The Ultimate Anthology, My Version


As long as I’ve been reading, I’ve been keeping a list of favorite stories that I wish I could one day collect into an anthology of my favorite fiction. Such a collection would no doubt be ungainly beyond belief, lopsided, containing numerous stories by one writer, and neglecting other authors’ finest work. But since the collection exists only in potential, and need not weigh down any Barnes & Noble shelves, I will let it grow in exactly that form. (Jeff Ford calls it a Virtual Anthology, and I like that. I think he’s been working on one of his own.) Now, no one is ever likely to invite me to assemble such a thing, so I have no qualms about being impractical. I’ll just start putting old favorites down here as they come to mind. In some cases, there are stories whose titles I can no longer remember; in which case, I’ll put a vague description and see if, with the help of my readers, we can’t pin down the original. I won’t always be able to track them down to reread them, and perhaps some of these titles won’t hold up very well at second glance; but for now I’m not going to worry about that. Some of these are simply stories that affected me when I first read them, and to this day, even by the thought of title alone, carry a charge. So, in no particular order, the list commences.

First, the one I always think of first:

“The Holes Around Mars” by Jerome Bixby. I first (and only) read this in a Groff Conklin anthology when I was in junior high school (or, as they called it, the vaguely experimental sounding Thurston Intermediate School), and more than “It’s a Good Life,” this story has stuck with me. Unapologetically goofy, with a killer last line that set the standard for twisty endings. For many years, I didn’t consider a short story to be anything near a success unless it ended in a shock-twist last line. Better yet…one in italics. And along those lines, one of the best last lines is in:

“Skeleton” by Ray Bradbury. I suspect I’ll probably just have to go ahead and clear space for about 50 Bradbury stories in this anthology. I’m pretty sure I first hatched the dream of doing an anthology when I was sitting in the Thurston library reading through Bradbury, Conklin, and Healey & McComas collections. Ray Bradbury probably made up 70% of all the stories I read at that time anyway. I wrote him a fan letter later (when I was at Laguna Beach High School), and discovered that the man has one punctuation mark which he uses indiscriminately in all correspondence: The exclamation mark!!! That tells you something about Bradbury’s character and overwhelming enthusiasm. Oh, and hey, the dandelion wine sequel? It ends not with one boner, but with two. Let this be a well buried spoiler. I guess I’m glad I didn’t encounter those in junior high. He can get away with it now though. Might as well just carve up the Bradbury section right here, and fill it in as time passes:

“The Small Assassin” by Ray Bradbury.

“Fever Dream” by Ray Bradbury.

“Pillar of Fire” by Ray Bradbury.

“Ylla” by Ray Bradbury, which was maybe the first science fiction story I ever encountered. (For some reason I thought it was called “Dark They Were and Golden Eyed,” but I just checked a copy of the book and it’s “Ylla.”) My mom read it to me. I still have her copy of The Martian Chronicles, the Time-Life trade permabound edition, featuring a blurry photo of the Horsehead Nebula, and ultimately autographed by Ray Bradbury. I remember being scared when the Martian lady’s husband came back after murdering the spacemen. I’ve also got a laminated card signed by Bradbury bestowing a holy Science Fiction God benediction on me. Long story.

“The Martian Novella That’s Not in The Martian Chronicles Where Some Human Astronauts Have Creepy, Grisly Adventures Involving Jesus.” By Ray Bradbury. No, this is not “The Fire Balloons.” It was in another collection completely, and I’ve never found this one anywhere else. It had a grim “Planet of the Apes” quality to it. If you know the title, please drop a comment and maybe I’ll notice it poking out of the spam when I’m going through them for moderation.

“Ticket to Heaven” by John Shirley. Okay, John is a friend, but they’re not excluded from this list; and I hadn’t met him yet when I read this. I’m partial to this story. I think it’s a classic work of s.f. Ed Ferman must have thought so too. I have always thought it should be anthologized more often, kept in currency, as it were. This story made a strong impression on me, and still lingers as exceedingly clever and one of his better stories, technically. I think it influences stories I write…that might end up being a good reason for me to put a story on this list. John was one of those guys I envied like crazy when I was first starting out, since he was not much older than I, and started getting professional sales well ahead of me. I still envy him. He’s tireless, prolific, and never writes what is expected of him. His books always end with phantasmogoricallegorifimogrifications. Which I think reflect the inside of his head. More like this, please, John!

