Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Sunset Cruise - Jean Davis

Author: Jean Davis
Date: 2018
Setting: present day, somewhere in the topics
Availability: Read Sunset Cruise in the anthology Destiny Pills and Space Wizards

Story: A young bride, Jane, and her (literally) knight in shining armor on a magnificent horse head out on a honeymoon cruise. Bill can't bear to be parted from his beloved horse. And so, the horse and the armor accompany them on the ship. Jane is having a hard time competing, but Bill is oh, so handsome! Can she penetrate Bill's defenses? How will this relationship affect her in the future?

Commentary: When beginning to read this story one might think of it as some sort of modern day fairy tale. However the deeper truths quickly become apparent. Lengthy commentary would result in a spoiler.

The short stories by Jean Davis are written primarily for entertainment and to provoke thought. Most of them are not going to yield up tidy lessons or provide deep insight into the meaning of life. But they will make you think. Some will make you chuckle, or nod approvingly as karma comes full circle.

Author info: Jean Davis lives in West Michigan, and writes speculative fiction and science fiction. She is continually fascinated by the question, "What if...?" This story and the 15 others in the anthology Destiny Pills and Space Wizards, will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed Twilight Zone. Connect with Jean through her blog at Discarded Darlings.

Language skills 4
Depth of meaning 6


Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Doom of the Darnaways - G.K. Chesterton

Author: G.K. Chesterton
Date: 1929
Setting: a ruined seaside manor house, somewhere in the UK
Availability: Read The Doom of the Darnaways on line, free

Story: Two painters, one local, one visiting, are thrust into the mystery of an historic family curse which visits every seventh generation with a murder. A painting of the first man to be the victim of the curse has been discovered by the local artist. Around the edge of the frame is lettered a rhyme which sets out the conditions of the fateful events. Indeed, the descendant seventh in line is recorded to have died by those conditions. Now, a young relative, the 14th in the family line has arrived from Australia. He is to marry his distant cousin, the lady of the house, which is a family contract. When he is found dead before he has a chance to marry the beautiful woman, it is assumed the fates have once again come into play.

This is one of the early Father Brown mysteries. The detective-priest is on the scene, and others look to him for comments on the events. They generally assume that his religion is akin to superstition and that he will readily accept the curse as the cause of the troubles.

Commentary: Chesterton wrote in the period of transition from Victorian romanticism to logical and more reasonable scenarios. This transitional mix brings us into the story at night to a ruined, gloomy stone manor house on a darkened seashore. Yet, the remnant of the family lives in the house in the dank and dismal lower level with the broken ruins above. The description of the scene is gothic enough to give anyone the chills. Yet, the two young men who are walking toward the house openly describe it as "creepy." This rather modern word breaks the spell of the Victorian description and puts us on notice that this is a story of contrasts.

Is there fatalism and a family curse at play, or something much more mundane and simple going on? Father Brown puzzles it all out. His role in this story is that of the unexpected voice of reason and logic, in a world where he is expected to be out-of-date and superstitious. The story appeared in a volume of similar stories entitled, The Incredulity of Father Brown. In each case the priest is cast as the marginalized victim of fanciful supernatural thought, but he turns out to be the one who presents the pragmatic and thoughtful solution to the crime.

Author info: Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1974-1936, was a British writer who was known for writing both fiction and non-fiction, poems and plays. He is the creator of the priest-detective Father Brown. He was the first President of the London Detection Club which set standards for the "modern" detective story. Many of his non-fiction works focused on apologetics of the Christian faith. For several years prior to his death he gave regular talks on the radio, and was a hugely popular public figure.

Language skills 6
Depth of meaning 6


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Handcarved Coffins - Truman Capote

Author: Truman Capote
Date: 1977
Setting: a small town in the American West
Availability: in the anthology Music for Chameleons

Story: Residents of the un-named small town receive small handcarved coffins in the mail, and some time afterwards each is murdered. The methods are different and there is no known connection between the victims.

The author is friends with the FBI agent who has been living in the town, investigating. Finally, a link between the victims is found, and this points to a likely suspect. Much to his astonishment, the author has previously met the suspect. The agent, meanwhile, has fallen in love with a woman who is likely to be on the victim list, and indeed, she does receive a coffin in the mail.

Commentary: This story purports to be true, but subsequent studies on the topic seem to indicate it is based on a similar real incident, but is not in any sense a true story. It is told, not in story form, but as a dialogue with some scene setting, more like a screenplay. As the style is consistent throughout, it does not detract from the telling, but it is certainly not the normal short story format.

