By Amanda Hard who is featured next in ‘State of Horror: Louisiana’
The relationship between the writer and the reader has been described as an intense but brief love affair, distant yet freakishly intimate. While a novel can be seen as a lengthy romance, Stephen King suggested “a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.”
What makes that kiss so compelling to me is what isn’t said, the words that go unspoken. As a reader, you don’t say goodbye to a good short story; you watch her walk away, mesmerized by her poetry and powerless to call her back for explanation. And when she looks over her shoulder at you, you will remember that coy smile for many years. A good short story leaves its lipstick on your collar while you fumble in your pocket for a pen to take down her number.
Speaking as a reader, I think the best short stories are those kisses in the dark that leave me guessing. Joyce Carol Oates has a tendency to end her short stories abruptly, often seemingly in the middle of a scene, and with no apparent resolution. They end without explaining why they end, a lover who kisses you but never returns your phone calls. I both love and hate this, however in imitating this tendency of hers, I think I’ve created some of my strongest work.
The very best horror stories, the ones that have stayed with me over the years and the ones I reread as often as possible, have confused me at first. They’ve angered me on the second reading, and then burrowed into my imagination, crawling through my thoughts and pushing aside folds of brain matter until the maddening itch they inspire make me pick up the book and read them again. And again. And yet again. I love those stories even as I resent the intrusion of their paranoid and often horrific universes into my waking reality. I can’t forget them; they inform and influence everything I read and write, even now.
As a writer, I consider the short story the ultimate think-tank. It’s an incubator for ideas, craft techniques, and characters. You can hold the entirety of a short story universe in your head, all at once, which gives you a wider perspective when you’re experimenting with things like structure and form. You can explore the same story from different points of view, without feeling like you’ve “wasted” months or years of work. The first draft of a short story, even for a slow writer like me, is at its lengthiest an investment of only about a week’s time. I’ve played with spending a month writing the same story three or four different times in different ways. Fiction’s short form is where we writers can easily engage in this kind of experimentation, dressing a story up in different clothes to see which looks the best.
Anthologies are the ultimate short story porn for me: a dozen or more encounters in the dark, strange kisses all tasting of different bitters and sweets; a select few that bite my lip as they draw back, while I lick away a drop of my own blood and scramble backwards through the pages to recapture the moments leading up to that last sentence. It takes me months, sometimes, to get through an entire anthology, despite a promise to myself that I will first read each story only once.
Themed anthologies by diverse writers are my first preference, especially if the theme lends itself to the kind of open-endedness I enjoy in a story. I love the idea of “place” as more than just a setting, which is why the State of Horror series appealed to me and why I chose to submit my work to the series. The mountains of Tennessee don’t simply hide stills and moonshine, and Louisiana isn’t just a state—it’s a mythos. I’m thrilled to be a contributor, and excited to experience the wide range of strange kisses in the dark this series promises.