Scary Shorts

They’re just words and they engage only one of the five senses, so how is it that by placing them in the right order an author can scare the hell out of us?

And with Halloween just around the corner, Flavorwire has picked the 50 scariest short stories of all time. Two LA authors lead the list:

1

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” Harlan Ellison

Ellison’s 1967 cult classic is a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi version of hell, in which the last four survivors on the planet are tortured by a vindictive and all-powerful computer. Get ready for the future, humans.

2

“The Veldt,” Ray Bradbury

Bradbury has a number of scary stories to choose from, including the famous and existentially terrifying “There Will Come Soft Rains,” but I always come back to “The Veldt.” What’s more terrifying, the lions, the house or the children?

At number 12 is “Flowers for Algernon,” Daniel Keyes – one of the few selections I was familiar with that seemed out of place. I’d say that story is heart-wrenching more than it is scary.

Edgar Allan Poe doesn’t appear on the list until lucky number 13 — “The Tell Tale Heart.”

Poe is the stranger-king of gothic horror, and this is him at his best, with a murderous narrator being driven slowly mad by the beating of his victim’s heart under the floorboards

Whether fiction is scary is a highly subjective thing, however, I recommend Richard Wadholm’s novel Astronomy, a Lovecraftian homage. I read it a few years ago and it truly creeped me out. If that’s the experience you’re seeking this Halloween, get a copy and give it a try.

Toss Those Awards in the Trash?

Via SF Signal, I read a portion of Adam Roberts’ denunciation of awards:

But awards lists and best-ofs are rubbish […] The problem is timescale.

It is a convention, no less foolish for being deeply rooted, that the proper prominence from which to pause, look back and make value judgments, is at the end of the year in question. This is wrongheaded in a number of reasons. One has to do with the brittleness of snap-judgments (why else do you think they’re called snap?). Take those fans and [awards-panelists] of the 1960s and 1970s who really really thought that the crucial figures of the genre were the often-garlanded Spider Robinson or Mack Reynolds rather than the rarely noticed Philip K Dick. They weren’t corrupt; they just spoke too soon.

It wasn’t Roberts’ rejection of awards that set me off: they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. What hooked me into responding was his superior sneer at a false version of awards history.

Superior sneer: Should the Hugo and Nebula be condemned for failing to ratify Philip K. Dick’s current popularity 40 years in advance? These awards don’t exist to predict the literature that people two generations in the future will value, they celebrate what the current-day community of fans and/or pros value and admire.

False version of awards history: “…the often garlanded…Mack Reynolds”? He wrote hundreds of stories, received exactly one Hugo nomination and two Nebula nominations, and never won either award. And it seems rather sad to pick on Spider Robinson, since according to Dick’s bibliography, Dick had zero short fiction published in the three eligibility years for which Spider received nominations, so how did Spider’s name even enter this conversation? Of course, it’s easier to win an argument if you’re allowed to make up your own facts.

I also challenge Roberts’ belief that fans of the ’60s and ’70s overlooked Philip K. Dick.

Had they done so, it might have been because he did not worship at the altar of technological optimism. In fact, they didn’t overlook or ignore him, he was often up for awards. If he didn’t write Analog stories that was no detriment at all to his fame, merely his pocketbook. In the ’60s, psychological exploration and social satire abounded in sf, no physics degree required. Yes, Dick was pessimistic. Paranoid. It was impossible for Dick to think of something bad enough that the authorities would hesitate to do it, seductively using technology to make us betray ourselves. Yet anybody who thinks these things disqualified a writer from recognition in the ’60s has never seen the stacks of awards in Harlan Ellison’s office.

Now, as a fan who lived through the era in question, I can testify that I really enjoyed Dick’s stories. Time Out of Joint was the first of his novels I read: it was captivating. And when I was in college the SF Book Club brought out editions of his new novels, so I read them all as time went by. Somehow I managed to enjoy his stories without suspecting that he was a dominant voice in the literary dialog of the day. His latter-day reputation as a great sf writer has taken me by surprise, though as far as that goes, good for him! We can only wish he’d lived to enjoy it.

When I’m flying out of Denver there’s an airport bookstore I pass which has the names of top writers decorating the wall around the border of the ceiling. Philip K. Dick is up there. I pass it right before I enter the TSA security line. What could be more Dickian than the future I live in? No wonder he’s widely read.

Returning to Adam Roberts’ critique, he may have no idea who won the awards, but he is certainly right that Dick won very few of them during his lifetime. Was this actually an injustice? I’ll lay out the record, and you tell me if you disagree with my take on the question.

Dick won the first Hugo he was ever nominated for, The Man in the High Castle (1963). So I guess justice was done that year.

His novelette “Faith of Our Fathers” made the final ballot in 1968 and lost to Fritz Leiber’s “Gonna Roll the Bones,” which I have always tried to like, and which must in some sense be a helluva story because it also beat “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” by Harlan Ellison who was winning everything in those days (such as the two Hugos his work did win in 1968 for “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever.”) Dick’s story wove together some wonderfully paranoid ideas. It seems to have haunted Dick, who wrote in 1977: “I think, with this story, I managed to offend everybody, which seemed at the time to be a good idea, but which I’ve regretted since. Communism, drugs, sex, God – I put it all together, and it’s been my impression since that when the roof fell in on me years later, this story was in some eerie way involved.”

