TOP TEN SHORT STORIES FROM JRJ!
Fall 2011 will see the release of Jeremy Robert Johnson’s WE LIVE INSIDE YOU, the highly anticipated follow-up to breakthrough cult hit and Bizarro touchstone ANGEL DUST APOCALYPSE. Per Johnson “the collection is a very intense genre-hopping batch of stories about love, crime, parasites, and the end of the world. Same obsessions, but I think (or at least hope) there’s a noticeable step up in the craft of the stories themselves. I’m incredibly excited for readers who don’t cop every hardbound anthology or magazine to be able to check out the new stuff.”
With JRJ’s new batch of shorts about to drop, Bizarro Central asked him to compile a list of the stories that influenced his work. He sent us this:
10 Short Stories I Love to Death and Will Vouch for 100%*
1. In the Hills, the Cities- Clive Barker: I could probably do a separate Top 10 Barker shorts list and still not feel like I’ve presented a comprehensive picture of how much I love The Books of Blood (and the shorts tacked on to Cabal). I’m a fan of his sprawling horror/fantasy novels, too, but those early stories were such a perfect mix of imagination and elegance and gut level dread. And “In the Hills, the Cities” was the crown gem, its imagery indelible, its ideas gigantic but exquisitely reined in by Barker’s prose. I read this story and “Son of Celluloid” every year. They help to recharge the weirdness batteries and challenge me to hone my craft.
2. Father, Son, Holy Rabbit- Stephen Graham Jones: Rare is the story that instantly forces you to read it again. Rarer still is the story that grows richer with each run through. I hesitate to say too much about “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit” because of the way it functions, but I will say that its portrayal of a father and son’s quest to survive in a winter storm feels true and profound and when it decides to break your heart, you have no choice but to acquiesce. I’m tempted to read this story again, now that I have a son, but in all honesty I’m a little scared to go back.
3. The Rifle- Jack Ketchum: Another story about parenting, though Ketchum’s lean, anxiety-inducing writing takes you to an even darker place. A brilliant singular effect story that poses a terrible question (What would you do if you discovered your child was an irredeemable psychopath?) and then answers that question with a scene that still sends me reeling.
4. Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back- Joe R Lansdale: First, any Bizarro reader who hasn’t read their Lansdales (or, really, their Barkers) is missing out on a treasure trove, hell, a tidal wave of genre-jumping weirdness. Case in point- “Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back” a post-apocalyptic memoir of lighthouse living, mutant brain-eating rose vines, desert-wandering sharks, a cannibal tribe known as the Shit Faces, and mushroom cloud/daughter-face tattoos with bleeding eyes. As with most really great weird stories, to list its odder elements undercuts how much emotional truth is present. This is a story of regret rendered in deep strangeness.
5. Losers, Weepers- Cody Goodfellow: A man whose terrible tragedies have given him the ability to see the energy imbued in items loved and lost. Two landfill employees on a scavenger mission in a secret dump so toxic that alien meat trees have sprouted from the ground. These are the basic elements for one of Goodfellow’s finest stories, a wild, surprising, and ultimately poignant story of loss. How Goodfellow manages to insert a very lengthy character back story right into the middle of the narrative without losing any inertia, I still don’t understand. I’ve studied the thing, from a technical perspective, and it shouldn’t work. But it not only works, it makes the return to the climax all the more devastating and powerful.
6. Rust and Bone- Craig Davidson: As I type this up I’m beginning to spot a pattern. I am a sucker for very dark short stories about familial loss, regret, and attempted redemption or catharsis. “Rust and Bone” opens with a dissertation on broken bones and ends as a study of a broken (maybe vaporized) heart. But it’s nowhere near as corny as that pitch. Davidson’s style shares the clean, visceral “telegraph” style of Ellroy, but he throws in these short, shimmering descriptions that captivate you amidst the bloodshed. And as rough as the violence gets here, it feels right and true, and for a few graceful moments shared with the narrator, like an escape.
7. Incarnations of Burned Children- David Foster Wallace: As with the other writers on this list, there’s no shortage of knockout stories in their bibliography. But this is another singular effect story, like Ketchum’s “The Rifle,” and as in that story parenting becomes an outright nightmare. “If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.” DFW didn’t have to pull any maximalist tricks on this one to totally fuck up your day. No indents, very few total sentences. Just three pages of stream-of-consciousness panic and pain and even the lyricism of the closing doesn’t let you suffer any less.
8. The Lottery- Shirley Jackson: Well, yeah. C’mon. “The children had stones already.” Holy shit.
9. Any Road, Any Time- Kris Saknussemm: A spiritual successor to “The Lottery” as directed by Todd Solondz. It’s clear from the kick-off that something bad is going to happen. The feel is ominous horror. Late night call. Dutiful tow truck operator headed to the scene. But a sudden shift to bizarre and extended eroticism changes the tone just long enough to keep you from noticing the trap door, and then Saknussemm pulls the switch.
10. The Last Rung on the Ladder- Stephen King: “But Jeremy, you seem like more of a ‘Survivor Type’ guy, and when I say that I mean: It seems like that’s the story structure that you most frequently steal write in homage to…” Touché, imaginary critic that lives in my brain. But when it comes down to it, “The Last Rung on the Ladder” is probably the story that sparked my love of the just-recognized “familial pain” theme in short stories. Most of the other stories in Night Shift had thrills and scares, but man, none of them hurt the same way.
So there’s my wildly subjective list. Regarding all the obvious omissions I will say that some of my favorite writers—like Ellroy and Mailer and Selby and McCammon and Welsh—do their most affecting work in long form. Palahniuk’s “Hot Potting” comes really, really close, as does Gary Braunbeck’s “Need.” Could I list individual sections of A Choir of Ill Children or Naked Lunch? Or HST articles? And if I included comic shorts you’d easily see Gaiman (“24 Hours” from Sandman) and Moore (every American Gothic issue of Swampy) and Ennis (for the Preacher issues with Jesse Custer’s Grandma) and Miller (“Hard Boiled” was pretty short, right?). And I feel weird leaving Ellison and Bradbury and Poe and Carver and Matheson and Oates off, as that’s probably some kind of technical literary crime, but done is done.
* Your mileage, of course, may vary, but trust me; this is a really solid list.