This Week in Short Fiction

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To help us cope with the passing of Leonard Nimoy, Melville House shared audio recordings of the baritone-voiced Vulcan reading excerpts from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. The find is definitely worth a listen, and in this newly revived age of plans for Mars missions, the excerpts of this creative duo serve as an elegant reminder of the Martian imaginings of years past.

In his introduction to The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury traces the roots of what he calls his “book-of-stories-pretending-to-be-a-novel” back to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Certainly, Bradbury’s not the first to cite Anderson’s influence, but when you listen to Nimoy’s reading of the penultimate episode in Chronicles, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a story completely devoid of humans, this influence feels a little surprising. And not, at the same time. While Anderson gave us “characters living their lives on half-lit porches and in sunless attics of that always autumn town,” in this story, Bradbury shows the weighty sadness of human mortality in shadow-form—a presence felt through its absence. Bradbury has made earth a post-apocalyptic autumn world.

If there is a narrator in “There Will Come Soft Rains,” it is the HAL-like “voice-clock” of the empty house that announces the different activities of the day in a tinny, repetitive sing-song voice. The house is forever empty of people after the nuclear war killed off the family living there, but still the house and its robot mice prepare eight slices of toast and eggs sunnyside up every morning. At 10:15, the sprinklers come on outside, watering the charred grass and sides of the house, as Bradbury explains:

The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing the lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down.

The five spots of paint—the man, the woman, the children, the ball—remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.

*

On Wednesday, at a ceremony held at The New School in New York, Elizabeth McCracken was awarded the annual Story Prize for her collection, Thunderstruck and Other Stories. The panel of judges, which included Laura Van Den Berg, described their decision: “Each story in the collection reads like a masterwork, rich and confident and surprising, and together they form an electrifying whole.”

After the announcement, Twitter erupted in a gracious round of applause for McCracken and Thunderstruck, her second story collection. Alongside two novels, McCracken has been crafting and placing the stories in literary magazines over the last several years. To get a taste of her handiwork, you can read “Something Amazing,” which appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story in 2008. The story, like many in the collection, puts grief in the spotlight, and in this case, the grief of a mother who has lost her six-year-old daughter. Five years after her daughter’s death, the children of the woman’s neighborhood take the mother’s loss and spin her into a “witch” and her daughter Missy into a ghost. With this setup, one can’t help but think of fairy tales and ghost stories—there’s even a little kid named Johnny like the Johnny on the stairs in the scary stories we heard as kids.

Yet McCracken gives us another voice as well—a self-help book turned sour—that describes the detached experience of utter grief:

The soul is liquid, and slow to evaporate. The body’s a bucket and liable to slosh. Grieving, haunted, heartbroken, obsessed—your friends will tell you to cheer up. What they really mean is dry up. But it isn’t a matter of will. Only time and light will do the job. Who wants to, anyhow?

Best keep in the dark and nurse the damp. Cover the mirrors, leave the radio switched off. Avoid the newspaper, the television, the whole outdoors, anywhere little girls congregate, though the world is manufacturing them hand over fist, though there are now, it seems, more little girls living in the world than any other variety of human being. Or middle-aged men whose pants don’t fit, or infant boys, or young women with wide, sympathetic, fretful foreheads—whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours. Sneeze. Itch. Gasp for breath. Seal the windows. Replace the sheets, then the mattresses. Pry the fillings from your teeth. Buy appliances to scrub the air. You are allergic to everything.

It’s tortured and bleak, and it must have hurt like hell to write, but McCracken got it down. And, for readers looking for even the faintest traces of light cutting through, McCracken also manages to work in a surprising moment of illumination.


Jill Schepmann's stories have been read on NPR and have appeared in Parcel and Midwestern Gothic, among others. She worked as a fiction and nonfiction editor at Nashville Review while getting her MFA at Vanderbilt. She lives in San Francisco and tweets @jillypants. More from this author →