It's such a strange form to me, and it's a rare three-or-four page story that makes its mark on me. More than the personal impact, though, I've often wondered about the inspiration behind them. Despite my general ambivelance towards them, in a sense the short short is true writing -- they're almost like poetry, and, in fact, were some of the stories I've read just a page or two shorter they might more properly be called prose poems. I remember reading Carolyn Forche's poem "The Colonel" in college and not fully understanding its distinction as poetry, as opposed to a very, very, very short story. I guess it depends on how you market it (I like Forche's poem, for the record), but still I think working regularly in this form does indicate a certain seriousness of intent on the part of the writer, if for no other reason than because they're sure as hell not going to make any money at it.
In horror, as I've shown, the short short is still fairly common, or was through the 80s and 90s. One of the prominent writers who regularly toiled this field was Richard Christian Matheson, son of the great Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, Hell House, and etc....more on him another day). Matheson Jr.'s first book, published in 1988, was called Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks, and although it includes plenty of stories that achieve what we might call a "proper" length, there's something like thirteen at five pages or under. For tonight, I read five of them, and, yes, not a one struck a chord. Maybe it's me. This is quite possible. But here's a breakdown of what I read, and what I thought, presented every so briefly:
- "Obsolete" - A three page science fiction story (I've been tricked!) clearly modeled after the more melancholy stories of Ray Bradbury. A manufactured servant is causing its household the fidgits, and must be gotten rid of. Plus, there's a twist! And Radbury already did stuff like this, a thousand times. I'm not sure anybody can beat him at this game, and Matheson certainly doesn't.
- "Break-Up" - While lying in bad one night, a man turns to his girlfriend and breaks up with her. She freaks out (she also reveals they've only known each other for six months, so perhaps she needs to step it back a notch), he behaves coldly, reciting the cliche'd lines created for such occasions, before he starts to feel utterly apart from the situation, even from himself. He leaves, begins to feel ill, and we discover why he ended the relationship so abruptly. Once Matheson's cards are on the table, and I'd had a few seconds to think about it, I had to wonder how the guy knew. Logically, this one doesn't quite hold together. It's an interesting idea, I will admit. Maybe three pages really is too short.
- "Mr. Right" - A woman visits her psychiatrist and pours out her fears about the man she's living with. He beats her, burns her, kills animals, kills people...he also rapes her, but she likes that, and this explains why she can't leave him. The doctor pleads with her to leave this man, to get on a plane and fly away, which she agrees to do. Then the doctor accepts a phone call that no honorable psychiatrist would ever take, and says things he really shouldn't. Brutal, nasty, but -- maybe by virtue of its abbreviated length -- apparently calculatedly so.
- "Mugger" - Another science fiction story, with a horror tone, about starving kids in a blasted future who disembowel people for money. I tuned out of this one almost instantly, because two of its three pages are written as a letter from the main character to his girlfriend, and Matheson wants to have his cake and eat it to, linguistically speaking, because even though the character is writing this, he still says things like "pickin'", "screamin'" and "wanna". No. No no no. What, this kid really wrote in those apostrophes in place of the dropped Gs? Plus, if I read one more SF story where the slang of the future includes words like "Creepo", I'ma bus' some shit up.
- "The Dark Ones" - A Lovecraft riff? No. I don't think so, anyway. This is a mood piece, I guess, about a family getting slaughtered. By things that might not be human. Listen, this kind of thing can work, but the writing has to carry it, and the writing here is merely fine. The story has no pulse.
So, there it is. Hooray, I was negative again. I'll need to read some of Matheson's longer work -- even his novel, Created By, which I'm told is good -- but the short short as a form only scores rarely. Steve Rasnic Tem has done it, as has Chet Williamson. Everything else reads like something that is half formed, at best.