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.
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.