Sunday, December 27, 2009

Short Hand, by Gary Phillips


In the glow of firelight, storytellers transfixed the tribe with their short stories of how the world began. These verbal tales were passed down and became the written word. The Bible and the other tomes of the world’s religions are filled with parables and short stories of wonder and redemption, horror and damnation – the tools of the writer’s trade.

I got hooked on short stories as a kid watching those half hour reruns of the original black and white Twilight Zone episodes on TV, many of them written by the on-air host Rod Serling. Actually, it was getting a short story collection from my Uncle Sammy’s common-law-wife (does anybody use that phrase anymore?) Virginia, From the Twilight Zone, published by Doubleday, that was my Eureka moment. She’d gotten this anthology, along with a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s work and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes -- most of which were short-- stories, from the Reader’s Digest book club. If I recall correctly, she gave me the three books for my ninth or tenth birthday.

The stories in From the Twilight Zone were conversions by Serling of his teleplays into prose. Mind you, I wasn’t throwing around those kind of words then, but I realized reading stories like “The Midnight Sun” and “The Big, Tall Wish,” I’d seen them acted out the TV program. I know I hadn’t seen a script at that point, but knew it was what a writer wrote for actors to use “The Method (whatever that was) to say their lines. I’d learned about scripts interestingly enough from another Twilight Zone episode, “A World of Difference” written by Richard Matheson, in which a man thinks he’s a businessman but he’s really an actor, or maybe not, on a movie set. Anyway, I devoured those short stories in the TZ collection along with the ones by Poe and Doyle.

All these years down the line the short story still holds a fascination for me as a writer and editor. Unlike the long form of the novel, your beginning, middle and end are compressed and concise. Writing the short story forces you to make every word count, details sparring but relevant, with every action paying off. That’s not to suggest characterization is sacrificed as in its best form, your characters are honed like seaside cliffs washed pristine after countless waves.

The moody, introspective outlaw Ben Wade and the hard-pressed farmer Dan Evans pushed together by circumstances in Elmore Leonard’s “Three-Ten to Yuma”; the arthritic, doubting Sheriff Doane in John M. Cunningham’s “The Tin Star”, the basis for the film High Noon; Matheson’s “Duel” with another harried middle class businessman man symbolically named Mann hounded by a big rig; the one-armed vet Peter Macreedy unwelcome in the whistle stop town under the bad man’s thumb in “Bad Day at Honda” by Howard Breslin, the basis for the film, Bad Day at Black Rock; or the various Sherlock Holmes filmic and television treatments based on various Holmes’ short stories.

“Sure, I suppose it was a little bit like prying, could even have been mistaken for the fevered concentration of a Peeping Tom. That wasn’t my fault, that wasn’t the idea. The idea was, my movements were strictly limited just around that time.” This seemingly conversational but tense early first person passage from “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich made as the film Rear Window.

Plenty of short stories aren’t made into film. But it does seem as traditional publishing continues transforming given e-books, Kindles, internet magazines offering original fare in text and audio, iPhones and so on, people in the hurry up world of instant this and instant that, interests in the short story won’t wane but, hopefully, grow in demand for in the words of Rod Serling…”You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas.”

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Gary Phillips has short stories in the recently released collections, Phoenix Noir, Sex, Lies and Private Eyes, Between the Dark and the Daylight, and Once Upon a Crime, and is editor and contributor to the Orange County Noir anthology out in April 2010 from Akashic.