‘Sir Patrick Spens’ by Anonymous

The short fictions I gnaw most often are three traditional ballads. Two of them, ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Mattie Groves’, lure with a puzzle: despite their constraints and fast pace, they convey twists, nuanced characters, and a world of cross-thatched hierarchies. It’s some sort of trick; maybe if I watch again and sit real close… ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, in contrast, is as stripped down and recurrent as the nightmare where I drive onto a highway and then realize I’m in the back seat with no one in the front. An unknown person for unknown reasons recommends an unqualified person for a dangerous job; for equally unknown reasons that person feels compelled to accept the job and fail. How like life.

Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads volumes are in the public domain, with ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ online here. I never came up with collations better than those recorded by Fairport Convention, who base their ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ on Child’s variant A, merging one variant G verse that Child footnoted as a “silly reading”. All the more appropriate for a tragic absurdity.

‘The Whole Life & Death of Long Meg of Westminster’ by Anonymous

One of England’s leading pre-novel genres was what might be called the bio-jestbook, aspects of which survive post-novel in theatrical memoirs and Twitter threads of celebrity anecdotes. Humor is a dish best served fresh and locovore, and few bio-jestbooks appeal to contemporary taste. I’d follow a character as appealing as Long Meg anywhere, though. Why quarrel with the script of ‘The Big Lebowski’ when you can simply enjoy Jeff Bridges?

The earliest facsimile I’ve found of ‘The Life and Pranks of Long Meg of Westminster’ was printed around 1635 but we’re told derives from an 1582 edition. Its prose is as overpadded as an Elizabethan codpiece and some of its jests sound suspiciously transplantable. I prefer the brisk eighteenth-century chapbook condensation, almost a synopsis, available online here.

Despite the title’s come-on, a death goes unrecorded. Long Meg abides. It’s possible, even likely, that she eventually made her way to the Bronx and bumped into young Joanna Russ, but who’s to say?

‘A Discourse of the Adventures passed by Master F.J.’ by George Gascoigne

Within a novella-sized frame of nested and opinionated narrators, unremarkable people muddle themselves into a believably mundane mess. If we squint past cultural boundaries, Gascoigne’s ‘Discourse’ might look a wee bit like Dante’s La Vita Nuova or the loosely-linked annotations of The Tales of Ise. In its own time and place, it must’ve mutated giant-ant-style from the teasing title pages and prefaces of allegedly unauthorized publications. For present-day readers it’s most striking as a fluky anticipation of literary realism — a roman à clef or curdled Bildungsroman, perhaps.

First published in 1573 as part of Gascoigne’s failed attempt to establish himself as an ideal soldier-poet-courtier, A Hundreth sundry Flowres bounde up in one small Poesie. A reading edition is online here

‘The Flying Trunk’ by Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen had barely established himself as a writer of grown-up poetry, travel books, and big portrait-of-the-artist-in-costume novels when he put that reputation at risk with his first collection of Tales. Despite early criticism — “It is not meaningless convention that one does not put words together in print in the same disordered manner as one may do quite acceptably in oral speech” — he stuck to them, stuck in them. They felt right.

As the critic noticed, the tales are defined by their storyteller’s voice: teasing, taunting, clowning, inviting correction and objection, and determined to stay the center of attention. They embody rather than po’facedly portraying The Artist. In a very late, barely narrative, self-pep-talk, he wrote:

You know that people say that one can become invisible if one puts a white stick in one’s mouth. It is true, but it has to be the right stick: the one God has given you as good fortune. […] When father or mother reads aloud, I am there standing in the room, but I have my white stick in my mouth and am invisible.

Storytelling was, Andersen knew, his life — how he made money, how he made acquaintances, the only thing he was loved for — and this you call living? Embedded with doubts and cravings intact, he wrote metafiction at its most profound: as in farthest down, deepest sunk, waving while drowning. One famous story-against-storytelling is ‘The Fir Tree’, a bleaker Madame Bovary; another would be ‘The Shadow’, a murder of the author by the Author Function.

One of the earliest is ‘The Flying Trunk’. Its unnamed hero, improvident and impoverished, is dispatched by an ex-friend via a fairy-tale device, and then seduces a rich and beautiful girl by praising her in fairy-tale images, lying about himself, and promising babies brought by stork. He further advances his fortune by composing and reciting a fairy tale which, like thirty or so of Andersen’s other tales, stages a comedy-of-manners playlet, a battle for social dominance between some downwardly-mobile matches and their kitchen rivals. Within this inner tale, an earthenware pot tells yet another story (we’re now three levels deep), a realistic “everyday story that could have happened to any of us.” That done, the kitchen tale ends with the triumphantly aristocratic death of the matches.

