It’s October First. Just another weekday? Or the true harbinger of the autumnal season? It’s a bittersweet time when we stow away beach chairs, boogie boards, and sand castle molds. We’re shocked to see how early the skies darken, and wonder if our last jacket-free day is behind us.
Take heart, however, as you retire those flip-flops. Our spirits will soon be lifted with the arrival of jack-o-lanterns, dancing skeletons, and children of all ages vying for the best Halloween costume.
For me, the change of seasons also marks what I hope will be an annual tradition: the release of a new book. This year’s offering is a short story collection called Asbury Dark: Haunting Tales from the Jersey Shore. Just beyond Tillie’s spooky cover image await seven stories which I hope will be the perfect companion to curl up with under a harvest moon. Who knows? Maybe Asbury Dark will end up on someone’s Facebook page, as one of the “Ten Books That Have Stayed with Me.”
I was recently challenged by a friend to post my own list of stuck-with-me books on Facebook. I’m embarrassed to admit it hasn’t been easy. Not because I haven’t read ten books or been deeply affected by the written word, but because I really only started reading with enthusiasm about six years ago.
When I moved back to the shore and started commuting into Manhattan, my Kindle and I formed a fast and lasting relationship. For the first time in my life, I was one of those people who devoured one title after another. The timing for this literary nascency couldn’t have been better, because as it turns out, I also wanted to write more. In my efforts to become a better wordsmith, reading has been my greatest teacher.
As for that list of books, I can only say it continues to grow. There never seems to be enough time to get to all the books I’d like to read. It’s a dream of mine to read all those classics I was supposed to have read in high school but foolishly never did. I thought I was so clever back then, somehow managing to pass Honors English without ever reading past a Table of Contents. I didn’t even bother with Cliffs Notes. I was an idiot.
Fortunately I was an idiot with ears, because while I may have missed out on James Joyce, John Steinbeck and Earnest Hemingway, my brilliant teacher Dr. McDonald did prepare me for the rigors of essay writing. One tip that made an impact was a technique she called “emphasis subordination.” In short, it means you always put the most important piece of information at the end.
For example, instead of writing, “Alfred discovered a bomb under the table when he reached down to retrieve his napkin,” a more impactful version would be, “Alfred reached under the table to retrieve his napkin and discovered a bomb.”
This is something that has always stayed with me. Whether in a novel or in a film, I love an ending that packs a wallop and leaves you feeling, for better or worse, a little shell-shocked. As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your drawn-out, anti-climactic denouements. Give me Charlton Heston pounding sand with the Statue of Liberty’s head glaring down on him.
The short story is a wonderful format for dramatic last lines. Another thing that has stayed with me and influenced my writing is a creepy tale I read way back in grade school. Even a non-reading fourth grader can’t resist the lure of the Bookmobile. That’s probably where I picked up the paperback book that contained the story, “What the Gravedigger Saw”.
In the gothic tale, a beleaguered village gravedigger is filling in the plot of a recently deceased woman. No one came to her burial because she was the meanest old lady in the land. In fact, it was said she wouldn’t spare a kindness for even the smallest kitten.
Just before midnight, as the gravedigger is putting way his tools, a coach rumbles into the cemetery drawn by two black stallions with fiery red eyes. The coach pulls up to the grave of the old woman and two shrouded figures emerge from the back. The gravedigger is shaking in his boots as he watches the figures disappear into the ground, only to surface moments later with the old woman in their grasp. As she writhes and cries out in terror, the wind clears the clouds away from the moon. The light shines down and the gravedigger is horrified to see that the two figures carrying the woman are, in fact, two giant black cats.
Maybe it was the memory of that experience and my love of great endings that led me to rediscover the joy of reading. While Dr. McDonald would probably be dismayed to know I B.S.ed my way through an entire year of book reports, I hope she’d be gratified to know that I still save the best for last.
And that I have a new book coming out.