Category Archives: Short Stories

A Walk in the Park

On September 20, 1976 at Northwestern University, I met a bright young lady who would before long become my wife. One day that fall I happened to be in her dorm room looking at a poster hanging on her roommate’s wall, a gorgeous photograph of forested mountains draped in the oranges, reds, and golds of autumn. As I admired the poster a story came to mind, and in short order I wrote the first draft of “National Park.”

To be honest, it wasn’t very good. I still had a lot to learn about writing in those days. Over the years, the story was rewritten and recast several times. You can read the current incarnation here, and I suggest you do before going on, because what follows is a serious spoiler.

Initially the story featured one lone character making a climb up a treacherous mountain. The climb lasted only a few pages, and was followed by a startling revelation. (This is where the spoiler comes in, so if you haven’t read the story yet, better do so now!) I left the climber intentionally anonymous, to emphasize what I hoped would be a stunning transformation from the richness of the natural world  to the desolation of the city in which he finds himself.

[SPOILER ALERT!]

That’s right: the National Park isn’t a natural wilderness at all, but a virtual reality experience. The climb didn’t happen except in the character’s head. The story was a cautionary tale about the destruction of the natural world and how increasingly we were being severed from it.

Not bad for 1976, a time when the term “virtual reality” hadn’t even been coined, although a few SF writers had created virtual reality stories before (Bradbury’s brilliantly chilling short story, “The Veldt” comes to mind). Alas, it wasn’t a well-written story.  Over the years I would rewrite it several times.

Even in its improved forms, readers didn’t seem to know what to make of it. One editor rejected it with the comment that although he enjoyed it, at the end all I’d done was to build up the danger to the climber and then reveal that he hadn’t been in any danger at all. Obviously the guy totally missed the point. The danger is real; it’s just not what it first appears to be.

Others told me to give the climber a name, and as I learned more about the sport of climbing, I added considerable detail to the preparations and the climb itself. I also added some other characters, partly to increase the realism and partly to increase the tension. Last but not least, the original story didn’t have a very good hook. The current version starts with one of the climber’s companions suggesting that he’s going to die on the mountain.

Today, virtual reality stories are so commonplace that I doubt “National Park” would excite any editor. So it is now relegated to my files and this blog. But I hope you enjoy it anyway.

 

The House of Music

In the early 1990’s, I wrote one of my rare Baha’i-inspired stories.  As with “The Planter of Flowers,” I buried the connection rather deep. Baha’is might get it. Others, maybe not so much.

People who read it seemed to like it, but it confused them. What the heck was the author trying to say? One editor commented that by the end of the story, they, too wanted to go into the house and dance to the strains of eternal music. But still, what was it all about?

I’ll let you try to figure it out. Without futher ado, here it is: The House of Music. I’ll explain it in my newsletter on Friday, but do read it first. (If you’re not a subscriber, use the popup form that appears when you’re about to leave to sign up.) It’s always possible you might be the rare person who actually gets it!

Mayhem in the Garden

In the summer of 1992, I wrote a short story titled “The Planter of Flowers.” Memory of its origin has long since faded from my mind, but the date hints at a possible connection.

Also in the summer of 1992, my wife, children, and I traveled from our home–then in the Chicago suburb of Streamwood, Illinois–to Wounded Knee, South Dakota for the annual Lakota Baha’i Conference. A do-it-yourself conference organized by adherents of the Baha’i Faith living on the Pine Ridge Reservation–one of the poorest areas in the nation–it offered locals a chance to meet and learn with a diverse group of Baha’is without expense.

“The Planter of Flowers” has no obvious Lakota connection. There is one mention of a character who looks like he could be native American, but that’s coincidental. The real connection is Baha’i. I’ve often wanted to work Baha’i elements into my stories, but seldom succeed.  I can think of only three short stories where I’ve done so. If you knew what to look for, you’d find them hiding in my first two Howard County mysteries as well, and the next novel, Ice on the Bay, will include Baha’i characters. But given the number of stories I’ve written over the years, these are a paltry few, and this story is one of them.

I did try to sell the story, but by and large editors didn’t seem to get it. I later modified it, but still found some readers didn’t quite get it. I wonder if you will?

Let’s find out. Without further ado, here is “The Planter of Flowers.” Enjoy!