Stephen King writes of his short story The Man in the Black Suit: “I thought the finished product a rather humdrum folktale told in pedestrian language… When it won first prize in the O. Henry Best Short Story competition for 1996, I was convinced someone had made a mistake… Reader response was generally positive, too. This story is proof that writers are often the worst judges of what they have written.”
What’s strange in writing a blog post in which I claim this to be one of my favorite stories is that I don’t disagree with Stephen King, here. To me, the story doesn’t pop because of its language, or even because the story itself is all that strong or interesting.
What I love about it is two main things: 1) The trauma of the characters, and how it continually haunts them and 2) a frightening, unique take on the Devil (to me, anyway).
I’ve written about this story before, in my post about how Stephen King uses trauma to inform his characters, so I won’t rehash those specifics. What I will say is that as someone that’s always been afraid of bee stings, I can relate to Gary’s fears in the story. This passage sums up the effects of trauma pretty well:
A terrible idea came to me: that this was the very bee which had killed my brother. I knew it wasn’t true, and not only because honeybees probably didn’t live longer than a single year (except for the queens; about them I was not so sure). It couldn’t be true because bees died when they stung, and even at nine I knew it. Their stingers were barbed, and when they tried to fly away after doing the deed, they tore themselves apart. Still, the idea stayed. This was a special bee, a devil-bee, and it had come back to finish the other of Albion and Loretta’s two boys.
the man in the black suit; stephen king
As a character, I’m immediately inclined to root for Gary and his family, and the story does an excellent job of setting up his love for his mother:
Now he turned me around to face my mother, who was standing at the marble counter in a flood of strong morning sunshine falling through the double windows over the sink. There was a curl of hair lying across the side of her forehead and touching her eyebrow–you see how I remember it all? The bright light turned that little curl into filaments of gold and made me want to run to her and put my arms around her. In that instant I saw her as a woman, saw her as my father must have seen her.
The Man in the Black suit; stephen king
So when the Devil emerges from the wood and uses Gary’s greatest fear to trick him into thinking the thing he loves most was taken away–you feel it. And you feel Gary’s relief when he learns it was a lie. Simple but effective storytelling.
I also love how the Devil is personified in this story. Human-like, but not human at all. Or better yet, something trying to be human and failing. The imagery used to describe him is so strong it becomes very easily to visualize how uncanny he is:
A man was standing above me, at the edge of the trees. His face was very long and pale. His black hair was combed tight against his skull and parted with rigorous care on the left side of his narrow head. He was very tall. He was wearing a black three-piece suit, and I knew right away that he was not a human being, because his eyes were the orangey-red of flames in a woodstove. I don’t just mean the irises, because he had no irises, and no pupils, and certainly no white. His eyes were completely orange–an orange that shifted and flickered. And it’s really too late not to say exactly what I mean, isn’t it? He was on fire inside, and his eyes were like the little isinglass portholes you sometimes see in stove doors…
The man who had come out of the woods on that Saturday afternoon in midsummer was the Devil, and inside the empty holes of his eyes, his brains were burning.
the man in the black suit; stephen king
He conjures a memorable, creepy image to contrast against our young protagonist and the beauty of nature. To round out the creepiness, the Devil is given a playful, toying personality. The Devil is mean in a childish way, singing a rhyme when he realizes that Gary has (understandably) peed himself: “Opal! Diamond! Sapphire! Jade! I smell Gary’s lemonade!” From there, the creepiness elevates until Gary feeds the Devil a raw fish as a distraction and makes a run for it.
So, even though this is a straightforward, simple story without a lot of bells and whistles, it’s still highly effective. I’m drawn to the characters and their traumas, and it all comes together in a satisfying way.
I don’t remember when I first read Heart Transplant by Ray Bradbury. I remember buying the short story collection that contains it. There was a book sale at my local library in South Buffalo, and I grabbed it because I had read a story from The Martian Chronicles as part of a writer’s group I was in at the time, so I recognized Bradbury’s name. Little did I know that the collection I bought, One More for the Road, would make me a lifelong Bradbury fan.
Bradbury built his brand on bottled nostalgia. His words are able to conjure images of magic, of subtle emotion, of horror, of awe. Heart Transplant is a story that combines all of these things into a perfect short story–contained, lyrical, and deep. I won’t try to dissect the technical aspects of the story. What’s the point if it makes me feel something so strongly? Instead, here are the reasons why I love it.
Begins in Media Res
The first line of the story is dialogue: “Would I what?”
It’s said by a man, kept generic (at least I believe) for the reader to become. We’re immediately sucked in–we want to know what he’s referencing.
Bradbury draws it out. Not a lot, just enough to get you to lean more closely, like someone that wants to tell you a secret. Meanwhile, he’s setting the tone with his descriptions, “…holding his hand, but staring rather than looking at that ceiling, as if there were something there that she was trying to see.”
And then he reveals the thrust of the story.
An Imaginative, Emotional Plot
“… if you could fall in love with your wife again… would you?”
