Short fiction… it’s different. It requires a different skillset – a different mindset – from the novel. I know excellent novelists who can’t write a short story worth a damn. Conversely, I know short story wizards who are totally flummoxed by the long form. When I was starting out – shortly after the Permian extinction – I counted myself in the latter category.
I’ve always written. I can remember penning stories – haunted house and ghost stories, naturally – as far back as the second grade. But in my early twenties I set myself the goal of becoming a published author. I saw no way of making a living as a writer – not at a pay rate of a few cents a word – but I loved telling stories and wanted to make writing a part of my life.
With absolutely no guidance, without ever taking a writing class or attending a workshop, I began writing short stories. No horror market existed at the time, so I sent them off to the SF magazines and collected a pile of rejection slips. But I was not to be deterred. I was going to make this happen. I kept submitting and soon started selling. Five cents a word when I was lucky, otherwise three cents. Sometimes nothing when the magazine folded before it sent the check.
I wanted very much to write a novel but found the prospect of sustaining a coherent narrative for that long positively daunting. My first “novel,” Healer, was in fact a succession of novelettes and short stories about the same immortal character strung out over 1200 years. Next came Wheels Within Wheels which was just as fragmented with flashbacks and side stories. My first real novel is my third, An Enemy of the State.
But I kept writing short stories because I loved the discipline, the focus, and the tradition.
Speaking of tradition, the short story is a very American form of fiction that finds its origins in Edgar Allan Poe. According to Poe, a short story can be read in less than an hour and must leave a powerful impression. It should strive for a “unity of effect,” and by that he means that every word in the story is directed toward its dénouement which should land with an impact “unattainable by the novel.”
His form of short story became immensely popular in the US, leading eventually to the pulp magazine era in the first half of the twentieth century. People who’ve researched that period say that at the height of their popularity in the mid-1930s, an amazing total of 150 pulp titles fought for newsstand space. We’re talking general fiction, romance, western, mystery, SF, horror, “spicy” fiction, crime, sports, war, aviation, and on and on. Consider that each title published an average of ten stories per issue (some fewer, some more, but even the hero pulps with a “novel” every issue contained backup short stories) and some of these, like Argosy and All-Story, were published weekly.
Think about that: a short-fiction market in the neighborhood of 1,500 stories per month, every month. Of course, if Sturgeon’s law holds true, 90% of those stories were crap. But I think I can safely say that if you couldn’t place a piece of your fiction then, you’d never sell – anywhere, any time.
Things are different now. Short fiction is undergoing a bit of a resurgence in popularity at the moment but the market to sell it (as opposed to self-publish it) has contracted dramatically. The novel is the most popular length for thriller fiction (and under that umbrella I include political thrillers, horror thrillers, science thrillers, and so on), but the short form exists.
Case in point: Back in 2006, the International Thriller Writers put together an anthology called, surprisingly, Thriller, a who’s who of the thriller genre: Lee Child, Brad Thor, Preston & Child, Rollins, Lescroart, etc. All great novelists, but some not so comfortable with the short form. I’m happy to say, though, that in her review for the NY Times, Janet Maslin singled out my story for special mention because it had “a beginning, middle and ending, as well as some neat tricks in between.”
This does not mean I’m a better writer than my friends in Thriller, it simply means that I cut my teeth on short stories and was at home with both the long- and short-form thriller. Many of them were not.
Unlike Hank Schwaeble who is at home with any length, it seems, a fact of which I remained unaware until I read Moonless Nocturne.
I’ve known Hank a long time. We would run into each other again and again at a convention in Rhode Island called NECon; in 2010 we taught a writing class together at the Pen-to-Press Writers Retreat in New Orleans. Oh, and we both like blues guitar. But I’d read only his novels before now. (If you haven’t read his Jake Hatcher novels, you need to remedy that.) Somehow his shorter works and I never intersected. His previous collection, American Nocturne, also slipped past me. So Moonless Nocturne came as an oh-so-pleasant surprise.
This is a truly outstanding collection. I say that not because I was asked to write the intro, but because it’s true. First, you have such a variety of time periods – the ’30s, the ’50s, the ‘80s, present day, even the future – along with an amazing array of settings: Chicago, Houston, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Africa, and more.
He starts you off with “The Yearning Jade,” a classic noir that could have come from the pages of the rightfully venerated Black Mask magazine where the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, and others found their hardboiled voices. On further consideration, it might have felt right at home in the old Weird Tales under Farnsworth Wright as well.
“Household” is unlike any haunted house tale you’ve ever read, but nowhere near as frightening as “Everything not Forbidden.” I found the latter the most disturbing piece in the collection, creating a deep unease that lingered long after I’d finished it. Lingers with me still, in fact. This is a future I don’t want to happen. I wish I could say it’s a future no one wants to happen, but that’s not true. That’s the scariest part: not the inevitable singularity that will present us with a self-aware artificial intelligence, but our fellow human beings who are all too willing to sacrifice their agency for a patina of security.
The next tale, “Shifty Devil Blues,” is almost comforting by comparison, despite the Faustian bargain at its heart. As a fan since my teens, I find any story with the blues at its heart irresistible.
I see “Haunter” as a companion piece to “Household,” except it’s not a house being haunted but a person. I think I would have flinched a few times if I were telling this story. Hank doesn’t, not once, and that’s what makes it such a wrenching piece.
“Deepest, Darkest” stars Hank’s recurring character, Jake Hatcher, in an uncharacteristically non-urban environment: Africa. It could have been a straight action-adventure piece, but Hank isn’t going to let you get off with something so simple as that. Be prepared for multiple dark twists and turns before he cuts you loose.
“Psycho Metrics” is another period piece (the 1980s) that looks for all the world like a cop procedural and turns out to be something else entirely. Leading to “Payday,” in which you know something’s coming but you just don’t know what. The only story in the book I might venture to call “fun.”
“Zafari!” closes the collection by transporting us once again to Africa for a zombie hunt. You think zombies have been done to death? So did I, but Hank brings some fresh ideas to the “science” behind the walking dead.
I’ve saved comment on the noirish title novella, “Moonless Nocturne,” for last. This truly delicious piece moves the timeframe to the late 1950s and is my favorite in the collection. When you can mix cold war paranoia with murder and a hardboiled private eye slinking through the underbelly of a corrupt city, then add a soupçon of either the supernatural or possibly alien technology, you’ve got me – hook, line, and the proverbial sinker.
“Moonless Nocturne” presents a perfect example of Poe’s “unity of effect:” no narrative wanderings, no aimless digressions; everything in the story points toward the dénouement.
You are poised on the bank of a globetrotting, time-travelling collection of bizarre thrillers. Dive in and start swimming.
F. Paul Wilson
The Jersey Shore