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The Long Story – 2013

Reading a long short story is a special process somewhere between starting up slow and circling around for the long haul, as you do for a novel, and nabbing on the fly the conflict and character quirks thrown out by the early paragraphs of a short story which are swiftly brought to some end. So I respect and admire the unique mission of The Long Story: to publish stories of eight to twenty thousand words (most between eight and twelve thousand) and let the reader develop a relationship with the ideas and people unfolding between the first and twenty-thousandth words.

Reading a long short story is a special process somewhere between starting up slow and circling around for the long haul, as you do for a novel, and nabbing on the fly the conflict and character quirks thrown out by the early paragraphs of a short story which are swiftly brought to some end. So I respect and admire the unique mission of The Long Story: to publish stories of eight to twenty thousand words (most between eight and twelve thousand) and let the reader develop a relationship with the ideas and people unfolding between the first and twenty-thousandth words.

I especially appreciate the editorial taste for stories with a “human and thematic core,” demonstrating a quality that “comes from knowledge gained through implicit knowledge of the Western humanistic tradition along with interest in the same themes that engaged the great writers of the past.” Graciously, the editor, R. P. Burnham, provides a partial list of other literary magazines that consider long stories, from Alaska Quarterly Review to Quarterly West. The biannual Big Fiction also particularly celebrates the long story. But The Long Story identifies itself as the only journal dedicated to the genre in quite this way, and consequently it has a singular appeal for certain readers and writers. It raises high expectations.

Danielle Metcalf’s “Judgment Day” fulfills those expectations. In it, a raging fire approaches the home of Doris Faye, a widow of 23 years, now nearing seventy. At the beginning of the story she wants the flames to consume her, to purge her of guilt and free her from loneliness. At the end of the story, she wants to escape the fire and live. In between, she fights with the fireman who comes to save her, resists him by going deeper and deeper into her house—deeper into her own memories and motives. The reader believes in the characters that surface, flinches from the roar of the encroaching fire, breathes an enormous sigh of relief at Doris’s final choice. But I’m not spoiling the story, because its pacing keeps the reader engaged, anxious to see Doris’s conflict resolved appropriately for her. And that might just be on the side of death; she has her reasons. This is Metcalf’s first published story, and it’s a fine one.

Haunting images from Rex Sexton’s “Trouble Town,” the story of a young man living a “ghost existence” in the Chi-town slaughterhouses, stayed with me long after I finished reading it. Ingbar’s an artist in a tough world. “Perhaps it was the blessing of imagination that kept everyone out of the prison that was life,” the narrator says early on: “he recalled how he and playmates used to blow up chicken gullets like balloons for the girls to carry around on strings, and played pirate with sharpened stockyard bones, which they sheathed in their clothesline belts . . .” But this is barely the beginning. Singled out as a newcomer in the slaughterhouse, he must do violence to make his place. In some ways, the imagination of his childhood fails him—as it must. We cannot be children always. But in other, important ways, his imagination saves him. The sensory details—from the memories of his childhood through his imprisonment and beyond—give us to know, consistently, that the inner life carries its own salvation. Even in Trouble-Town, life offers enormous opportunity. If this is not adherence to “the same themes that engaged the great writers of the past,” nothing is.

Remember Paul Bunyan? There are five of them in Meagan Ciesla’s parable, “The Tallest Men, the Broadest Shoulders.” Climate change, corporate greed, worker exploitation all have their place in this tall (think “long”) tale—a fascinating, clever response to what might have been a prompt, or an internal urge, to extend and embellish a well-known story chock-full of universal themes engaging not only the great writers of the past, but also those of today.

Unfortunately, there seem to be a couple of editorial slippages. In Ronald M. Gauthier’s “Modern Black Boy,” are what look like typos intentional? “O’Hara County” half the time, “Ohara” the other half? A portrait of Richard Wright taken as a “photo opt”? These are a disappointment; where the stories deserve our sustained attention, as does this one about a Black librarian’s fight for his library, there should be no such distractions.

Ultimately, these and the other seven stories, along with poetry by Kathy Fitzgerald, Paul Nelson, and John Wheatcroft (happy surprise to find excellent poems in a journal dedicated to long stories!), fill 167 closely-typed pages with engaging plots, neat structures, and round and diverse characters. Long live The Long Story!
[www.longstorylitmag.com]

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