Ah, so they’re lovers. But one of them is wondering whether or not it’s possible to feel like she did for her husband before. We can tell quickly that she’s trying to convince herself that it’s possible, while the man is resistant to the idea. She talks of how her husband has acted “better” lately. The man, hesitant to make her feel guilty in any way, says that his wife has, too. We don’t know right away, but that’s a lie.
Later, she explains her plan, “… what if, just before we go to sleep, what if we made a kind of mutual wish, me for you, you for me?”
After an initial reaction of disbelief and mild mocking, he agrees. He loves this woman enough to make a wish that she were with someone else, all because he knows that is where her true happiness is. Aside from that, he can see the writing on the wall. His wish doesn’t matter. She’s already gone. How can he not let her go?
Since I first read the story all those years ago, this has been my favorite passage:
He awoke for no reason except that he had had a dream that the earth had shrugged, or an earthquake had happened ten thousand miles away that no one felt, or that there had been a second Annunciation but everyone was deaf, or perhaps it was only that the moon had come into the room during the night and changed the shape of the room and changed the looks on their faces and the flesh on their bones and now had stopped so abruptly that the quick silence had stirred his eyes wide. In the moment of opening, he knew the streets were dry, there had been no rain. Only, perhaps, some sort of crying.
Ray Bradbury, heart transplant
This description, in its uncertainty, in its metaphor, places me within the man’s emotions. I understand him in this moment. How the world is different now than when he closed his eyes, but in an abstract way. A way that’s monumental, but only for him. The map of his heart has changed without his wanting it to and he’s the only person that knows. It’s heartbreaking.
The story feels fantastical. It’s about wishes, after all, and as far as the woman is concerned hers came true. The man says his did, too, but it’s a lie. It was always a lie. Because he loves her.
“Because both of us believed,” he said, quietly. “I wished very hard, for you.”
Ray bradbury, heart transplant
At the end, when his lover leaves to go back to her husband, excited to feel new again, the man stays behind. He assured her that he would call his wife right after she left, that her wish for him had also come true. Instead, he sacrifices his happiness in service of hers.
And he turned and lay back down in the bed and put one hand out to touch that empty pillow there.
Ray bradbury, heart transplant
It’s clear that the woman believes him. Not because he’s convincing in his lies, but because she needs to believe him in order to hold onto her newfound happiness.
To me, the story is a perfect vignette. In only 2,000 words (if that) Bradbury manages to capture high emotion, long history, and uncertain future. Those types of heights are what I strive for in my own writing. With enough practice, and enough re-reads of Bradbury, maybe one day I’ll reach them.
As promised, here are more podcasts that I enjoy and, if you’re so inclined, you may enjoy, too. Or not. What am I, psychic?
Politics / Current Events
Like it or not, politics affects everything we do. Aside from finding the subject interesting, I think it’s important to stay informed and knowledgeable about the things going on around us. After all, knowledge is the antidote to fear.
The Daily: The New York Times puts out this podcast every morning. Each episode, hosted by Michael Barbaro, dives in depth to an issue dominating the news and ends with a quick recap of other important news items. Topics really run the gamut and once in a while there is a multi-part story about something important that may not be getting a lot of press, like their five-part “Charm City” series on a police shooting in Baltimore.
Crooked Media: There are multiple podcasts under the Crooked Media banner. Most are politics-driven, but not all. Some are limited series, others are interview-based, and all balance engaging hosts with humor and information (even if it is sometimes biased). My favorites are Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It. I also recommend the new podcast Six Feet Apart, hosted by journalist Alex Wagner, for a look at how the Coronavirus is affecting everyday people.
This Day in Esoteric Political History: A newer podcast (only 14 episodes so far) with short episodes (15 minutes), this is an often fascinating look at the context around obscure, but often major, political events. For example, what did President Obama mean in 2008 when he made remarks about “bitter” votes who “cling to guns and religion”? Turns out, as with most things, he was making a nuanced point about the fear people feel when the government fails them and the things they turn to when that happens. Not exactly how it was covered at the time, though, was it? If you, like me, believe that the past informs the present then this podcast will contextualize what we’re living now through a historical lens.
Slow Burn: Following the theme from the last recommendation, the first two seasons of Slow Burn dive deep into the most important political events of the last 40 years: the impeachments of Nixon and Clinton, respectively. What’s amazing is how similar the mistakes of those impeachments are to the ones we’ve watched play out over the past year. The Watergate scandal, especially, closely mirrors the trajectory of the Trump impeachment trial, partisanship and propaganda included, until it doesn’t.
Drilled: Climate change is the single most important issue facing the world. It has the potential to be an extinction-level event, but short-sightedness and greed have kneecapped attempts to get ahead of it. Drilled looks closely at the propaganda, junk science, and failed policies over the past 40 years that have prevented progress in this important area.
There is a lot to know about the world. Much of it is overwhelming. I find educational podcasts to be an effective way of learning new things without feeling like my brain will explode.
