Thursday, December 13, 2012

Santa, Viking (Short Stories You Really Ought To Read)

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Don't you think short stories are a neglected art form?  Me, too.  This feature might help rectify that.

Christmas stories can be hard to write.  It's easy to go too schmaltzy, "schmaltzy" being a real word as far as this guy is concerned.

(You can't see it but I am pointing both my thumbs at the Christmas tree behind me.  I don't think schmaltzy is a real word but the tree does.)

It would be supereasy to write a Christmas story that hits every note that's expected: kids and snow and Santa and presents, and some sort of redemption at the end that's on par with a guy not killing himself because he lost all the bank's money.  Isn't that what happens in It's A Wonderful Life?  I'm not sure.  I did have the It's A Wonderful Life cookbook for a while, until I threw it out this year, because we no longer use cookbooks, much, and so I didn't need it taking up space.  But I had used it, once, to make popovers.  Did you ever make popovers?  They're superhard to make. But mine turned out incredible.

On the other hand, you could go the exact wrong way with a Christmas story: you could make it too disturbing, using Christmas as a lazy tool to make things more shocking, the way some filmmaker does about every five years, setting a slasher film on Christmas Eve and having the killer dress as Santa, just to get a rise out of people.  As creative efforts go, Christmas-slasher films are nothing.  It's too easy to take two completely opposite things and mash them up for an effect:

Santa = psycho killer

Isn't creativity, it's putting stuff in a blender.

While typical, ("schmaltzy") Christmas stories can be okay if done well -- I'm thinking Bad Santa or National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation or Love, Actually -- they're also kind of boring, in that we know perfectly well what to expect: something bad happens and then Christmas fixes it up.

What I really like are stories that use Christmas in an unexpected way.  (I like that in any story, but this is a post about Christmas stories.)

Take Home Alone, for instance.   



Home Alone was set at Christmas, but it wasn't a Christmas movie, the way we think about it.  The plot didn't revolve around Christmas, but simply used Christmas as an atmosphere, heightening the emotions a bit and giving the entire story a reason to exist with a little bit of extra oomph, but you can watch the movie in July and not feel particularly weird about it, the way watching Bad Santa in July would.

("Christmas in July" is shorthand for one of my favorite ideas.  I dream of someday being able to celebrate Christmas wearing shorts and a t-shirt and sitting outside on my deck, basking in the warm sunshine and ocean breezes.  I'm getting closer to it.  As of right now, I'm missing only the deck, the sunshine, and the ocean breezes.  I have the shorts/t-shirt and the Christmas.)

Another interesting and little-known Christmas story is Markheim, a story I read last year during SUPERXmas when I was looking for stories that were about Christmas but were a little different.  In Markheim, a man goes to a rare-goods dealer on Christmas Day, supposedly to get a present for his girlfriend, but a death and a visit from... something... create an entirely different story that also happens on Christmas but doesn't necessarily need Christmas to happen.

It was in the course of reading those stories that I came across "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" by Frank Baum, a story about Santa getting taken hostage and having to fight his way out with knooks and such on his side, and so I was not entirely ignorant of this tougher, martial side of Santa when I sat down to read Christmas On The Corner, by Andrew Leon.

Leon, who wrote The House On The Corner, (reviewed here, with 10 1/2 questions for the author) revisits the world he created in that first book with his main characters, three kids (Sam, Tom, and Ruth) kids who just happen to play important roles in a series of linked universes in which magic exists; the kids (and their parents) live in our Universe, but their house is the fulcrum of sorts separating all the universes.  (I know I've got that wrong, but if you read the book it's all clear.)

Christmas on the Corner is something between a long short story and a short novel, but, like the rest of the stuff I've read from Leon is not only a great read, but could always be longer; it's one of those stories (and he's one of those writers) that you don't want to end.

Here's what happens: at the outset of the story, the family is a bit on edge as increasingly-angry son Tom has caused some minor trouble, and at the same time, Dad Will reads some stories about elves and Santa, stemming from letters by J.R.R. Tolkien.  This is all taking place just before Christmas, and before long, the story kicks into high gear with what seems like an innocuous (albeit weird because it's down South) snowstorm leading to an invasion by goblins and a need for the family to step into their roles as Guardian and Wizard and help defend their town.

What I liked best, and what surprised me most about this story was the amazing depth of emotion.  I'm not crazy about YA fiction, which is what Leon claims his books are -- but I read his because I don't think they're YA, really.  Like J.K. Rowling, and Tolkien, Leon manages to write a story that can be enjoyed by younger readers, but the depths and range of emotion, as well as the darker elements in this one particularly, resonate with older readers.

There is a scene, for example, that particularly struck me: As the blizzard, and goblin attack, worsen, Sam (who is 10, I think?) and Ruth, who is 6, and their mom, have set out to fight the goblins, and Mom, who should be in charge, has to grapple with the fact that she has no particular power in this situation: Ruth is the Guardian, Sam the Wizard, and her?

She's just the mom.

Leon walks us through her thoughts in stunning, brisk fashion, as she decides that she has to cede authority to Sam, and that scene and the implications honestly stunned me.  He doesn't overdo it but it sunk in to me with its simplicity: a mom, standing in a blizzard with an almost-unimaginable horror, has to tell her 10-year-old son You make the decisions, here.

The book/story is full of surprisingly adult moments like that and, as I said, that makes it all the richer a read.

Ultimately, Leon ties Christmas back in in a way that is both surprising and not, pulling together elements of Christmas with a style that makes them seem fresh -- I won't spoil that more than the title of this post did by talking much about it, but I will say that the more traditional a piece of Christmas is in the story, the more glancingly Leon talks about it, which is an effective way of making those things seem fresh and more real.

And while this is a Christmas story, it's not A Christmas Story, in that it could have existed at any time of the year, in its fictional world; the Christmas elements make it more dramatic but not in a cheesy way.

I have yet to read anything bad by Andrew Leon.  You really ought to read this story.  (Buy it here for just $2.99.)



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14 comments:

Andrew Leon said...

Wow! Thanks so much! And thanks for posting it to Amazon!

Liz said...

Christmas in shorts? Perhaps you should take a Christmas trip to Australia. I hear it's summer there.

Briane P said...

Liz: but they have horrifying spiders. And then they'd just have winter in summer.

Andrew: Amazon said my review helped one shopper. So I'm a hero!

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Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

I think one of the best Christmas stories is the Polar Express because it has trains in it.

Briane P said...

Yes, that makes sense. Those two things absolutely go together. Wait, what?

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

Nice review!!!

Yes, Andrew is a very talented writer. Can't wait to read his new novella!

Andrew Leon said...

@Cathy: And I can't wait for you to read it!

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Jeremy Bates said...

That was a mighty long blog entry that took me an entire cup of coffee to get through. I also enjoyed "The Cabin in the Woods." Hell of it is, I had to wait until it came out on DVD as they never showed it here in Manila.

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