This weekend's story from the anthology Fifty Great American Short Stories is by Edgar Allen Poe and it's one entirely new to me, one I had not even heard of, "Ms. Found in a Bottle". It's a wonderful seafaring sort of story, a ghost story. No, one better, a ghost ship story! Poe, writer of the gruesome and macabre is always a reliably good storyteller. And while "Ms. Found in a Bottle" hasn't quite toppled my favorites by him, this was a good story indeed.
The story was published in 1833 and I read it was written at a period when he was writing stories of a more humorous nature. It may have meant to be a parody or satire of sea tales in general but specifically, too, of a popular theory at the time that the earth was hollow and could be accessed via either of the two poles. Tongue in cheek or not, he masterfully captures the dread of a sinking ship well, and it brought to mind Maupassant's The Horla, which is one of my most favorite novellas ever.
The unnamed narrator of the story has set off from the port of Batavia (modern day Jakarta) after some years traveling abroad. He has no ties to family or country any longer thanks to "ill usage" by one and the other. It's a beautiful vessel he travels on and all seems well until one evening he observes "a very singular isolated cloud", the first he has seen since setting off. It's quite eerie. One moment all is well and the next the ship is plunged into a torment known as a simoon (which is a cross between a hurricane and sand storm). By some strange fate he and an elderly Swede are the only men left alive when the rest of the crew and passengers are swept overboard. There's really very little hope of survival as the ship is taking on water and two men alone would be unable to sail the ship alone in any case.
At a moment when all seems most dire the men see on the horizon the glare of a red light. It would seem that the ocean has become a watery hell and the storm has awakened the slumbers of the fabled kraken. Rising out of the depths is a massive ship, much muck larger than any he had ever known. The two ships meet, the smaller now broken and sinking throwing the narrator alone over to the larger ghost ship. As if things weren't bad enough, the crew seems to go about their business unseeing of anything about them. They seem elderly and perhaps infirm with unsteady gaits. The narrator does not understand the language they speak and neither has he ever seen the odd navigational instruments or charts they appear to by sailing by.
Completely undetected by this odd crew he begins to write of his experiences--the Ms. which he will throw into the ocean in the hopes someone will know what happened to him. He understands there is no hope of rescue . . .
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I've long thought that short stories were a perfect way to be introduced to a new (new-to-me that is) author. And how many times now have I read a New Yorker story and then added the author to my list of writers "I must investigate further"? I have yet another author to add to that list, Lyudmila Ulitskaya. My library has a few of her books, so I'll be pulling them from the shelves for further perusal. She's won all sorts of awards (none here in the US). Her story "The Fugitive", set in the Soviet Union of the early 1970s, follows a dissident artist who travels outside of Moscow as he attempts to avoid arrest. It's an insightful and provocative look inside a country which has long fascinated me. Interestingly it is the works he paints while living in the rural countryside which the state will deem pornographic rather than the political works he painted in the past poking fun at the Soviet government.
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This weekend has been a very short story weekend for me (which is actually always a treat). I have read a few of Jane Gardam's many books--enough to know she is one of my "must read everything by her" authors. I have been slowly collecting her work (even even more slowly reading them). So when I was offered a copy of her soon-to-be-published The Stories of Jane Gardam by Europa Editions I couldn't resist. I think I will give this book a proper introductory post this week, so I don't have to rush through what I've read this weekend. I will just say I've liked what I've read so far and will be incorporating the stories into my weekly reading.
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And one more short story reading note. The CWA has announced the shortlist for the 2014 Short Story Dagger. Last year I read the stories on the shortlist that I could get my hands on. Stella Duffy won with her story, "Come Away with Me". (I thought I wrote about all the stories I read, but now I can't find all the posts--must find a better way of tagging my short story posts). This year's list:
"Judge Surra" by Andrea Camilleri in Judges (UK edition).
"Reconciliation" by Jeffrey Deaver in Trouble in Mind.
"In Our Darkened House" by Inger Frimansson in A Darker Shade of Sweden.
"Fedora" by John Harvey in Deadly Pleasures.
"Night Nurse" by Cath Staincliff in Deadly Pleasures.
I found Deadly Pleasures and A Darker Shade this weekend at the library and have put in a request for Trouble in Mind, but I think I won't easily find Judges (why are translated works always so late in getting published in the US--we either lag far behind the UK or simply never get the same books translated . . . a pet peeve of mine--the same thing happened last year). I'll be reading the stories this week and will write about them as well. The winner will be announced June 30.
Have you read a short story this week? Go on, go pick one up.