A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the idea of focusing on short stories rather than full-length books for our summer reading lists. Although no one else has yet picked up the challenge, I have already barreled ahead on my own.
Having picked up a copy of the May/June Fantasy & Science Fiction journal, I read two stories in particular that really stood out for me.
Sins and Dwarves
The first was Hilary Goldstein‘s Seven Sins for Seven Dwarves, a fantasy re-telling of the story of Snow White, in which the Dwarves have each been charged by God with the imprisonment of a demon. These seven demons, as you have probably guessed, embody the Seven Deadly Sins, and each Dwarf keeps his demon locked in a chest at the foot of his bed.
Or, do they?
Being a religious scholar by formal education, I have a rather sophisticated view of the Seven Deadly Sins, and Goldstein’s organization of them was a little disappointing to me for that reason. Also, in places, the writing seemed a bit simplistic and first-drafty.
Even so, the core idea was so engaging, and my curiosity to see where Goldstein would follow the original tale and where she would diverge was so strong, that this turned out to be one of my favorite stories. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is a morally sophisticated tale with a denouement that is counter-intuitive yet satisfying.
Vampires and Heroes
The second was actually a “novelet” by Aaron Schutz rather than a short story. Not sure whether a “novelet” differs from a “novelette” (I didn’t count the words) or if this is simply F&SF‘s in-house spelling.
In any case, the title of this story was Dr. Death vs. the Vampire. To be honest, I would not have chosen this story to read from the table of contents, because I am wary of vampire stories after observing first-hand how Twilight has transformed the vampire myth into a sad, Jonas Brothers purity ring masturbation fantasy for Middle School girls.
There, did half the readers click away in bitterness? Okay.
However, I opened to the first page of DvsV because that page had crinkled when I last tossed the journal into my book-bag a few days before. And, after wrinkling my nose at the title, I noticed that the first section of the story was called “The Unwashed Masses,” a phrase I had just deployed that very morning in a rant about the publishing industry.
“Alright, hypothetical Angel of Fate,” I thought insanely to myself, “I’ll take your two hints and give this vampire story a go.” I was not disappointed.
Now, a few pages into the story, the narrator starts to joke about one of the other characters being an “almost-superhero” and superheroes are another trope about which I am wary. However, by the time it becomes obvious that the eponymous Dr. Death in fact seriously considers himself an almost-superhero — former member of the League of Almost-Superheroes — the narrator and his predicament had me hooked.
Dr. Death is an empathic Kevorkian, a psychic who is able to detect the hopeless suffering of others, and has taken it upon himself to relieve them of it. Terminally. This unusual sense of duty explains the “former” in “former member of the League of Almost-Superheroes.” They found him a little icky.
While on a cross-country bus ride (another not-so-subtle nudge from Fate, since the only vampire story I ever wrote took place entirely on a cross-country bus) Dr. Death encounters Schutz’s vision of a vampire: a being with no feelings of its own, and therefore invisible to Dr. Death’s empathy.
These vampires thrive on the emotions of their victims, which they are able to tap into by touch. Since suffering is easier to cause and maintain than joy, they tend to kidnap their victims and milk them for their pain. With no other special powers — at least, none that the story mentions — these vampires are like sociopathic serial killers on psychic steroids.
And, they don’t sparkle and aren’t dreamy. They are, as vampires should be, creepy.
But, what really intrigued me most about the story, as a writer, is how full of exposition it was.
Before starting on this short story experiment, I had opened The Lord of the Rings and began reading the first bits, which are entirely exposition. Now, writing advice gurus will tell you that you can’t do this. Too much exposition anywhere is a bad thing, and starting your story with it is just literary suicide.
But, Tolkien worked it. And, so does Schutz in DvsV. This is not to say there isn’t action in the novelet (wait until you read how Dr. Death finally turns the tables on the vampire) but the exposition and back-story are still damned interesting.
The key, if I were to make an Advice From A Dude entry on this, is not how much exposition your story contains or where (so long as it’s not just one long background essay) but whether you have the writerly skills to make background info interesting for the reader to read. It’s not easy. I would say it’s definitely harder than making dialogue and action interesting.
But it’s possible. If you want to see how it’s done, check out Dr. Death vs. the Vampire.
The May/June edition of F&SF is off the shelves now, but if you luck into a copy at your public library, I whole-heartedly recommend these two stories.