How I Got Screwed Up (And You Can Too!)

I still remember the day I found out about short stories. I was in the kid’s section of the Milton Public Library and I found a book called Bug Awful in a series called Science Fiction Shorts, edited by Issac Asimov.

Science Fiction Shorts was apparently Asimov’s attempt to drive the children of the world stark raving mad by tricking them into reading truly unnerving stories, stories clearly written by adults for adults.

Your parents would look at the book and say, “Oh how sweet, it has pictures in it. Nothing could possibly be wrong with such a wholesome format as a picture book.”

But when I opened that book, when I gazed upon those words…

The first story was called “Mimic.” It started out with an explanation of how insects protect themselves by the mimicry of their predators. And who could be a greater predator than man himself? The story went on to detail how one such insect, a bug with a human face and a carapace that looked like a long overcoat lived in a neighborhood for years until one day until one day the tenants in his apartment complex found him in his death throes, giving birth to thousands of tiny suit wearing bugs that flew off into the night.

You know, FOR KIDS!

It was disgusting. It was terrifying.

And I loved it.

After that I started to seek out these kinds of stories, short, unnerving, and almost always with a twist at the end. For me short stories weren’t just another kind of fiction. They were a revelation.

Because short stories had something that none of the books I had read up until that point had. Downer endings. There was no requirement that a short story end on an up note, no law that said the good guys had to win over the bad guys. And more often than not these types of stories reveled in the negative, affecting the reader through their darkness rather than light.

And anyone who’s read my fiction can attest that I’m still in love with the downer ending. I’m not sure why. I think it might have something to do with the fact that when you don’t give the reader what they want the story lives on for them, gnawing at the back of their minds, making them wonder if they could have found a way out of the labyrinth of misery my characters had navigated.

Or possibly it’s because I’m just a sick puppy.

I don’t know. All I do know is that of all the wonderful things my recent collaboration with Ellie Soderstrom has brought about, the one real point of contention between us is the ending. For some reason she stubbornly refuses to let me leave our protagonists mired in an inescapable pit of despair.

Personally I think it’s a girl thing.

How about you? Do you like to see your stories end with honey, joy and light? Or do you, like me, require a little bitter to go with your sweet?

P.S. Also, if you encountered Bug Awful or any of the other Science Fiction Shorts books, please share your experience in the comments. These were really fantastic books, and they appear to be out of print and somewhat rare. I’m going to have to snap up some used copies for my future kids.

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10 responses to “How I Got Screwed Up (And You Can Too!)

  1. I encountered the same books – each short story was like a written “Night Gallery” episode (can I bring up television here? too late). These stories captured my imagination, but it was sci-fi like Robert Heinlein’s Future History stories that really grabbed me – though some of those “short” stories were almost novellas. Most included dark events, but ended positively. Whether short or “not-so-short”, positive or negative endings, it’s important that we were reading – something that has gone out of vogue with many of our young today – gameboys have all too often replaced short stories. And while I mentioned TV earlier, watching it didn’t discourage me from reading. It was because of TV that I started writing my own stories – it was reading the short stories of others that taught me how.

    In closing I would mention that if you do indeed want future children, you might reconsider sentences that end with: “…it’s a girl thing” : )

  2. I, too, love downer endings. All my stories have downer endings. Yep, liking upper endings must be a “girl thing.” 😉

    Like Keir, I was a fan of “Night Gallery.” Watching the syndicated episodes late at night helped warp my mind.

  3. Ha! Great post. You’re pretty funny for being such a sick puppy.
    I do like your stories, I like some downer endings. Some. But must every story end thus? Hm. We shall see.
    And a cool distinction between shorts and novels-novels usually must have a “good” ending-to make it worth all that time you spent reading it.

  4. I have a strange, somewhat-twisted obsession with “downer” endings as well. Perhaps its an illness? ^_^ I don’t like endings that are too neat, or too perfectly wrapped-up. And sometimes the tragic, dark, creepy, or unresolved ending is simply more interesting.

  5. I think I’m somewhere in the middle. A happy-happy-joy-joy ending leaves me thinking ‘yeah, right’ A downer ending does linger with me longer. I think my favorites though, are those that don’t end with everything fixing itself and going right, and maybe even something awful happening, but there still being some subconscious glimmer of hope that a character who mattered COULD go on, even if not has he or she first expected, to a happier next-chain-of-events that is up to you the reader to imagine. I think that’s why I’m so hooked on The Song of Ice and Fire series (definitely the polar opposite of short stories, which I also love!). There is no guarantee that the “good guys” won’t end up horribly and brutally dead, but there’s always someone or something left to hope for. At least so far …

  6. For me, it really depends on the story. Sometimes I like a downer ending. Sometimes I like a happy ending. And sometimes I enjoy a mixed ending. I might enjoy a mixed ending most of all. The hero(es) win but there’s a price. Bittersweet. 😀

  7. For me, happy ending. There’s just something about it that takes it away from real life. It’s still part of the makebelieve world of Snow White and Cinderella (Disney version of course). It takes us from our grim reality into something where all dreams come true.

  8. I like a short story with a good twist … Like my tequila, with a twist of lime … I digress. 🙂 Never read the “Bug Awful” shorts, but I will have to see if I can track down a copy as well because it sounds like it would be right up my alley. Another good (and by good I mean not-so-good-ending) set of shorts is Stephen King’s “Skeleton Crew.” There’s also Hemingway’s largely tragic collection of short stories, as well as anything ever written by Ambrose Bierce. “The Boarded Window” still gives me the creeps.

  9. Pingback: Happily Ever After Endings « Escaping the Inkwell

  10. When I am reading a story I like happy endings or something between a happy and sad ending.
    When I am writing a story I like downer endings perhaps it is because I am the writer; therefore, I have the peace of mind of knowing what the author intended and what that ending means for the future of the characters.

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