Salute These Shorts

I love short stories. Otherwise I wouldn’t write them, because they are a pain in the ass. Sure, you can get the whole idea in your head at once, but there’s no room for error. So when I read a great one, I sit in awe. Here are a few of my favorites. What are yours?

The Creature from the Cleveland Depths, by Fritz Leiber

This one felt silly when I first read it, but now that we have cell phones, ol’ Fritz is laughing in his grave.

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, by Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel paints pain so beautifully, without ever using fancy brushes.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin

An incredible fable that puts civilization in perspective and asks us why we can’t walk away.

The Gentle Way, by Lawrence Block (available in his collection “Enough Rope”)

Mr. Block writes damn fine short stories. This one, about an animal shelter dealing with a vandal, resonates deeply. His excellent story “See the Woman” is available online.

Placebo, by Andrew Vachss (Available in his collection “Born Bad,” and also in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT.) You can read the also-excellent “Working Roots” free here on his website.

Placebo is a pared down work of great power. Working Roots is a gritty urban fairy tale. I wish Andrew Vachss would write a novel about these kids.

Houston, Houston Do You Read? by James Tiptree, Jr. aka Alice Sheldon.

How do you end violence? The answer is simple, if unpleasant.

Speech Sounds, by Octavia Butler
The last Ms. Butler is interviewed by Charlie Rose here:

The late, great Ms. Butler captures the terror of a true apocalypse and losing the power to communicate in this gut puncher.

The Man from the South, by Roald Dahl

One of my favorite horror tales. You’ll be clutching your fingers!

The Chaser, by John Collier

One of the funniest and best short story writers, Collier is oft forgotten but has many lessons to teach writers today and many joys to bring readers for centuries hence.

The Appointment in Samarra, by Somerset Maugham

A classic bit of flash fiction.

Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty

A great picture of a family from one of its loony members.

A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor

If you don’t like this story, hit yourself in the face.

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

The inspiration for “The Thing,” this one is terrifying on a cellular level.

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison. He has written a ridiculous amount of great short stories. How to choose one? This has always been the most memorable to me. A supercomputer destroys humanity in retribution for creating him–a genius who cannot truly move, feel or love– but he saves five individuals to torture for eternity. Misanthropy at its most dire. A close second is “The Paladin of the Lost Hour,” a wonderful fantasy story about a man who guards the “clock” that keeps the world from doomsday, and how he shares a moment with a veteran wracked with survivor’s guilt. The first is available in the collection of the same name, the second is in “Angry Candy.” I am also fond of the entire collection :”Deathbird Stories,” especially the title story, which retells Genesis from Satan’s–I mean “Snake’s” point of view.

1. Equinox

Schlocktoberfest #1: Equinox

The Evil Dead holds a special place in the hearts of many horror fans, me included. The funnier, more polished sequels are great, but the original has that home-brewed quality, and a unique mix of dark humor and over the top concepts (like tree rape) that put it in a class of its own. Well, its tale of a book of evil spells guarded by a professor at a remote cabin who is overtaken by dark forces isn’t the first story of its kind; Equinox, made by Dennis Muren and Jack Woods over a few years with his friends as a student film, tells a similar tale. It’s older and less gory, but has its own charms and goes over the top in its own way.

Giant killer apes? Count me in.

Am I accusing Sam Raimi of cribbing? No, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an influence. The story begins with a group of students looking for their professor’s remote cabin, where they plan to stay for a weekend. The prof is nowhere to be found, but instead, a cackling madman hands them a strange leather-bound book. Then… weird things start happening. A creepy park ranger with fearsome eyebrows seems a little too interested in why they’re visiting, and warns them off.

8 time Hugo Winner Fritz Leiber!

Later, the professor appears, but seems driven mad. He grabs the book and runs, and they follow, wanting to know what’s wrong. The Prof is played by award-festooned science fiction master Fritz Leiber, of all people. He does a decent job of babbling and running, but his true talents lie in writing and not acting. Then again, compared to the rest of the cast he’s just fine. They’re all amateurs and make Raimi’s bunch seem like seasoned pros. The ranger, played by director Jack Woods, is unforgettable as his intentions become clear, and his facial expressions are so bizarre that even when you laugh, you’re more than a little creeped out.

He does more than emote, he Asmodiates.

The Ranger calls himself Asmodeus, and wants the book- but the girl holding it is wearing a crucifix, and he is driven back by the holy symbol. The kids make crude crosses out of twigs as protection, and try to make it out of the forest with the book, but Asmodeus has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. He sends a giant demonic ape after them, rendered with stop-motion effects, that looks like it would get Ray Harryhausen’s approval. Then there is a giant, and a flying devil, and we see what happened to the cabin in flashbacks- torn apart by the enormous tentacles of an unseen creature (the Ubiquipus, of course).

Ubiquipus strikes again

In a similar fashion to Evil Dead, the cast is slowly winnowed down through violence and possession, as the demonic park ranger unleashes his fury. How he is dealt with is particularly clever, and for a low-budget cheese-fest, Equinox tries to be sharp. It creates a dreamlike world where the battle for good and evil is fought, and if you like stuff like The Gate from the ’80s or an earlier film about demonic invasion, the minor classic The Night of the Demon, you ought to see this movie.
Some nice compositions

Uncredited co-director Dennis Muren would go on to be a special effects designer for Star Wars and Jurassic Park, and while you’ll laugh at some of the effects used here for a giant and a secret portal to another dimension, the stop-motion creatures are top-notch for the time. While it’s certainly not scary anymore, the movie’s tone sets a nice creepy mood, and you’ll never look at park rangers with bushy eyebrows the same way again.

Oscar-winner special effects whiz Dennis Muren!