Books · Review · That's neat · Wondering

Short stories

“It is dangerous playing god…”
Why, thank you for your insight anonymous library user

I’ve just finished reading Sandkings by George R R Martin and it’s still pretty much on my mind.

Last year, I wanted to read this story badly but it was not available at the library and I was monitoring myself in term of book buying so I just read the entire synopsis on wikipedia. Which is generally what I do for movies and books that I am not planning to read/watch. Problem is, I was a bit bored yesterday so I launched in a new “wikipedia reading quest” in the library and I started focusing on short stories that won the Nebula awards.

Which lead me to read I have no mouth and I must scream by Harlan Ellison (and nothing came as a surprise because I had read the synopsis on wiki at least 3 times already).  And it made me look for the Sandkings again. And, miracle, the library I was seating in did carry a book entitled The Best of Nebulas (Edited by Ben Bova) which not only contains The Sandkings but also three shorts stories by Harlan Ellison (including  A Boy and his Dog).

The thing about Sandkings is that, even though I read the entire synopsis, I still feel like it  managed to surprised me and made my skin crawl. I particularly like short stories and I realized that quite a few left me a strong impression. So I thought I might write a bit about three of them.

I made a list, in no particular order. Spoilers will be mostly concentrated in the “impressions” parts but beware nonetheless.

Firefly -Summer 2012

Sandkings-George RR Martin (1979)

Synopsis: Simon Kress, the most annoying main character in the world of main
characters is a wealthy guy who enjoys owning expensive and dangerous pets. Problem is, while he was away on a business trip, most of his beloved creatures starved to death or ate each others. He decides to buy more exciting creatures and end up getting four colonies of Sandkings, small organisms whose lives are centered around their queens that digests the food they bring her, thus surviving.

Impressions: There is something insanely creepy about this story, it really makes your skin crawls. In one hand, the main character is so outrageously annoying that after a while, you just wish he could die in the most horrible ways. Yet,  when bad things start happening to him, you don’t feel too sure about your feelings anymore. I think Martin is really skilled at creating characters who are annoying, cruel and unbearable (Cf Joffrey, Bolton father and son…). I spend the whole story hating on Simon Kress but when the sh*t hit the fan, I don’t know if I was rooting for the other team anymore.
I guess what stuck with me was the fact that the story focuses on the idea of abuses when owning living creatures and how the power struggle between master-creatures can  be flipped around easily. When you first get to know the Sandkings, there are some hints that let you see what will probably happen next (“They’ll eat anything” and ” They grow bigger in larger environment” “The queen can become sentient” etc…) but the true ending is somehow even more surprising.

An adaptation with Beau Bridges as Simon Kress does exist but the story seems a bit different and it looks a bit old.

Finding some fruit flies invasion in my washroom did not help get the story out of my mind.

We’ll be in love forever
Paris-2012

I Know What You Need– Stephen King (1978)

It’s pretty hard for me to choose only one short story by King because a lot of these stuck with me until now. This one is particularly dear to me because it made me think a lot and it comes from one of my favorite short story book, Nightshift. I could have mentioned  The Man Who Loved Flowers or I Am the Doorway  from the same anthology or Cain Rose Up, Nona, The Jaunt from Skeleton Crew but I know What You need marked much more strongly because of  its singularity.
I read it while I was in middle school and I was really concerned by the fact that people around me seemed to have boyfriends/girlfriends and I did not. It seemed relevant at the time in a weird way.

Synopsis:Elizabeth Rogan, a university student, meets a guy who seems to know exactly what will make her happy. Her roommate starts to think it’s creepy. She’s quite right.

Impressions: This story left a big impression on me because, despite all what he did, I still cared more about ‘the evil guy’ in the story than the main character, until the end, when some of his abilities are revealed. In a way, Ed is the ultimate ‘overly attached boyfriend’.
I guess, I was at a period of my life where meeting someone who would know what I need was some sort of unreachable dream I had. And reading this story just made me realized how sick and impossible that was.

There is nothing really scary in this story but there is a sense of uneasiness that grows steadily from the beginning to the very end. And it does not leave you when you’re done. The surreal part of the story annoyed me a bit (wouldn’t it be much more creepy if he just knew? Or did everything else directly and not though an ‘intermediary’ approach?)

Dread-Clive Barker (1984-1985)

Two summers ago, I decided to borrow the first Book of Blood (which actually encompassed book 1 to 3) at my local library. I had read a lot about Clive Barker before (mainly because so many of his stories have been turned into movies) without actually reading anything by him.-WRONG! But it was a children’s story.
I remember not enjoying reading his stories but remembering them quite well.
The book I got was huge and attracted attention. I don’t generally mind having people read over my shoulder or ask me if a book is nice but the amount of random sex scenes made me rather paranoid especially around my family. The translation (or the original 
writing?) was quite bad so I did not enjoy reading the stories but re-thinking about them and absorbing them was a rather interesting experience.
Stories that left me a strong impressions were: The Midnight Meat Train, Pig Blood Blues; In the Hills, the Cities,;  The Skins of the Fathers, Human Remains.
But Dread was something else. In a way, the atmosphere strongly reminded me of I Know What You Need.

Synopsis:Steve meets Quaid at the university. Quaid, beside having a weird name is obsessed with fear and does not hesitate to push his experiences and Guinea pigs to the extreme.

Impressions: I was strongly impressed by this story’s take on fears and phobia. But I was disappointed by the ending somehow. It started going downhill after Steve’s experiment. The Vegetarian Girl’s part was just so brilliantly sick it made up for the whole story.

The question about how far one should go in order to study something and how far one should concern himself with studying something are well spun into the story. I wonder if Quaid, not unlike Ed, thought he was full of good intentions and was doing his best to help others.
Barker story is successful among a sea of shorts full of fantastical elements because it shows that the crazier and scarier parts of human beings are real and terrifying. Bonus point, I don’t think there were any awkward sex scenes in this one.

Final comment: If I had to find something connecting the three stories together, it would the strong feelings one can feel toward one of the characters of the story. It’s hard to understand if you like or hate Simon, Ed and Quaid and even if it’s more on one side of the spectrum or the other, you can’t help but have strong opinions about them.
The atmosphere of King’s and Barker’s story seem quite similar to me but I not quite sure about the reasons: is it because of the similar university life settings? The “meeting a new friend” premise ?

Pretty song:

Angus and Julia Stone- Yellow Brick Road

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