First Lines: Short Story Special

Recently I’ve finished two (digital) volumes of short stories, Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness and Clockwork Phoenix 2: More Tales of Beauty and Strangeness. It seems logical to me to tackle them in one go.

According to editor Mike Allen, Clockwork Phoenix collects stories that sidestep expectations in beautiful and unsettling ways, that surprise with their settings and startle with the ways they cross genre boundaries, that aren’t afraid to experiment with storytelling techniques. But experimentation is not a requirement: the stories in the anthology must be more than gimmicks, and should appeal to genuine emotions, suspense, fear, sorrow, delight, wonder.

Reading the introduction and first two stories of the first volume, I felt a bit uneasy. This cup of tea wasn’t turning out to be a huge success, and I had another three volumes remaining. Then, I read the fourth paragraph John Grant‘s All the Little Gods We Are, and all was well:

Bill lives only a few blocks away from where I live, in a similarly solitary apartment. His bachelorhood expresses itself in what I would describe as a near-obsessive neatness and a near-compulsive shedding of unnecessary possessions, so that his apartment is always full of space, shining surfaces, emptiness. My own bachelorhood manifests instead in the form of clutter: top-heavy heaps of books on the shelves and floor, CDs scattered everywhere, ashtrays and waste baskets and kitchen sink brimming with all my claims to a productive life. But his wide open spaces and my lack of them are both symptomatic of the same thing: while neither of us is short of friends and acquaintances, neither of our lives is very long co-tenanted by another. His life has occasional lodgers, if you will, who stay a night or three and leave a smell of eau de cologne in the rooms until Bill manages to scrub the air molecules clean of it. My own is shared by myself alone, not so much by deliberate choice as through a lack of inclination to have it otherwise.

I highlighted that last line, and read on. The rest of the story (about a man who dials the wrong number and gets an alternate universe version of himself on the phone) kicked my ass. Or pushed me into another existential crisis. It was that recognisable to me. Other favorites include Cat Rambo’s The Dew Drop Coffee Lounge, Vandana Singh’s Oblivion: A Journey and John C. Wright’s Choosers of the Slain.

In the second volume, I highlighted two passages from Catherynne M. Valente’s The Secret History of Mirrors, on the nature of tradition and religion, which made me chuckle:

The stars cried out and the perfect disc warped, bending and breaking, shattering over and over, down to its most secret core. It collapsed into an orb (the first school is somewhat non-specific as to the physics of this,) and the glass shivered into a billion grains of sand, and the mercury hid itself away within the stone once more.


The third school, the newest and most avant-garde, holds that the mirror did not originate on this terrestrial sphere at all, but on a planet orbiting the star known as Shedir, in the constellation of Cassiopeia, bathed in the blue light of sixteen moons. These iconoclasts have no beards, and therefore no one listens to them, or sits with them at lunchtime.

And one from Forrest Aguirre’s Never Nor Ever, which deals with time:

“It is not enough,” Dee said gravely. “We must escape. Clearly we could slow our aging, every two-bit apothecary offers cures for the maladies of senescence. But inevitability will reign supreme, no matter what our age. We cannot ignore it. It will sneak up on us and…”
“The crow…” Dum said ominously.

But neither of those were among my favorite stories. I believe that would either be Six by Leah Bobet, or Tanith Lee’s The Pain of Glass. Or Ann Leckie’s The Endangered Camp camp, even.

Remember my initial unrest? It’s gone. It’s that Stephen King’s latest novel arrived, otherwise I’d have dug into the two remaining volumes right away.

Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness (edited by Mike Allen)
First Line
We begin with fire. (Mike Allen, Introduction)
Clockwork Phoenix 2: More Tales of Beauty and Strangeness (edited by Mike Allen)
First Line
Below us the world burns, though the fires are not visible to the naked eye. (Mike Allen, Introduction)

As a stop-gap, I squeezed in Neil Gaiman’s A Calendar of Tales as well. Allow me to cite the introduction to explain this thing: On February 4th 2013 Neil Gaiman embarked on a fantastic art project in partnership with BlackBerry and millions of his fans. He tweeted twelve questions to the world, one for each month of the year. From the tens of housands of responses he received, Neil picked his favourite answers and wrote twelve short stories inspired by them. Releasing these back to the world, Neil asked people to contribute art to illustrate the stories.

The result are twelve very short stories, vignettes, if you will, available for absolutely nothing. While it may not be exactly among Gaiman’s most unforgettable works, it’s still an excellent read.

Neil Gaiman — A Calendar of Tales
First Line
Whap! “Is it always like this?”