Now that I think about it…I’ve written an entire book of short stories even though I’ve never been a huge short stories reader. That’s probably the reason why a few of those stories I wrote don’t hold up very well two years later, I can’t deny it, because as I was writing those short stories I often found myself in trouble.
Not serious trouble, of course, but a feeling that I didn’t know where to go from a certain point in the story. More often than not, I found it hard to keep the story short but with something happening within it. Having something interesting for a reader happen in less than 1000, 2000, 5000 words is not an easy task, I found out.
A few weeks back I came to think again about the differences between short stories and full-length novels, because I was asked to review a collection of short stories for the very first time. “As I tried to write a bunch I found it was completely different from everything I’ve ever written before,” I said to myself, “why not see if they’re different from the point of view of a reader too?”
And so I accepted, and got a copy of “Not For Polite Society And Other Stories” from Elle Stockton. I have to say it’s a strange book, but maybe it’s just my not being used to the format of it. And just to be clear, the word strange has a positive meaning here, because as much as I felt it wasn’t my usual read, somehow I couldn’t put it down.
The first thing I found peculiar is how different the different stories are in length. “Not For Polite Society” and “A Particular Taste” are quite long, while “Dark Night” is just a few pages long. But they all deliver with a twist, and I appreciated the sense of surprise that came with every story ending.
I’m not going to describe each of the five short stories because I feel like the book is worth a read and how the revelations get to the reader is a huge part of the fun. I’m just saying something more about “Not For Polite Society” and “A Particular Taste”, the first and last stories in the book, as they are the longest ones and somehow left me a little bit more room to talk without spoiling.
“A Particular Taste” is the kind of dark story I happen to appreciate. Even though I understood what the taste was about quite early in the story, I couldn’t stop myself from reading because I wanted to know where it came from and how it was going to impact the present lives of the protagonists. And the result didn’t disappoint me, as there was that kind of grey moral area I usually like in this kind of story. No room for the perfect hero here, give me all the ambiguous ones.
“Not For Polite Society”, instead, is the story I thought I wasn’t going to finish as I was halfway through it. I couldn’t help it, I kept waiting for something to happen to the protagonist but this wait seemed to go on and on. The protagonist himself is a piece of ass in the beginning, and this is why I wasn’t expecting the story to take the turn it took. But as you probably know, I love to be surprised, and as I approached the end of the story I found out that my attitude towards it had changed one page after the other, before I could notice it.
It’s the kind of transformation similar to the one Burt goes through, and I loved to finish the story, think about it as a whole and recognise how far I (and Burt) had come. I don’t know how Elle Stockton pulled it off, or if it was planned at all, but from that moment on I couldn’t put the book down, eager for more surprise.
So yes, the final verdict is in. Short stories are very different with respect to novels, both as a writer and as a reader. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll give it another try as a writer, too.
Of course, the other verdict was already in. “Not For Polite Society And Other Stories” is definitely a must read. It’s well written, peculiar, and unafraid to deal with uncomfortable topics such as death and abuse. And Elle Stockton has a gift for surprises, because you never know what’s going to happen page after page.