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Black Static


National Short Story Day

21st Dec, 2010

Author: Peter Tennant

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Today is not only the shortest day of the year, but also National Short Story Day, when those of us who value the short story (and that's everybody at TTA Press) get to celebrate its virtues.

So how do we propose to do that?

Well for starters, there's a giveaway. In the Case Notes section of Black Static #19, I reviewed thirteen anthologies containing nearly three hundred short stories between them and interviewed leading anthologist Stephen Jones. If you scroll down to the foot of the page you will find that anthology special available to download as a PDF.

For seconds, we're running an Advent Calendar, with links to flash fiction and poetry on other websites. Just click on any of the links above - Interzone, Black Static, Crimewave, Books - and you'll find the latest entry and links to all the previous seasonal offerings.

And if daily doses of fiction are not your bag, if you'd prefer to scoff all your seasonal goodies at once, then there's another free PDF to download below, this one an Advent Calendar containing twenty five festive flash fictions by Peter Tennant (that's me) and a cover illustration by Dave Gentry.

For those who prefer listening to fiction, TTA also post short stories in Audio MP3 format on their Transmissions From Beyond website (see podcast link above). These can be downloaded for free from there or iTunes etc. Today, to mark National Short Story Day, TFB editor Pete Bullock will post a story from Black Static #6 of August 2008, 'Viva Las Vegas', written by Ray Cluley and read by Richard Kellum. As Pete lives in Charlotte, NC, his December 21 starts 5 hours later that GMT, so this may not be live just yet.

Lastly, it seems like a good idea to briefly discuss one of my favourite short stories, and though I'm spoiled for choice on that score, the one I've decided to go with is 'Basilisk' by the indomitable Harlan Ellison. It's not one of Ellison's more famous stories and as far as I know it never won any awards, but it is the one that has stuck with me, a potent blend of the writer's trademark prose pyrotechnics, tropes of the horror genre subtly perverted and a righteous anger at the hypocrisies embraced by drones of the military-industrial complex in the name of patriotism.

Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.

I'm unaware of the story's provenance. I first read it in Ellison's iconoclastic 1975 collection Deathbird Stories. 'Basilisk' opens with Vietnam grunt Vernon Lestig stepping on pungi stakes coated with poison. A prisoner of the Vietcong, Lestig is tortured and gives away vital information. Returning to hometown USA, without his leg and nearly blind, Lestig finds himself an outcast: his family have moved away and left no forwarding address, his girl has married somebody else, and the general consensus is that death is too good for the traitor, though death is what the lynch mob of patriots will settle for. Only Lestig has acquired the power of the basilisk: his breath will destroy all that it touches. In the final confrontation Lestig unleashes this power on the mob, showing them that they are every bit as much the cowards as they accuse him of being, ready to do anything to simply be allowed to go on living.

This is a story that is unmistakably the work of Ellison, infused with his love of language, the wonderful prose contortions that feature in his best work, where the sense of urgency shines through, with words fired off faster than a machine gun spraying bullets, and with a similar effect, sentences that smash into the reader like body blows. Intercut with these are quieter sections, parts of the story where beauty dominates and a lush feeling of decadence, as with this description of the basilisk itself - 'Somewhere else, through another mist, a great beast sat haunchback, dripping chromatic fire from jewelled hide, nibbling at something soft in its paw, talons extended from around blackmoon pads.' There's a sense of overlapping realities, of other worlds crashing in upon our own, and alien values, a purpose and playfulness that will always be beyond human grasp.

Add to that the familiar horror tropes, knowingly referenced by the author even as he supersedes them with his own compelling vision. The basilisk is compared to a vampire in the way in which its power is passed to a victim. The lynch mob is described as 'like something from an old film. A film of hunting the monster.' But Ellison uses these conventions to question who the monsters really are, to turn everything on its head.

Lestig's plight solicits our sympathy, the broken man deserted by family and friends, hunted by the mob, the man who has done nothing wrong, except show his humanity in surrendering to an intolerable pain. And yet society believes that it has the right to judge him: armchair generals a thousand miles in the rear of the front line are prepared to condemn him out of hand, having never been put to the test themselves. Lestig uses the power of the basilisk to turn the tables on them, and the mob are found wanting, every bit as willing to crawl in the dirt for the sake of their lives as Lestig himself - 'Crawl and you'll understand your slogans are shit, your rules are for others.'

As preface to the story Ellison asks 'Have you ever noticed: the most vocal superpatriots are the old men who send young men off to die?' It's a question that is pertinent still and, as another generation cut from the same cloth as Spiro and gang assure us that 'we're all in this together', not just in the theatre of war and patriotism. It's a question that can be asked in so many ways, and of so many other subjects. 'Basilisk' is a passionate and powerful examination of the principles involved, dramatising its subtext with flair, and it's also a damned fine short story.

Join us on the TTA forums to discuss your own idea of 'a damned fine short story'.




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