Reader’s Corner: That One Story…

I had planned to write briefly (or as briefly as I could manage—this is me, after all) on being a reluctant novelist, but we’ve had an awful lot of writing pieces recently.

So instead I want to ask you to tell me about that one story—whether novel, TV show, song lyric, short story, poem, oral tradition, folk tale, or true-life experience—that has stuck with you far beyond its telling, that fired your imagination and made you either want to read or write more.

It’s often not the best told or generally approved story you’ve read or heard, but it is the one that simply won’t leave your head. The powerful ur-story that changed the way you thought most profoundly. It may be inspirational or banal, famous or obscure, true or fanciful, uplifting or condemning.

For me it was two relatively unknown stories. The first was a Twilight Zone episode where a member of a biker gang, a hell-raiser, a troublemaker, finds himself dead from a road accident and falls deep into the recesses of Hell.

He’s kind of excited by the idea of fire and brimstone, demons and screaming until he lands in a dowdy living room watching the vacation slides of an elderly couple who go on in excruciating detail about every moment of their mundane trip. The biker tries to leave, but can’t; he tries to speak, but is forced to be mute.

Then a demon appears and explains that this is his personal hell, the reward of a life lived badly, and that he will spend all of eternity watching these slides and hearing these stories. As the man screams in mute horror, the demon smiles and mentions that for the couple, this chance to review their life for an audience represents the highest bliss and is, for them, Heaven.

I was just seven or eight years old at the time, and the idea of relative experience blew my child’s mind and set me to thinking about how similar events can be seen so differently by different people.

The other was a short story by Orson Scott Card called “Closing the Timelid,” wherein a group of wealthy college students use a time machine to transport themselves back in time and throw themselves under the wheels of a semi-truck barreling down a mountain road—then snatch themselves back at the moment just prior to death.

It’s a thrill-game, an adrenaline high to compete with drugs, and the college students are just having fun experiencing the physical sensations of death with none of its consequences. It’s also an illegal use of the technology. When time cops bust the group for violating established law, they protest that they did their research and the driver died just moments after they flashed into the timeline, so there was no way they could make a meaningful change.

The story ends as we flash into the mind of the male truck driver who sees the ghosts of teen after teen appearing at the edge of his vision and sees or feels the thump of impact under his wheels or against his windshield, and knows he will be tormented for the rest of his life for surviving the car crash that took his wife’s life. So though he sees the broken bridge over a deep ravine, he drives over it anyway and ends his own life on the rocks below.

This idea of casually torturing another human for personal amusement, and justifying it on the basis that the victim somehow deserved it and that you were entitled haunted me for years and transformed the way I thought about interpersonal interactions and the thoughtless, casual violence (emotional or physical) we often perpetrate on those who don’t deserve it.

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These were stories that reached deep inside me as an individual and significantly changed the way I thought forever after.

What stories did that to you, and why? This too, is part of the joy of reading, and worth sharing.

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13 Responses to Reader’s Corner: That One Story…

  1. Mark Penny says:

    I feel like I’m in Sunday School. Back of the question there’s an impish little grin and you just know that after the class has disgorged its pat and impertinent answers, the teacher will pull something wise and devastating out of the hat.

    For me, the immediate answer is The Lord of the Rings. I first it encountered it as a cub scout. Our slightly hippyish cub leader read a bit too us each week and though the narrative aspects of it probably rolled right over my head (in fact, I think most of my impressions came from the illustrations), I was captivated by the little world of slightly non-human creatures on a solemn quest amid quiet, fierce magic. It mixed wonderfully with the cub mythology (based on the Jungle Book, another favourite), Mormon theology and my sense of who I was as a son of God and of my parents. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are books are I go back to year after year for the sheer fun of exploring the world Tolkien so painstakingly distilled from his studies of language and myth, hanging out with the characters he so lovingly fashioned out of ink, and getting a feel for what an accessible classic is made of.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      No wise men here, just us ducks and wise guys.

    • Mark Penny says:

      And The Martian Chronicles. Not one story, I know, but the poetry and whimsy of it! Ray Bradbury the man could be a bit obnoxious, but the writer was a delight.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        Had a chance to meet and spend some time with him when he came out to BYU for the sf symposium and as forum speaker. Really nice guy and loved Utah. Confident, to be sure, but a genuinely kind human being.

        • Mark Penny says:

          I’m thinking of an interview on the CBC lit prog Writer’s and Company in which the host brought up global warming and Bradbury shut her down with “That hasn’t been proven” in a manner that said “I’m the famous writer. You’re the grateful lowly interviewer. End of train” and of a university lecture on YouTube where he expressed a similar dismissive opinion about something (I forget what). He was still worth listening to, and, yes, he still came across as someone you could stand to live next door to, but it did rather seem that his success had gone a bit to his head.

  2. Wm says:

    The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov and A Country Doctor by Kafka.

    There’s a little bit of both of those in everything I write.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      So what is/was it about those stories that changed you as a person? I was kind of hoping not just for stories we admire or want to emulate, but stories that actually crawled up in our head and wouldn’t leave, that became a filter for the way we looked at life and story forever after—and why.

      (Think of it as an expressive challenge. That’s what you writer-people do, right? [[grins]])

      • Wm says:

        After reading them, I realized that literature, and especially humor, could tell me something about the nature of life and transcendence by illustrating through vivid imagery the inability to connect.

        That the incongruities found in both the fantastic and the humorous could hint at something more.

  3. There was this book my mom read to us. I think it was called The Great and Terrible Quest, but all I really remember is three lines of a quatrain:

    Silver hidden in the gold
    young man hidden in the old
    laughing lord with weeping eyes…

    I don’t know why those three lines have stuck with me. Maybe it’s the sense of magic and mystery. The gesture toward a deeper, hidden truth in things.

    I also feel like stories I’ve been told have stuck with me more in some ways than stories I’ve read. There are so many told stories from people’s lives I still think about…and yet I can’t seem to remember much about four out of five books I’ve read.

  4. Easy. _Fun with Dick and Jane_, or one of these Dick and Jane readers. I was four. Dr. Spoke had my mother convinced I wouldn’t learn to read easily because I never crawled, but scooted around on my bahunkus. So at age four, she began teaching me to read, a thing I took to rather quickly. In this Dick and Jane book, I read aloud to my mother the words, “the big red can.” She told me I wasn’t reading the last word correctly and I got mad at her bc even then I was arrogant about my literature. So she tells me to look more closely. The last word was “car.” I swear, in that moment the heavens opened and light and knowledge poured down. One little letter can change the entire meaning? Whoooya! Words had amazing power. I must have been pretty kid-excited bc she then told me I could go to college to study literature and become a writer. Shaped my entire life, that little letter “r.” (But I do wish Mom had told me there’s no money in it.)

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