ran the gamut of possibilities for Connelly’s Bosch stories, in all sorts of ways – focus, approach, scale, and even quality. For instance, one story, “Christmas Even,” walks us through the mechanics of a murder investigation; the second, “Father’s Day,” mainly revolves around Bosch’s skills in the interrogation room; the third, the title story, follows Bosch using his years of experience to unravel a cold case with only one real lead. It all serves as a nice triptych of Bosch’s skills, and a sort of mosaic that presents his strengths. More than that, each gets into a different aspect of Bosch’s life: “Christmas Even” explores his isolation and love of jazz, “Father’s Day” gets into his relationship with his daughter (a bit), and “Angle of Investigation” gets into his history on the police force.

It’s the quality of each story, though, that tells you the most about them. “Christmas Even” is far and away the best of the three: it features the most compelling case, the most involved narrative, the best emotional beats for Bosch, and the most satisfying narrative that ties it all together. “Father’s Day” isn’t bad at all, though; the interrogation scene is riveting work, and a testament to Connelly’s gift for listening as cops work their magic to get a confession that they know is coming – it’s just that the Bosch emotional beats aren’t as strong. As for “Angle of Investigation,” it’s…fine, I suppose, as long as you can get past the least interesting story by far and a narrative that feels thrown together and barely holds up. There’s a great hook there, with Bosch being asked to revisit the first dead body he ever found on the force, but the story we get is weak, and far from Connelly’s usual careful work. Nonetheless, it’s a collection well worth reading, especially for fans; you have two really great ones, and even “Angle of Investigation” is intriguing for its window into a young Harry Bosch, fresh on the beat. Rating: ****

51ct9mngyzlWhat’s more interesting, if not quite as successful, is watching Connelly try on a genre he’s never messed with before: a ghost story. “The Safe Man” still features a lot of Connelly’s trademarks: great research, a lived-in character that exhibits professionalism while still managing to be a person, and an intriguing story. The hook here is simple: Brian Halloway is an expert in safes, and he’s been called in to open and disassemble a safe that a writer has found under his floorboards. But the safe doesn’t look like anything Halloway has ever seen before, and when he posts about it to a message board, he starts hearing some disturbing rumors. And things escalate from there, as Halloway ends up getting a visit from some very persistent law enforcement agents…

It’s always a risk for an author to take on a new genre, and while “The Safe Man” doesn’t wholly work, it’s not a bad effort. It helps that Connelly approaches the story like he approaches all of his work: with research, information, and craft, all of which make the world of safes every bit as interesting as any murder investigation he could craft. And even in this short story, he shows off his usual gift for character work, quickly crafting a writer character whose arrogance is a thing to behold. The problem, really, is just the “ghost story” aspect, which doesn’t really work that well; Connelly doesn’t do a great job of hiding his ghost from the reader, and while Connelly’s ultimate revelation about his ghost is an interesting one, it doesn’t feel like enough to hang a story on. “The Safe Man” is a quick read, and it moves well; it just doesn’t have any enough meat or substance to really stick with you. Rating: *** ½

Amazon: Angle of Investigation | “The Safe Man”

Einstein’s Beach House, by Jacob M. Appel / **** ½

51cyn2bj-lcl-_sy344_bo1204203200_A couple begins fighting over their new pet, a hedgehog who might be suffering from chronic depression and is seeing a pet psychiatrist. A mother is greeted at her front door by the parent of her daughter’s imaginary friend. A father who’s constructed an elaborate museum to cash in on a mislabeled house ends up running into the reality beneath it all. A turtle gets taken hostage and on the run from a former relationship.

Those are the sorts of stories you’ll find in Einstein’s Beach House, an engaging, clever set of short stories by author Jacob M. Appel. If you were to just sit and discuss the themes of the stories, you might come to conclusion that Appel is writing stories of upper-middle class ennui, and that wouldn’t necessarily be an unfair description. And yet, it would also make the stories sound more pretentious and insufferable than they really are. Instead, Appel revels in his drily silly ideas, drawing out the sly comedy in his ideas while never shirking from his characters and their personalities.

That’s not to say that every story is comedy, even dry ones. “Limerence” is the story of a childhood crush that unfolds over the years, and Appel brings out the quiet sadness of it all, both in the narrator and the subject of his fascination; “The Rod of Asclepius” tells the story of a grieving father’s relationship with his daughter, one that gradually reveals itself as something darker than it first appears. And even the more comedic ones – “La Tristesse des Herissons,” which is the story of the aforementioned depressed hedgehog – have a melancholy core (in this case, revolving around a gradually deteriorating relationship).

And yet, Appel never lets the stories become mopey or navel-gazing. There’s a quiet emotional richness to them that really works; more than that, there’s Appel’s strong literary voice, which makes the stories more complex and rich than they could easily have been. Even in his stories of failed marriages or strained parental bonds, there’s something nicely human in each of them, and enough of a literary conceit that they never become insufferable stories of rich white privilege, which I sort of dreaded they might be. (I suspect that Appel reads a lot of George Saunders, though I can’t prove that; there’s a lot of Saunders’ wit and grace with simple stories in here, which is high praise indeed.)

Einstein’s Beach House is a fast, fast read, even by short story standards – 8 stories, and less than 200 pages long – but that in no way detracts from how much enjoyment you’ll get out of them. Yes, many of them feature ambiguous endings that can sometimes feel a little incomplete, but that’s life, to no small degree; more than that, they usually feel like the right kind of incomplete for these tales. A great collection that’s well worth reading.