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.
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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.)

Boo! Scary Movies You Can Watch with Your Teenager

Boo.

It might strike you as odd, but picking scary movies that will thrill the kids (but not appall my partner and me with a high gore factor or adult themes) is high on the list of things we are doing to prepare for the start of the new school year. School starts again in 6 days, and our youngest son is starting high school. A challenging transition for any kid but our boy has some additional challenges. One of the many strategies he has chosen to employ is a reward system for getting through each week. This will include making our occasional family movie nights a regular event. These will occur on Friday nights through the fall semester and feature, you guessed it, horror films.

Here are some of our favorites that we’ve already seen (and think you should too)

1. Jaws (1975) PG – Have you ever noticed that some of the scariest scenes in Jaws don’t ever show the shark? We have “Bruce,” Steven Spielberg’s animatronic shark, to thank for that.  If Bruce hadn’t malfunctioned so often, the young director might never have been inspired to just imply the shark’s presence by using the camera to give us a shark’s eye view. Coupled with John Williams’ awesomely dramatic musical theme, it was a brilliantly frightening technique. (You thinking it now aren’t you? Da-dum…da-dum…dadum dadum dadum dadum dadum dadum dadum dadum DADADAAAA)

Spielberg wanted Jon Voight to play Hooper, but George Lucas suggested Richard Dreyfus (who he had worked with in American Graffiti).

Everything about this movie is good – the directing, acting, writing , music – and they all come together around a great story (by Peter Benchley) to create the perfect storm of film horror. If your kids haven’t seen it yet, it’s time. They’ll scream when the head pops out of the hole in the sunken boat. They’ll laugh when Roy Scheider quips, “We going to need a bigger boat” after seeing the shark for the first time. (Did you know he ad-libbed that line?) And chills will run down their spines when they hear Quint’s monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis.

Scariest chairs in a movie.

2. Poltergeist (1982) PG – Another Spielberg film that stands the test of time. He adds just enough humor and wonder to give an extra edge to the terrifying bits. Though Carol Ann got all the attention for disappearing into the TV, it was the character of her scrappy brother who appealed to my youngest son. The poor boy gets dragged out of the house by a monster tree and dragged out of his bed by an evil clown toy, and not only does he survive, but he kicks the clown’s butt. What a kid. One of my favorite bits though is this monologue by the medium, Tangina, played (brilliantly, I think) by Zelda Rubinstein. Watch it on You Tube here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQMYzB6gUQc

3. The Sixth Sense (1999) PG-13 – “I see dead people.” Maybe the biggest tag line from a movie since Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “I’ll be back.” This ghost story directed by M. Night Shyamalan  is one of only four horror films to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. (The other three were Jaws, The Exorcist, and The Silence of the Lambs.)  Shyamalan is one of our youngest son’s favorite directors and so there are two of his movies on this list.

 4. Signs (2002) PG-13 – This story gradually turns up the suspense until you’re white-knuckled and holding your breath for much of the last half of the film. It’s another of M. Night Shyamalan’s creations and he actually plays a significant role in the story. (He appears at least briefly in almost all of his movies.) The plot is simple – family finds a huge crop circle on their farm and more strange happenings ensue – and all the possibilities your imagination can produce to explain the events are extremely scary.

Scary eighties hair.

 5. The Lost Boys (1987) R – Don’t let the R rating spook you.If it came out today, I’m sure it would be rated PG-13. A pair of brothers and their divorced mom move to a new town and become convinced it is plagued by vampires. If you were raised in the eighties like me, you’ll probably remember Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. They were both in this movie and provide some great comic moments to lighten the scary stuff. A young Kiefer Sutherland is seriously creepy as the leader of the local pack of young, big-haired bloodsuckers.

 6. Insidious (2010) PG-13 – Very scary in a mounting-suspense, haunted-house-atmosphere kind of way. A couple’s son falls into an unexplained coma, mom starts seeing things, they seek help from a paranormal investigator, and I’m not telling what happens after that. A solidly spooky story.

 7. The Shining R (1980) – Based on Stephen King’s novel about a writer who takes a job as a caretaker at an isolated mountain hotel. Add a psychic son, an evil presence, and Scatman Crothers and you get a classic recipe for terror. Jack Nicholson’s disturbing performance as the dad gone gleefully mad apparently bridges the potential generation gap in horror film viewers quite well. This was our second son’s pick for scariest movie.

Look behind you, Buffy! Or Daphne! Or whatever your name is in this movie!

8. The Grudge PG-13 (2004) – Sarah Michelle Gellar (who our youngest son previously knew as Daphne in the Scooby Doo movies) plays an American nurse living in Japan who stumbles upon a supernatural curse in the act of playing itself out. Lots of suspense and weird, creepy effects. This was one of our youngest son’s picks for scariest movie.

9. The Ring PG-13 (2002) – Like The Grudge, this is a remake of a Japanese horror film with disturbing special effects and a creeping sense of dread. In this one, a young woman investigates a strange video tape that is said to cause the imminent death of anyone who views it. I’m not a huge fan of The Ring myself, but number one son and youngest son think it’s awesomely scary.

10. Audrey Rose (1977) PG – A mysterious stranger appears and tells a young couple that their daughter is the reincarnation of his own dead child. Long before playing Hannibal Lecter (in the scariest movie I will never let my children watch), Hopkins does a great job of playing the stranger so that you’re never quite certain if his character is sincere, a nutcase or a molester stalking the child until bizarre things begin to happen. This one spooked our oldest son (who is now 24) when he was a just tender teen.

If you’re a fan of PG (ish) horror, I hope you can find something here to watch with your children that you haven’t already seen. In the meantime, I have until Friday to come up with a new gore-free fright-flick. Suggestions are welcome!

 

If you’d like to see more suggestions, try Boo 2! More Scary Movies You Can Watch with Your Teens.