While supposedly just a recounting of an intriguing bit of American crime, the reader may deduce that there is are a few too many coincidences. Once it is viewed as fiction, a theme becomes the failure of society to stop evil. Evil masquerades as righteousness; people are too deeply involved themselves to confront it; people choose to ignore it and blame even the worst of endings on bad luck; some don't even recognize the warning signs until it is too late.

Author info: Truman Capote, 1924-1984, was obsessed with writing from the age of 11. That said, he wrote few really successful works. Best known for In Cold Blood, a "non-ficton novel," Capote struggled to find his muse during creative periods of life, interspersed with periods of drug and alcohol abuse.

Language skills 6
Depth of meaning 7


Friday, May 4, 2012

The Promised Shore - Vic Rubenfeld

Author: Vic Rubenfeld
Date: 2011
Setting: uncertain- perhaps early 20th century- see commentary
Availability: Buy The Promised Shore on Smashwords

Story: A young man, Nolan, and his friends, find a mirror resting on the ice in the middle of a frozen lake. Nolan and Halstead walk over the ice to retrieve the mirror, and each sees a glimpse of some hidden portion of their soul. Taking the mirror back to the group, Malcomb also is shown something beyond his mere reflection. Isabel and Adrian choose to look at each other’s reflection and see such things as young lovers might find in the depths of their beloved’s heart.

But the mirror clouds, and this one brief vision is all that is revealed. Nolan, however, is not content to let the search for meaning end.

Commentary: This short story really needs to be read a couple of times to understand what’s going on, and there is room for more than one interpretation. Is the mirror magical, or was the timing simply right for the young people to briefly see past their shallow existence?

Nolan could be symbolic of the few people who strive throughout life to find meaning.

The story is written in long, complex sentences, with antiquated language. This adds somewhat to the sense of mysticism, but does make it difficult to read. You need to get your mind into the grove of the style for it to flow. Once you do this, however, it works well for the introspective nature of the tale. There is a sense that this happened in a past age. The language and the characters’ names suggest this.

However, later in the story a photograph is introduced, which is jarring. Suddenly, we are forced to accept that this is a relatively modern setting. The clothing in the photograph rather exactly dates the story, and then the characters’ names no longer made sense for that era. Personally, I had a hard time with the photograph. Before that, the story could have been in almost any time or place, or even any world– perhaps it was fantasy. After that, I began to struggle with the mechanics, and forgot to follow the thread of meaning.

One nice touch is that early on, Nolan sees himself in a regular mirror and barely recognizes the person. This sets up the reader for the value of what the mirror from the ice reveals.

Author info: Vik Rubenfeld Created the hit CBS TV Series, EARLY EDITION, which starred Kyle Chandler as a man who received tomorrow's news today. Vik is also a Director of Market Research. He is married and lives in Los Angeles. Vic Rubenfeld's web page

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 6


Monday, March 26, 2012

Afterward - Edith Wharton

Author: Edith Wharton
Date: 1910
Setting: early 1900s
Availability: Read Afterward on line, free

Story: A young American couple buys a fixer-upper home in the English Countryside. They are looking for an old place with character where they can create their own mark. They also really want a house with a ghost. The house they buy is somewhat lacking in this regard. It may have a ghost, but supposedly people never know the ghost is there until much later.

Mary and Edward (Ned) Boyne fix up the place comfortably, and have no financial worries due to Ned's business successes in the States. Their relationship is loving, and everything is nearly perfect in their lives. One afternoon, they take a hike and are high on a hill near their home when they spot a man walking up their driveway. Ned, thinking he recognizes him as one of the workmen he wants to talk to, rushes down to catch him, but it's too far. The man has disappeared before Ned gets there.

Meanwhile some business news seems to be disturbing Ned, but he won't tell Mary what it's all about. She can only wonder at the lines in his brow and distracted air. Then one day, a letter arrives, and Ned is suddenly relieved, telling Mary that something he was very concerned about has now worked itself out, and all is well again.

But is it?

Commentary: "Afterward" is a psychological ghost story of the Victorian era. One should not begin reading this expecting some modern horror tale. Probably the most familiar ghost story of this time period is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This sort of tale was very popular at the time, and in fact, Wharton published an entire book of them, Tales of Men and Ghosts. They are meant to give you a shiver and things to think about, not leave you shaking in your seat, afraid to answer the door.

The suspense builds as Mary (and sometimes a third-party narrator) tells the story of what happened leading up to the crisis with Ned, when she realizes that the ghost has indeed been there, but she did not know it until long afterwards, just as predicted.

