Short Story Series #1: The super obviousJune 14, 2012
Of all the English classes I ever had, my 7th grade one was the best. And part of it was that my teacher was great, and part of it was that I realized that grammar is equal parts fun and fascinating — although I realize I may be alone on that one — but probably the single biggest factor was that we had to write an essay on a short story each week. And I could talk a lot about how helpful it was to have to churn out essays and learn to construct an argument and stuff, but what I’m here to talk about today is how much I hated the short stories.
Middle School and High School English classes do a lot to instill in kids the idea that serious literature is super depressing, and short stories, which tend to be sort of single-minded in pursuit of an idea, make it worse — at least with novels, there’s usually time and space to put in a few scenes that will make you laugh, or, you know, offer sidelights on a character that give you hope that they have inner resources to draw on and won’t spend the rest of their lives completely miserable. If they live to the end of the story, that is.
I mean, there were bright spots: “The Speckled Band.” Dorothy Parker. Vocabulary lessons. But I came out of Middle School English with the conviction that all short stories were terrible and that I would hate them forever, with a grudging exception for detective stories.
Anyway, the point of this is that for a long time I really believed I hated short stories — until a couple of years ago when I realized that I was reading short stories all the time, and loving them. It was just that they were short story series, character-driven and funny instead of literary and depressing. These days I get really excited when an author I’ve been enjoying turns out to have a series of short stories or two. So this is the first in what I expect to be a extremely rambling series of posts about those, and how much fun they are — starting with the super obvious.
It doesn’t get a lot more obvious than Sherlock Holmes, right? To the point where I don’t need to describe the series at all, because if you don’t already know the premise, you’ve been living under a rock since 1887.I’m only including the Holmes stories here to point out that they’re exactly the same as everything else I’m about to talk about — focused on a character, based around a central conceit, and closely tied to a specific setting. And all about a person who’s better at stuff than everyone around him, which is preferred, if not essential. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is, I think, the most fun — first collections usually are — and I retain my 7th grade fondness for “The Speckled Band,” although I think the one that kind of bowled me over the most when I first read it was “The Red-Headed League.”
Project Gutenberg doesn’t have the complete Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes or Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, but you get the idea. And the novels are sort of beside the point in this context, but I will freely admit that my favorite Sherlock Holmes Thing is Hound of the Baskervilles, which I love probably beyond reason.
Jeeves and Wooster
Then there’s P.G. Wodehouse. And if Sherlock Holmes is typical of the thing I’m trying to talk about, I don’t know what the Jeeves stories are, because really there’s no practical difference between Jeeves and Tish, or Jeeves and Bindle. I mean, the central characters, the supporting cast, the humor, the limited world in which the stories take place — it’s all there. You’ll probably be aware of Jeeves either through the stories themselves or through the television series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. I’m not going to recommend anything in particular, because it’s been too long since I read Wodehouse, but Gutenberg has My Man Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves. Sadly, I don’t think I could describe a single story — except for that one when Bertie says “Jeeves, I pity the fish that pits its feeble wits against you,” or words to that effect. I read all of them in a big fat omnibus edition when I was a teenager, staying up late at night when “just one more” became three or four more. Basically, Bertie Wooster buys ugly clothing and gets in trouble — these things are only loosely related — and then Jeeves gets him out of trouble and is allowed to throw the ugly clothing away. It’s pretty great.
I get kind of weird about G. K. Chesterton, I know — it’s okay, I’ve got it under control — but I’ve never had anyone who has read a substantial number of Father Brown stories tell me they’re not great. They’ve got minor classic status, I think. If you’re into golden age mystery or Anglo-Catholics, you’ve probably encountered them and learned all about dumpy, nondescript Father Brown, whose way of looking at the world isn’t quite like anyone else’s. Chesterton is really into paradoxes that aren’t paradoxes, and people are continually surprised to find that Father Brown, who is dead serious about religion and fighting evil and stuff, is much more grounded in the real world than they are.
And yeah, this is GKC’s world, not the real one. There’s a lot of red hair and things suddenly appearing grotesque and sometimes the entire world feels like it’s on the verge of hysteria, but still. The early Father Brown stories are perhaps the least weird of all GKC’s fiction, but the later ones are as outlandish as anything you’ll find in Tales of the Long Bow or Manalive. And they’re still fun, but none of the later Father Brown collections ever quite reach the level of The Innocence of Father Brown. I have favorite stories in it — “The Queer Feet” is kind of as good as anything ever, and I have so many feelings about “The Sign of the Broken Sword” I don’t even know what to do with myself. Just read the first three stories in The Innocence of Father Brown — “The Blue Cross”, “The Secret Garden”, and “The Queer Feet” — and if you’re not hooked, Chesterton probably isn’t for you.
If you are hooked, you’re in luck, because Chesterton did short story series all the time. You can find The Wisdom of Father Brown at Gutenberg, along with a bunch of Chesterton’s other stuff, but the best GKC resource on the internet is probably G. K. Chesterton’s Works on the Web, which was quite literally my favorite website for a while when I was in high school. So, here are a few other Chesterton short story series I like a lot.
The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, in which a middle aged civil servant is in the habit of dropping paradoxes into conversation, except that he always means them completely literally. GKC explains it like this: Mr. Pond is so reluctant to bug everyone with long, involved stories, that he shortens them to a point where they don’t make any sense.
Four Faultless Felons, four slightly longer stories, in which someone has apparently committed a horrible crime but turns out to be entirely innocent — which is not to say that they didn’t do the things that people said they did. These stories are also heavier on the romance, which…well, GKC’s romances are generally simultaneously super romantic and really, really weird.
Then there’s The Man Who Knew Too Much — no relation to the Hitchcock film, and totally gutting. This is G. K. Chesterton as serious as you ever see him, and while these stories have a lot in common with his others, they are overtly a lot darker.
I could go on recommending GKC stuff forever and ever, but I’m trying to keep this short, so: for a sample of GKC’s longer fiction, check out The Man Who Was Thursday. I recently saw a movie described as being “rapturous and slightly insane,” and while that’s probably a good description of Chesterton’s fiction in general, it’s definitely a good description of The Man Who Was Thursday in particular. For a sample of Chesterton’s short nonfiction, check out this essay on “Cheese”. It’s kind of the best thing ever, and while there are, like, three other things in this post I would describe the same way, this one is super, super short, so you have no excuse not to read it. And then, just for kicks, check out this debate on socialism between GKC and his companion in three-initials-starting-with-G, George Bernard Shaw.
So, yeah. Thoughts on short story series you’re a little less likely to have read in high school coming up soon.