Sunday, 25 October 2015

Short Story Sunday 05: Halloween Edition - George R. R. Martin and Stephen King

It’s time for another special edition of Short Story Sunday. It seemed like a no-brainer to use Halloween as an excuse to read horror short stories. I decided to check out a collection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories from George R. R. Martin and well as explore the earliest stories of Stephen King. I enjoyed myself so much I might just do this every year.

“The Pear-Shaped Man” by George R. R. Martin
Read in Dreamsongs volume 1 (2007), a collection of works by George R. R. Martin
Originally published in Omni (October 1987)

“The Pear-Shaped Man” is a very creepy story. I was pretty grossed out while reading it and I have to admit it’s going to be a really long time until I ever eat cheezies again. The story is about the titular Pear-Shaped Man. You know who I’m talking about, you’ve seen him. He’s very odd and Martin describes him exceedingly well. Even without a description you can probably get a sense of the kind of character the story refers to. In essence, he’s noticeably strange while also appearing rather harmless. Martin conveys the banality of the man while also convincing the reader of his unnatural creepiness. You, as the reader, want to get to the bottom of it. Who is the Pear-Shaped Man and why is he so damn eerie?

Jessie, who just moved into a new apartment with her roommate Angela, gets to find out all about the Pear-Shaped Man. He lives in the apartment below them and he quickly develops a fascination with Jessie. She bumps into him often, at the grocery store, outside, in the laundry room. He leaves little stacks of Cheeze Doodles lying around for her. He haunts her, essentially. After Jessie’s friends urge her to confront her unnatural fears of this odd but certainly harmless man, she goes to visit him in his apartment. There, she discovers the true horror of his being and her life is changed forever.

Ranking: 4 stars
I can't say I particularly enjoyed this story. That's not entirely true, I enjoyed the beginning of it and the simplicity of the premise but the more the story progressed the more I wanted it to end. Martin made me uneasy. I’m surprised that Martin managed to make the Pear-Shaped Man so familiar yet also very, very frightening. The story's ending, which I won't spoil for you, reveals an unexpected theme and gives the story some depth. Don’t read it before bed, like I did.

“Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin
Read in Dreamsongs volume 1 (2007), a collection of works by George R. R. Martin
Originally published in Omni (August 1979)

Following his return from a long business trip, Simon Kress, a collection of dangerous and exotic animals is looking for a new pet after most of his other animals died while he was away. He finds Sandkings in a mysterious shop called Wo & Shade. There, he purchases four little armies of small, sand dwelling insects that operate with a hive mind. They build sand castles to protect the maw, their queen which is essentially a large mouth and a womb. If left alone and in relative proximity, the different castles will wage war against each other and the owner can watch it play out. They’re pets, they’re entertainment, and they also become a party trick for Kress and his friends.

Soon, he starts to starve his new pets to make them wage war according to his schedule. Kress enjoys freaking people out by having his alien insects fight against foes other than themselves. Larger and larger animals are thrown into the tank. After an accident resulting in the tank breaking, the Sandkings are loosed and Kress finds himself dealing with an infestation of dangerous and rapidly growing omnivores.

People who think of Martin as the American Tolkien have obviously never read any of his work out of the Song of Ice and Fire series. The man’s short stories can be absolutely terrifying. “Sandkings” proves this. It’s gruesome while also being very, very engaging. There is a driving energy, pushing the plot and the reader forward without a desire to stop even though the bloody and very scary parts. It’s one of Martin’s most popular works outside of Song of Ice and Fire. It’s been adapted to the small screen as the premier episode of The Outer Limits revival in the 90s and it’s been spoofed in The Simpsons, South Park, and Futurama though I haven’t noticed since I’ve only recently read the story.

It’s easy to see why this story is so popular. It’s difficult to summarize without giving too much away but the plot is definitively more involved than what I make it seem. There are also interesting themes at work but, again, if I were to write about them extensively, I’d be ruining some of the story’s impact. If you like monsters and increasingly difficult situations, this is a story for you.

Ranking: 5 stars
A masterful blend of science fiction and horror, “Sandkings” is the best short story I’ve read in a while. I found it utterly fascinating and very gross, but it a way that avoided being off-putting. The pacing of the story was superb and it was richer in detail than I had expected. It’s a classic to be enjoyed by fans of genre storytelling.

“The Boogeyman” by Stephen King
Read in Night Shift (1978), a collection of short stories by Stephen King
Originally published in Cavalier (March 1973)

A very straightforward story, a man visits a psychiatrist to talk about his experience with the Boogeyman who haunted his house and caused the death of this three baby children. He’s not there for treatment. He just has to get the knowledge of what really happened off his chest. The police have filed all three deaths as accidental death (crib death, falling out of a crib, etc.). “The Boogeyman” ends with a twist ending that is not only unnecessary, it goes a long way to ruining most of the story up to that point.

What works best here isn’t the monster or the haunting or the deaths. What works is the narrative. King proves that even when he’s telling a subpar story he still has a knack for making dialogue and narration a very human and colourful sound. As an auditory medium, the use of words and giving characters a unique or memorable parlance can go a long way to making a written story engaging. Comic book master Garth Ennis knows this and so does Stephen King.

Ranking: 2 stars
The story and the monster were less than thrilling. The deaths themselves were scary and horrific, but I think that’s due to them being the death of babies rather than it being anything particularly frightening. I enjoyed the telling of the story more than the story itself.

“Jerusalem’s Lot” by Stephen King
Read in Night Shift (1978), a collection of short stories by Stephen King
Originally published in Night Shift (1978), a collection of short stories by Stephen King

I was a little surprised by “Jerusalem’s Lot”. It’s different from other short stories I’ve read by King. It’s set primarily during the mid-1800s. It’s a prequel of sorts to ‘Salem Lot but you don’t need to have read that novel in order to enjoy it. The connection is mostly there to show you that Jerusalem’s Lot has been a focal point for dark forces hundreds of years before the events of the novel. There are some neat connections between both stories, but I think only diehard King fans will get much of a kick out of it.

What I liked about it was that it’s a straight up gothic haunted mansion story with bonus ghost town and haunted church thrown in. Told through letters and journal entries, the story is about Charles Boone’s arrival at his familial mansion just outside of Preacher’s Corners and near the abandoned town of Jerusalem’s Lot. What appears to be an exciting old house in quaint part of Maine, turns out to be a repository for decades old nightmares and other assorted horrors. That noise might sound like rats in the walls but I can assure you it’s something far more unpleasant.

Ranking: 4 stars
This is one of my favourite King short stories. I liked the story and I was particularly impressed with how king managed to be convincing in his writing. The letters read as something that would have been written in 1850. He builds very good atmosphere in this tale and that kind of things work really well with gothic stories.

No comments:

Post a Comment