The little match story is as great a success for the tale-teller as ‘The Little Mermaid’ had recently been for Andersen, and he seems set for life. Unfortunately he can’t resist a follow-up performance, splendid in itself but leaving the performer worse off than ever, and for ever after.

In Andersen’s original arrangement, the moral of the tale immediately before ‘The Flying Trunk’ had been that, no matter how clearly morals are communicated, stories chiefly provide a scenario. ‘The Flying Trunk’ then demonstrates that the improving aspect of stories is fraudulent even for storytellers themselves. In cautioning against mistakes, we rehearse them. After we successfully perform the promised fiasco, we remind ourselves to be more careful in the future. And thus we start the next story.

First published in Andersen’s 1838 Eventyr pamphlet. Denmark’s H.C. Andersen Centret provides online access to actor Jean Hersholt’s respectful but stodgy translation here

‘The Book of the Great Dhoul and Hanrahan the Red’ by W.B. Yeats

Off-putting title aside, The Celtic Twilight is a richly entertaining collection of short-shorts; pretend it’s not Ireland and you’ll have a great time. The Golden-Dawn-through-a-glass-darkly fantasies ‘Rosa Alchemica’ and ‘The Tables of the Law’ are worth reading if only as prep for M. John Harrison’s capper, The Course of the Heart. Even in their starched calling-on-Lady-Gregory duds, the first two Stories of Red Hanrahan are memorably grim and funny.

So much for responsible proselytizing.

I was a classic scholarship boy reworked for the late 1970s – Never Mind the Bollocks was unleashed a month or two after I started college — and quickly fell into the role of spoilt oblate, snatching whatever I could reach before the authorities caught on and tossed me out on my scrawny ass. One afternoon while trawling the Bryn Mawr library I noticed an unfamiliar ornately bound book on the Yeats shelves. It included titles I recognized but also some bizarrely skewed prose — “the Brew of the Little Pot”, seriously? — and when I checked the volume out (they let me borrow it!) and compared it to my second-hand Mythologies paperback I found a completely new-to-me installment of Red Hanrahan’s adventures, dropped when Yeats revised and recollected them.

Literarily, Yeats was right to consider the story irredeemable. Even in its 1890s context it’s embarrassing: brew from a little pot of exoticizing condescension, transparently false worldliness, and abjectly timid horniness. I can’t recommend it lowly enough.

Autobiographically, I learned to seek out original sources whenever possible, not so much for scholarly as for amusement value. As for the treasure itself, well, I was plenty embarrassing in my own right, and something about its plotline — crave the book, posture with the book, barely and fitfully comprehend the book, drift from the book, get drunk, fall down — seemed strangely authentic.

Published in The Secret Rose, 1897. Currently shelved as a nasty-to-the-touch forty-four-year-old grey-on-grey Xerox copy clipped to a similar copy of Giacomo Joyce. Available online here

‘Red Wind’ by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler began writing late in life and peaked early in his career, never surpassing his last couple of pulp stories and first novel, The Big Sleep. From self-mocking title through muted farewell, 1939’s ‘Trouble Is My Business’ delivers quintessence of Chandler in a compact package. At the moment, though, I’m even more drawn to 1938’s ‘Red Wind’, partly because it holds the Chandler line I recite most often (“Just another four-flusher”), and partly because I can excerpt its opening and closing paragraphs without spoilers:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

and:

They made little splashes and the seagulls rose off the water and swooped at the splashes.

Originally published in Dime Detective, 1938, and frequently reprinted

‘Tulip’ by Dashiell Hammett

Unlike his older disciple, Dashiell Hammett hit his stride just as he began writing novels; four of the five are masterpieces. Definitive works are risky business, though: The Glass Key and The Thin Man left dead ends on both sides of the street. He never finished another story, but five years after his death Lillian Hellman printed a sizable chunk of manuscript she titled ‘Tulip’. It’s mostly dialogue, mostly between Hammett and an old war ‘buddy’, I guess would be the word, shooting the shit and yanking each others’ chains not long after Hammett finished a penitentiary stretch for contempt of a commie-hunting court.