Mary's typical role, for that time period, as a woman who knows little of her husband's business, contributes to the suspense. It is ironic that the ghost they finally were able to find was not in the house all along, but was attached to them, personally. There is also more than a suggestion of the philosophy that the thing we want most will sometimes bring us great sadness, if we obtain it.

Author info: Edith Newbold Jones, 1862- 1937 wrote her first novel at the age of eleven, but her mother thought this was an unacceptable profession for a lady, and trained her to act properly in high society. The Joneses were so well off it has been suggested that the maxim "keeping up with the Joneses" was based on this family. When Edith decided to write for a living anyway, her society friends refused to acknowledge what she did. This insider knowledge of high society served as material for her many books and stories with ironic criticism of that time period.

In 1885 she married Edward Wharton, whose mental health deteriorated until she divorced him.

In 1920, she wrote The Age of Innocence and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, the first woman to be so honored.

Unusual Words:
coign- a high sloping hill (in this context)

Language skills 9
Depth of meaning 7


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Shotgun Wedding - Steven Thor Gunnin

Author: Steven Thor Gunnin
Date: any time
Setting: a small-town chapel in Hobb's End
Availability: in the anthology Consequences

Story: Jake, wielding a shotgun, is determined that the preacher is going to make his wedding to Peggy legal. Not everyone agrees that this is a good idea.

Commentary: "Shotgun Wedding" is a very short story, and yet it manages to get in several good twists and a play on words. If I say much about it at all, I'll be giving too much away. The coarse speech pattern of Jake is totally believable. On the other hand, there are some repetitious or awkward phrases that detract from the readability, and one break in point of view.

On the whole, the story works well, and provides the reader with an interesting take on the title phrase.

Author info: Steven Thor Gunnin is a graphic designer who writes in his spare time, and is a big fan of George Romero (Night of the Living Dead). He has had other stories published in Elements of the Soul

Consequences is available as a paperback, or in ebook format.

Language skills 5
Depth of meaning 5

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Kidnapped Santa Claus - L. Frank Baum

Author: L. Frank Baum
Date: 1904
Setting: Laughing Valley, where Santa Claus lives
Availability: Read A Kidnapped Santa Claus on line, free

Story: Santa Claus, along with ryls, knooks, pixies and fairies, lives in Laughing Valley, but in the mountains beside the valley are caves where five demons reside. Their caves are connected in a linear fashion. First is Selfishness, then Envy, Hatred, and finally Malice. However, from each of those caves is a narrow passage leading to the cave of the Demon of Repentance. There is no way out of the mountain tunnels except by his cave where there is a little door into the sunshine, which he will open if you come his way.

The demons did not like Santa because he made children happy, and then they did not come to visit the demons’ caves. So on Christmas Eve, the demons capture Santa and take him into the mountains. They try to tempt him to be selfish or envious, and they are sure that the children will receive no toys for Christmas. However, their plot doesn’t work out quite the way they intended

Commentary: Although this is a children’s Christmas story, there is plenty in it to make an adult think. The obvious point of interest is the concept that Repentance is a Demon. Santa has a conversation with this one, where Repentance points out that he is not needed unless one has first made friends with one of his evil friends.

There is an underlying question that is never addressed as to whether toys brought on Christmas can really make a person happy. The story begins with some philosophy, “To laugh one needs to be happy; to be happy one needs to be content.” It seems to me that this contradicts the whole premise of making children happy with gifts, since material things will never bring contentment. The internal message of the story seems confused to me.

Another concept presented is that there will always be evil in the world, but we can make choices about what to do about it. This theme is much more consistently developed.

This story isn’t on the current list of best-loved Christmas classics, probably partly for the dark theme. Although, one could point out the “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” is similar and has become standard holiday fare. Although the author is well-known and respected for his children’s stories, I think this one leaves something to be desired. It has been called one of his “most beautiful stories” by a biographer, but I don’t really see that.

Nevertheless, I would be willing to read it with older children and ask them to talk about it.

Author info: Lyman Frank Baum, 1856-1919, was born in Chittenango, New York, and early in life developed a love of writing and the theatre. In fact, his love for theatre kept him poor throughout his life as he continued to write, back, and produce plays that couldn’t succeed financially. He is best known for his children’s fantasy, especially the Oz series, of which he wrote 16. Many of his plays were destroyed in a fire. Not many children's stories remain classics for over 100 years, but Baum’s Wizard of Oz has stood the test of time.

Unusual Words:
knooks and ryls- magical good characters invented by Baum in the book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, they are carried over in to this story.

Language skills 6
Depth of meaning 6