Short Fiction Appreciation by Beth McKenzie

by on Nov 12, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

My older brother introduced me to science fiction when I was very young. While it’s hard now to think back to what exactly was the first book he suggested I read, it may have been Roger Zelazny’s short story collection, The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth and Other Stories. I have only the yellowing of the pages to give me a clue to how long I’ve had it, but that one – published in 1971 before I could actually read – seems to be the yellowest.

I was still too young at around 9 years old to get through some of the more complex stories, but my brother, although ten years my senior, was patient in suggesting works that he thought I’d be able to digest. I still remember his good advice, “if there are too many words you don’t understand, wait a year and try again.” Our childhood home was not a happy one and, although my brother had escaped to college, he sent me back the thing that had been his solace and turned out to be mine as well – science fiction and fantasy. The downside of this that he may still not know, is that I developed a habit of raiding his bookshelf for more books while he was gone and I’m fairly certain that some of those stolen books are still in my possession today.

I devoured short stories like popcorn. I would race through them, often looking ahead to see how many pages the latest one had. I’d dog-ear the end so I would know – how much longer? When do I find out what happens? And like the training wheels on my bike, short stories led me to seek out longer works until I was blazing my way through one book after another as I got into high school. It didn’t hurt, of course, that The Empire Strikes Back had come out while I was in Jr. High, sucking me into a life-long love of space opera and all things fantastical. But it was always the beauty of written words and well-crafted stories that kept me coming back to books, even as I continued to enjoy movies.

It was clear to me, even in my earliest days of reading, that the best stories were the ones that continued to nag at me days after I’d read them. Stories read in school like “The Lottery” and Flowers for Algernon kept me awake at night obsessing over giving toddlers stones to help kill their mother and how it would feel to know you were soon to lose touch with your intelligence.

Zelazny’s “Home is the Hangman,” published in 1976, was one such story that had me putting the book down and wandering around my room considering the implications of guilt, hidden crimes, fear and salvation. The idea that one mistake, made in a moment of carelessness, could make victims of everyone involved is beyond powerful as is the ultimate message of redemption. And of course the notion that everyone on earth, their identities and movements, could be cataloged and tracked by the government … preposterous! I sometimes wonder if my own reluctance to put information about myself online may stem from reading this story.

Over the years, I continued to feed my love for short stories, buying anthologies and subscribing to Omni Magazine. These days, with the advent of the Internet, it’s blissfully easy to continue indulging that love with magazines like Apex that come right to my inbox full of tales that keep me thinking, though I’m more inclined now to let the stories unfold slowly instead of racing through to get to the end. I am certain that impatient mantle has been taken over by other kids in unhappy places who lose themselves in its pages and find comfort and escape.

Beth McKenzie is a writer and slush reader for Apex Magazine.

Check out the Apex Magazine 2015 subscription drive running through Friday, November 13th.

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