Not much good gets said about ‘Tulip’, but then most of it was said by readers who wanted Sam Spade. Me, I like the fragment at least as much as more recent exercises in nothing-happening. I like its cautious rhythms, its attempt at honest reportage of everyday avoidances and games of play-risk and real-risk. Because I’m a sentimental sap I even like that it has two endings. Here’s the first of them:

If you are tired you ought to rest, I think, and not try to fool yourself and your customers with colored bubbles.

A short goodbye but a hell of a lot more dignified than Chandler’s Playback.

Probably drafted around 1952. Published in The Big Knockover, edited by Lilian Hellman, 1966

‘Vintage Season’ by C.L. Moore

Travel stories are generally told by the traveler but Catherine Moore, like Joanna Russ (below), Karen Joy Fowler (in ‘Standing Room Only’), and Chuck Berry (in ‘Havana Moon’), takes the touristed’s point of view, the year-rounders rather than the summer people. And what do they all talk about? The tourists, of course; the tourists are news.

Bonus pandemic angle, too.

First published, credited to ‘Lawrence O’Donnell’, in Astounding Science Fiction, September 1946. Reprinted many times since

‘The City of Penetrating Light’ by Thomas M. Disch

In a supposed age of irony Thomas M. Disch was the most skillful ironist I know. Very much an American ironist, too; to misquote Auden, “Mid-America hurt you into poetry.” Bible-thumping flag-waving hypocrisy remained a favorite target, and he never freed himself from the paranoia, villainizing, and feuding endemic to our homeland; their garbage-incinerator stench pervades his last writings.

The ironist’s razor-edge dance can’t be sustained indefinitely, and although Disch was equally effective on either the sardonic or sentimental side of the blade, both modes are difficult for readers to enjoy unalloyed except in bursts. His novels were always crafty, and some are treasurable concepts, but I think of him first as a writer of short stories. If I wanted to sell you on Disch, I might suggest (depending on your own proclivities) ‘The Squirrel Cage’, ‘Descending’, ‘The Asian Shore’, ‘Et in Arcardia Ego’, one of the 334 stories, or ‘Getting into Death’. If I thought you shared my own proclivities I might risk ‘Slaves’, with the sentence that seems to me his apotheosis:

There were red balloons and blue balloons and yellow balloons and pink balloons and green balloons and orange balloons.

If I wanted to select a personal Disch, though, that would be his short and never-reprinted monologue ‘The City of Penetrating Light’, which latched onto me in a basement in small-town Missouri and hasn’t yet loosened its grip: visceral nostalgia for what’s never been experienced and never will be.

Published in Fun With Your New Head, 1968. Available online here by kind permission of the estate of Thomas M. Disch

‘The Second Inquisition’ by Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ was a tall woman with strong opinions and a voice trained to dominate an auditorium. Novels provided room enough for sharp elbows, close-quarters combat, and dialectic layering. Most of her shorter stories taste comparatively watered-down.

‘The Second Inquisition’ is an exception, a uranium-dense fruitcake of 1920s Americana, 1950s science fiction, and 1970s disgust, a coming-of-age and a protest against the age come into, with an exchange I’ve always found inspiring:

“We despise you,” she said. “That’s what we do. We think you’re slobs. The scum of the earth! The world’s fertilizer, Joe, that’s what you are.”
“Baby, you’re blue,” he said, “you’re blue tonight.”

The story ends — is this a spoiler? — “No more stories”, which works best in its place at the end of The Adventures of Alyx omnibus. Russ’s later novels The Female Man and The Two of Them both, in very different ways, restart and retell the tale and they could easily join Alyx in a Library of America volume.

First published in Orbit 6, edited by Damon Knight, 1970. Reprinted as the conclusion of Russ’s Alyx series in 1976 and several times since

‘What Girls Are Made of’ by Pat Califia

The first and last stories of Pat Califia’s second collection share a milieu and a theme: the taming of the butch.

‘Big Girls’ is a harrowing character study, or test of character, like a Pinter two-hander except for negotiating a satisfactory-all-round conclusion. I think its Olympic-level sadist, Reid, would have made a far more interesting lead and far more wholesome role model than the serial killers who infatuated the era’s media executives, but nobody axed me.

‘What Girls Are Made of’, on the other hand, is a sociable comedy cut to a classic pattern: charmingly awkward young person progresses through a series of slapstick humiliations to achieve a more settled position.

Regrettably, my libido slithers quick as a garter snake away from bondage, discipline, pain given or received, or even basic role-play. But I love comedy, I trust comedy, and I couldn’t find a Robert Benchley piece suitable for this last slot, so here we are.

Published in Melting Point, 1993