Out There in the Cold: First Lines from Short Stories Fit for October

It’s here. Fall. Time to open the windows and let the wind in, to dig out sweatshirts pushed to the back of the closet. Afternoons are quiet now that cicadas are finally gone. Trees are turning. Geese are migrating. Pumpkins litter gardens and porches. Time to take the kids camping or apple-picking or to wander through a corn maze. And it’s the time for telling stories. That’s what our ancestors did once the harvest was in and the days grew short.

So to honor the tradition and the spookiest time of the year, I’ve made a new first-line list. These are short stories that not only have intriguing first lines but that I think are ripe for October picking – haunting tales for a haunted month. And many of them are available on the internet. So go get yourself a cup of hot chocolate, get a blanket for your feet, curl up in your favorite chair, and enjoy.

 “Out there in the cold water, far from land, we waited every night for the coming of the fog, and it came, and we oiled the brass machinery and lit the fog light up in the stone tower.”

“The Foghorn” by Ray Bradbury, published first in his collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun, in 1953.
Once a year, something answers the call of the lighthouse’s foghorn.
“There aren’t many hitchhikers on the road to Hell.”
“Dead Run” by Greg Bear, published first in OMNI magazine in 1985 and reprinted in his collection Tangents in 1989.
A truck driver ferries souls to Hell.
“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within the view of the melancholy House of Usher.”
“The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe, published first in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1839 and reprinted for the collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, in 1840.
A tale of madness from America’s first master of the macabre.
“Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat.”
“Chivalry” by Neil Gaimen, published in his short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors, in 1998.
Something to lighten the list. An elderly widow finds the Holy Grail at a thrift shop.

Cthulu via lovecraft.wikia.com

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

“The Call of Cthulu” by H.P. Lovecraft first published in Weird Tales in 1928.
A found manuscript tells how its writer discovered evidence of an ancient cult.
“On the way out to Tempe, I saw a dead jackal on the road.”
“The Last of the Winnebagos” by Connie Willis, published first in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1988 and reprinted in her collection, Impossible Things, in 1994. Won the Nebula for best novella in 1988 and the Hugo for best novella in 1989. Despite its length I chose to include it as a short story because I can and I really like this one.
A vision of a dystopian future in which a pandemic has wiped out man’s best friend.
“So I’m filling the catsup bottles at the end of the night, and I’m listening to the radio Charlie has stuck up on top of a movable panel in the ceiling, when the door opens and one of them walks in.”
“Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1985. Won a Nebula for best short story in 1986.
A waitress at a truck stop finds herself serving an alien.
“Cassandra” by C.J. Cherryh, published first in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1978 and later reprinted in her collection, Visible Light, in1986. Won a Hugo for best short story in 1979.
Cassandra is cursed with precognition and lives with a horrifying vision of the future.
“It was forty miles from Horlicks University in Pittsburgh to Cascade Lake, and although dark comes early to that part of the world in October and although they didn’t get going until six o’clock, there was still a little light in the sky when they got there.”
“The Raft” by Stephen King, published first in Gallery magazine in 1982 and reprinted in his collection, Skeleton Crew, in 1985.
The modern master of horror doesn’t disappoint in this dark little tale.
“Brother Jimmy-Joe Billy-Bob brought the Word to the New Yorkers on the eve of Christmas Eve, paddling his long dugout canoe east up the Forty-second Street Conflu-ence and then north, against the tide, up Fifth Avenue, past the point where the roof of the Public Library glowed greenly under the surface of the darkening waters.”
“Vexed to Nightmare by a Rocking Cradle” by Dan Simmons published in Mile High Futures in 1985 and reprinted in his collection Prayers to Broken Stones in 1990.
Not your average post-apocalyptic story. The darkest tale on the list and artfully told.

Much Ado About To-Do Lists

Much Ado About To-Do Lists

For decades now, I’ve been chasing my own personal Holy Grail: the ultimate time-and-stress-management-tool, a perfectly constructed and prioritized To-do list. I was convinced that if I could just learn to create beautifully balanced lists, carefully weighing each factor, considering all the possible ramifications of each decision, I would find that optimal formula that would make my life magically manageable. It was a beautiful dream, but I’ve come to realize I’ve been chasing rainbows all these years. The To-do list at its best is an illusion, a will-o-the-wisp, an exercise in serious crazy-making. And this is why:

  1. Alien (creature in Alien franchise)

    Not warm and fuzzy.

    To-do lists are not warm and fuzzy. Getting to cross something off the list is pretty much all the reward you’re going to get for completing a task no matter how onerous. You’re not going to get a hug or a pat on the back or even a simple “Atta girl” from your list. It doesn’t care. It’s just an idea with an agenda, a mirage, a deceiver. It’s only reason for existence is to make you feel inadequate.

  2. To-do lists are big and scary. I’m often so overwhelmed by the collective enormity of tasks I am responsible for, that I will spend my whole day purposely doing something that’s not on the list just to relieve list-induced stress. But you can’t escape the list once you’ve created it. It will hide in closets and under your bed, haunt your dreams, invade your every waking thought, crawl out of the TV at you like the creepy dead girl in The Ring until you finally give in and do something on the list. You hear that phone ringing? Don’t answer it. Just do the list.
  3. To-do lists are not fair. In my mind, I don’t get proper credit for completing a task, if it wasn’t on the list. It doesn’t matter that I finally cleaned the garage, if I didn’t write in on the list first and check it off after, I am not allowed to feel satisfied. (I didn’t make the rules. I just follow them. Remember the list is not your friend.)
  4. To-do lists are organic. They grow. They’re like kudzu of the brain. Kudzu in the deep South in the summer where the mad green creeper sucks what it needs right out of the daylight and heat and air, materializes up to 13 inches of new healthy vine an hour, and turns trees and abandoned buildings into big green haunts overnight. Try and hack that back and see if you don’t feel like a crazy woman with a machete fighting a losing battle. Point is, do-lists never die and I will never be done with mine. No matter what I do, by the time I am done, my list will grow more tasks.
  5. To-do lists spawn. Like frogs in a pond. One day the water’s clear and the next, there’s a swarm of little polliwogs already trying to sprout limbs. No matter how I’ve tried, there’s just no way that I can find to prioritize everything with just one list or even two lists. Lists proliferate and pretty soon you have a half dozen lists based on category or urgency. Perhaps this is because I am internally conflicted about the real purpose of my list(s). Is it to remember and prioritize tasks or to satisfy some compulsive need I have to create the illusion of order and control in my life? I suspect the latter and should probably give up do-listing immediately for the sake of my emotional and mental health.

So now that I know the dirty little secrets of To-do listing I should give it up. I know it will eat my time and devour my peace of mind. I should let it go. Free myself from the tyranny of prioritized task itemization. Let go of my yen for control and order. Life is chaotic and I am a feather in the wind. Unfortunately, I’m still a feather with a lot to do.


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