His third and last Hugo nomination was for the 1975 novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. It finished behind Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I found the Dick novel a more entertaining read, but (confession time) I felt the same way about Anderson’s Fire Time and Niven and Pournelle’s A Mote in God’s Eye. On the other hand, there seemed a general agreement among the rest of fandom that Le Guin’s novel was the most substantial and ambitious, the most deserving of the award. The same Dick and Le Guin novels faced off for the Nebula, with the same result. Does anyone today think Flow My Tears surpasses The Dispossessed? Let’s hear from you.

Philip K. Dick’s problem with the Nebula, the first time he was nominated, is that he had to compete against a great classic of the genre. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Dr. Bloodmoney both received Nebula nominations in 1966. They lost to Frank Herbert’s Dune. I hope nobody’s complaining about that.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? made the 1969 Nebula ballot (though not the Hugo final ballot) and lost to Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage. Consulting the fanzine I was publishing at the time, I see that Richard Wadholm and I never ran out of critical things to say about the Panshin book. On the other hand, I regarded John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar as the novel of the year, not Dick’s story, and Brunner won the Hugo (with no help from me, I didn’t have a vote in 1969). If there was a great schism in the awards scene that year, it had nothing to do with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I’d say that the ultimate reason Philip K. Dick won few major awards is not because the voters were blind or ignorant, it’s because he wasn’t the only person writing excellent stories in those years.

My First Fanzine

I was a young teenager on the way to summer day camp, sometime in the late Sixties, riding in the back seat of the camp leader’s Ford station wagon. Among the junk on the floor of the car was a copy of Galaxy magazine, a name I recognized from H. L. Gold’s various Galaxy Reader short story collections, though Analog was the only pulp magazine I followed in those days. I picked this one up and paged through it until an ad caught my eye. Something named Science Fiction Review announced that it published articles by and interviews with a whole list of SF writers – including my personal favorite, Poul Anderson. What a revelation! It never occurred to me that these people talked to anybody but John W. Campbell, much less held their conversations in a nonfiction magazine that I could read.

I didn’t have the money to subscribe to SFR, or else I might have discovered fandom right away. Instead, the concept of such a magazine remained like a banked fire in my memory.

Around the same time, the Young Adult librarian at the local branch of the LA Public Library announced she was starting a science fiction discussion group. An eclectic handful of us came to the meetings, ranging from Richard Wadholm, the only one of us truly in tune with the Sixties, in his appreciation of rock music and Alexei Panshin, to Kent Halliwell, a conservative who read every issue of The Plain Truth and seemed disturbingly unsurprised the afternoon the librarian mentioned that the library’s most-stolen book was Mein Kampf.

After we’d been meeting for a couple of months, the librarian said the LAPL was willing to put some modest resources behind things the group wanted to do. I told them about my idea for a magazine, and the idea caught fire. As I mentioned, though I’d seen an ad for SFR we’d never seen a fanzine, or heard that word, so we tried to produce an imitation Analog. I wrote Campbellesque, pro-space editorials. Bryan Coles and Kent Halliwell produced political satires about the Galactic Congress. Richard Wadholm wrote short fiction and reviews. Mark Tinkle wrote poetry.

My parents contributed to a critical part of the plan when they agreed to make a Sears ink drum mimeograph a kind of family Christmas present.

The LAPL xeroxed the cover art, and I cranked out the rest of the pages on mimeograph.

That SFR ad had also fostered my ambition to get contributions from real pro writers. It implied they had all kinds of ideas and opinions they wanted to put in front of the public – which was true enough – so I naively offered them space for this purpose in our publication. I checked the LA phone books and located addresses for Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. They actually answered, with brief, encouraging notes turning down my offer. They weren’t intended as contributions, obviously, yet it seemed a pity to waste them. So I began printing these in the “Rejection Slip” department, where the tables were turned and writers rejected a magazine.

Harlan promptly responded with another – surprisingly patient – note which essentially said, don’t do that again. So I didn’t.

And that is how our group started as a self-invented pocket of science fiction fandom.

It was not very long before our library-based fanac brought us in contact with mainstream fandom. We heard about LASFS from some Granada Hills High School students. Then, I finally did subscribe to Science Fiction Review and not only got to see that fanzine, but contacted one of its readers, Florence Jenkins, a local woman who had offered to give away her fanzines to someone who would come and pick them up. I came away with a carload of Granfalloons, Beabohemas, Yandros and other genzines of the day. I began to learn a lot about fannish culture. Before long, I was ready for new challenges – like LASFS poker.

Samuel Delany’s Nova

The Nashville SF Club Newsletter for October draws members’ attention to Paul Di Filippo’s review of Samuel R. Delany’s novel, Nova (1968), and recalls in what high esteem the late A. J. Budrys held the author: “Samuel R. Delany, right now, as of this book, Nova, not as of some future book or some accumulated body of work, is the best science-fiction writer in the world, at a time when competition for that status is intense. I don’t see how a writer can do more than wring your heart while explaining how it works. No writer can.”

Richard Wadholm and I, two members of a local club when the book came out in 1968, could not have agreed more after our own encounters with Delany’s genius. Nova’s influence resonates down all the years in Wadholm’s own story, “Green Tea“.

[Via Nashville SF Club Newsletter and Andrew Porter.]