Let’s say “Oh, 80 Percent of Lovecraft’s Output” and leave it at that. The grand novellas. Many of the short stories. And, although it’s really too long to fit in a collection, I’m going to stretch the limits here and make a special place for:

The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. I don’t think I’ve ever loved a book the way I have loved this one. I used to re-read it annually. Maybe it had something to do with the Gallardo cover on the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition, but the book casts a twilight spell of the sort I hope HPL wandered into at his demise. After not reading it for many years, I hit a sad pass when I tried to read it aloud to my kids. The lack of characters, and dialog, turns out to be a big hurdle…probably a bigger one than the archaic constructions. Kids need lots of funny voices or their minds wander, and Randolph Carter never speaks a word. Not Lovecraft’s fault. This is the purest dream of fantasy ever written (if not rewritten).

smear copy.jpg

“Down There” by Damon Knight. I still don’t entirely understand this story…sometimes I think I do, but then it slips away. But it’s had a huge impact on me.

“Take Wooden Indians” by Avram Davidson. My all-time favorite parallel universe/crosstime story.

“Babylon: 70 M.” by Donald A. Wollheim.

“The Mars Ship” by Robert Thurston.

“The Rest is Silence” by Charles L. Grant.

“Twilla” by Tom Reamy.

(A bunch of stories from F&SF, when I first found it on the newsstands in the early 70’s. Exciting time.)

“Little Goethe” by M. Mendelsohn (F&SF, 1978). A tale of a child prodigy that made a strong impression on me. The one and only story ever published by Mendelsohn as far as I know.
“In the Barn” by Piers Anthony. Made quite an impression when I was 12 or 13. I guess I shouldn’t worry about the YA books my kids are reading. There’s nothing in them half as parent-terrifying as the contents of Again, Dangerous Visions.

“The Sign” by Lord Dunsany.

“Another Forgotten Title of Reincarnation” by Unknown. I think this was in one of those Conklin anthologies. One man has a theory that genius minds are recycled/reincarnated throughout history, and he’s created a timeline showing how various great men of human history are the same mind being born and reborn over and over again…one dying just before the other is born. At the end of the story,of course, he dies, and we are to assume he’s the latest in the lineage. Read this in jr. high. Worthy of anthologizing? I don’t know. I guess I’d just like to read it again.

“Next Door” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The ending relies on a brand name; those tend not to date very well. But I encountered this in the midst of a bout of reading stuff like the watery “metafiction” collected in anthologies with names like SUPERFICTION!, and it was a faceful of ice water. So cool. Another great story about misapprehensions between kids and adults is:
“A Day’s Wait” by Ernest Hemingway. Not my favorite Hemingway story, but as clever as a good twisty pop song. My favorite probably is:

“Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway. Haven’t reread it recently, but I remember how hard it hit me the first time.

“The Ogre” by T.H. White.

This is harder than it looked. Probably because, a few days in, it seems too forced and arbitrary. This project is intended to trickle on at a leisurely pace as stories I’ve been thinking about for years, in some dim place at the back of my mind, reoccur to me. Eventually it’ll settle down, I’m sure. But in the meantime, I’m thinking of novels by authors who maybe never wrote a short story that I totally loved; which suggests an enormous list of favorite novels. Much shorter would be the list of books I’ve hated: Ones, perhaps, I’ve been unable to finish or even flung across the room. Phil Dick’s Galactic Pot-Healer has pride of place for that honor. Starts so well that I’ve been lured into attempting to read it several times; I always get a little farther before I hurl it; did I ever actually finish it? I can’t remember. Maybe it’s time to give it another fling…ACROSS THE ROOM!

“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett (aka C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner). Now this comes up in a topical fashion, because I was reminded of how much I love this sublime story when I realized that this new movie, The Last Mimzy, was based on it. Right there in the title of the movie you can tell how much they must have messed up the story. I know this story was anthologized like crazy when I was a kid, and it will probably be hauled up now that the movie’s out. I’m afraid to see the movie. But I’m not afraid to go find the story and read it again.

“Horrible Imaginings” by Fritz Leiber.

“If A Flower Could Eclipse” by Michael Bishop, a stand-alone chapter from Catacomb Years, involving a nightmarish film about tooth decay.

“Coming Attractions” by Fritz Leiber.

“Up Schist Creek” by Piers Anthony. From Generations, an anthology edited by David Gerrold, which was one of the first sf collections I had. It was given to me by an old family friend because it contained a story by Kathleen Sky, who had been a Sunday school teacher in my church. This friend had no idea the collection contained anything as memorably disturbing as “Up Schist Creek.” And that story has nothing on Anthony’s other even more memorable story of barnyard antics, listed above.
“The Voice of the Sonar in My Vermiform Appendix” by Philip Jose Farmer. Utterly mad and unforgettable.

“The Sumerian Oath” by Philip Jose Farmer. The secret history of medicine.

“The New Rays” by M. John Harrison.

Note to future self, to extend this to admired writers whose short stories influenced me by cumulative example more than by any one particular story: Robert F. Young, Charles W. Runyon, Felix Gottschalk.