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.
 
“Fires.”
“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.

Far Out: Best First Lines of Sci Fi and Horror Novels (that I Think You Should Read)

The modern American reading public has the collective attention span of a stressed-out, sleep-deprived gnat with ADD. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom would have us believe. English teachers, editors and published writers all seem to tell aspiring writers every day that they’ve got to hook readers with the first line or they’ll lose them. Disgusted editors, they are told, will fling their manuscripts disdainfully into the slush pile if they’re not captivated by the opening lines. As a member of the reading public, I find these assumptions vaguely insulting.

And a little true – though I tend to give an author a few paragraphs or pages before I make any summary judgments about his or her skill. So I don’t require that a “hook” be buried in that first line to keep me engaged. But I have to admit, I love a good opener.

So here are a few of my favorite first lines from my two favorite genres, science fiction and horror. Not only are these intriguing sentences, but each begins a book that I would highly recommend reading. See what you think:

 “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
1984, George Orwell
  
 
 
 
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
 
 
 
 
“Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”
2001 – A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke.
 
 
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
 
 
 
 
 
 
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.””
The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien
(Okay I know this is two sentences but it could have been one and it’s one of my favorite openers.)
 
 
 
 
 “No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
 
 
 
 
 
 “The story so far: In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
The Restaurant at the End of the UniverseDouglas Adams
(Two sentences again, I know. But it’s my list and I can cheat if I want to.) 
 
 
 “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
 
 
  
 
 
“My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I’m not sure you should care who I am or that I exist.”
Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz
 
“Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but he finished shaving before he did anything about it.”
Night WatchTerry Pratchett
 
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”
The Golden CompassPhilip Pullman
 
 
 
 
  
 
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
ITStephen King
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.”
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
 
  
 
 
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
War of the Worlds, HG Wells
 
 
 
 “The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.”
Life, the Universe and EverythingDouglas Adams
(Nobody opened a story like Douglas Adams.)

All the Days of Summer

“Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.”

–  Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

When I was a kid, summer was all about freedom – from school, from homework, from having to close the book and turn out the light too early every night, from bells ringing and chalk squeaking on a black board and being expected to sit for most of the day. And from staring out the window daydreaming about being out there, outside under the fierce sun and fathomless sky watching clouds scud across the blue like clipper ships with full sails.

Sometimes, I think I remember my childhood summers like stories Ray Bradbury wrote just for me. If you picked up my copy of I Sing the Body Electric or Golden Apples of the Sun, you’d find them there, my stories, like the thirteenth floor in tall buildings, invisible until you looked for them. And when you did, there I’d be in print – running with the neighborhood kid pack, riding my bike and going barefoot and wading in ditches and scooping polliwogs into pickle jars.

The summers I remember smelled of pine sap and honeysuckle and sounded like cicadas. There were water moccasins in the garden, gators in the bayou, and graveyards in the woods. All old homes were haunted, especially if they were built before the Civil War, and people said the river sang with the voices of a vanished Indian tribe. I wore cut-offs and drank water from the hose, got bitten by mosquitoes and deer flies and horse flies and ants, climbed trees and neighbors’ fences, and rode my bike around deserted schools and vacant ballparks. Sometimes I’d stay out until the bats swooped in the evening sky and the streetlights flickered on and my mother’s voice began calling me home.

If I was inside on a summer day, I was reading a book – Bradbury or Heinlein or Asimov or Clarke, stories where anything could happen and usually did. A trip to the Pascagoula Public Library to stock up on new stories was even better than a visit to the Pixie Pet Shop where we got our dog (a 12-pound miniature dachshund named Caesar) and where they kept a real piranha in a huge murky tank. The library was seemed dark when you first stepped in from the afternoon sun until your eyes adjusted and you could see all the daylight the old building let in, dust motes drifting in rays of light from walls of paned windows. The air inside was cool and smelled of aging paper and ink and glue. Its stacks were labyrinthine and had creaky wooden floors, high shelves, and secret corners perfect for reading. The librarians were traditional and enforced the quiet so it was easier to dive out of the world and surface in another where dinosaurs still lived or spaceships were real.

“He brought out a yellow nickel tablet. He brought out a Ticonderoga pencil. He opened the tablet. He licked the pencil…”

When Ray Bradbury passed away a few weeks ago, just before what would have been his 92nd summer on the planet, all I could think was – the world will be poorer without him but thank goodness for all the stories he left us –  The Martian Chronicles,  Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes. And especially for my favorite, Dandelion Wine. In that novel, he created the most magical summer I’ve read (or experienced) making me feel nostalgic about growing up in the Midwest in the 1930s though I was raised a thousand miles away and 40 years later.

So I might have semi-mythologized the summers of my own childhood and it might have been at least partly Ray Bradbury’s fault. I might have glossed over all the mundane details, and I’ve realized lately – I really owe him for that. Because what else are we but a set of selective memories we take out to re­-live, tell it like a story, polish it like a stone, and then put it away again? I’ve got some good stories now, and like dandelion wine, they get better with age. Thank you, Ray. RIP.

Vintage Science Fiction Cover Art

One summer day when I was about twelve, I complained to a friend that I couldn’t find anything interesting to read. My friend gave a little laugh and said, Come with me. Leading me to her garage, she flicked on the light, waited a moment for dramatic effect, and said, Pick.

I was in awe. One whole wall of the garage was covered by homemade bookshelves and those shelves were stuffed to overflowing with, what I would soon discover, were science fiction paperbacks.

They’re my dad’s, my friend said. He’s kind of a sci fi junkie. You can borrow anything you want.

I stepped forward and picked one at random. Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan. The cover art convinced me to take it home. And so began an addiction to science fiction that would last thirty years (and counting).

So a few years ago, when I was in the depths of my thrift store addiction, I began buying old sci-fi paperbacks. It gave me something new to hunt for, and I really liked the cover art, especially from the 40s, 50s and 60s. (If you read my last post you’ll know I have a fascination with yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.) But it was hard to display the covers if the books just sat on a bookshelf. So I decided to take on another craft project. I started collecting the covers, some cheesy ones and some of the classics that I had read as a kid, with the thought that I would one day try to decoupage them on the top of an old trunk.

Since I am not a particularly successful crafter and a great procrastinator, the covers went into a  manila envelope and have been occupying the bottom drawer of my desk for a few years now. But one day, I swear, I’m going to finish this project. In the meantime, they’re this week’s Thrift Pick of the Week.