Factually: Host Adam Conover is living the life I want. Hang out with the experts of different topics every week to explore them from various perspectives? Sign me up. Adam approaches each conversation with a solid foundation of knowledge to maintain the discussion, and enough curiosity and good humor to learn with us.
Should This Exist?: Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Think about the technological progress we’ve made in the last hundred or so years (say, the time just before and encompassing the Information Age). Widespread adoption of cars, electricity in every home, the interstate highway system, television, the internet. Now compare that with the prior hundred years before that (roughly the span of the first and second Industrial Revolutions). How big of a leap in technologies was there in the last hundred years versus the hundred years prior? Technological development is continually accelerating, and not always to our benefit. This podcast, hosted by tech entrepreneur Caterina Fake, asks whether the technologies we’re developing to ostensibly make our lives easier or the world better in some way, are actually having the opposite effect.
Sleepwalkers: A series developed by Wired magazine, this explores how Artificial Intelligence (AI) affects our lives. This isn’t about the robot revolution, though, but instead about the more subtle, insidious ways that AI has infiltrated our lives. From AI-augmented surveillance, to advertising using AI to target their products to you, it has begun to touch every piece of us, in ways good and bad.
Intelligence Squared Debates: Dedicated to the debate (Oxford-style, oh yeah!) of experts across a variety of topics, this podcast demonstrates how facts are often formed (or perverted by) your perspective. Each episode a panel on opposite sides of a topic is given the opportunity to argue why they’re right to an audience that votes once before the debate, and again after the debate. The winner of the debate is the side that gained the most percentage points to their side. Nothing like a bit of competition to inject some life into your intellectual discourse.
City of the Future: As someone that writes primarily speculative fiction, I seek out information on cutting-edge topics in order to inform my imagination. City of the Future focuses on potential changes to the way we design, build, and live in cities. For example, what if instead of streetlights one day the sidewalks lit up with non-intrusive light to guide you as you walked?
The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: This is one of the first podcasts I discovered nearly 15 years ago. Hosted by a combination of working scientists and science communicators, each week they cover topics in the news, play games, and discuss the importance of skepticism and scientific literacy. In an era where we are less and less able to differentiate between facts and misinformation, the skills they preach are more important than ever.
Slice of Life
The world is made up of people. Crazy, I know. Every single one of those people have stories of their own–often interesting, heartbreaking, and hilarious in equal measure. These podcasts attempt to dig into those stories.
The Dream: We all want to make easy money. Not because we’re lazy, but because we each yearn for the security and freedom that easy money promises. You can understand, then, how so many people fall prey to con artists. The Dream began as a look a multi-level marketing schemes–how they begin, why they’re successful, and the people whose lives they destroy–and has since tackled the health and wellness industry.
All My Relations: Two Native American women, Matika Wilbur and Adrienne Keane, discuss their cultures, tackle issues important to Native Americans, and target how Native Americans are represented (or, more often, misrepresented) in media. Broadening our perspectives and actively listening to the stories of those from other cultures is important to our growth as people, but also to the sustainability of our society. Matika and Adrienne talk about their own in an engaging, welcoming way, making it easy to be swept into not only their concerns for Native issues, but their love for Native culture.
Boomtown: There is an oil boom happening in West Texas right now. It has the potential to reshape aspects of the economy, the landscape, and the climate. This 11-part series spends each episode speaking with the people actively working on and around the oil rig, delving into the life of an oil worker and how something like this affects the towns around it.
Without Fail: I’ve written about this on the blog before, but I’m terrified of failing. This podcast is an interview-based series where host Alex Blumberg speaks with successful people not about their successes, but the failures that got them to where they are today. It’s an enlightening hour to spend with interesting people that continually prove how a lot of work and a little luck can add to a breakthrough.
Money makes the world go ’round. So, ya know, you should probably learn a little something about it.
Planet Money: Another short, information-packed podcast, Planet Money explains a single aspect of the economy every episode. Sometimes this means buying junk bonds to learn what they actually are, and other times it means following the finances of a strange hotel somewhere in New York State to figure out just how they stay open. No matter what, it’s always a journey. Also check out their sister podcast, The Indicator, for daily economic updates.
Industry Focus: A daily podcast from The Motley Fool (a financial management company), each day tackles a new topic relevant to the stock market. Even a passive listen can inform you on how to make better investments, if that’s your thing.
Zero Sum Empire: This is a bit of a cheat. It’s not strictly a podcast about finances or the economy, but is instead a deep-dive into America’s billionaire class. The hosts’ original intent for the show was to unmask the people that control the vast majority of wealth in our country. They quickly learned that, surprise surprise, information on individuals is hard to come by, especially when they have a vested interest in privacy. They also learned that for those billionaires that there is some public information on, most are boring. They’re just normal people that happen to have a lot of money, often through luck or inheritance. Instead, the show often sidetracks to explore how our laws and economy benefit billionaires through tax and legal loopholes, becoming a primer on complex economic topics than about any individual. Either way, thank the gods someone is out there working to inform us on the billionaire class.
As you can tell, I listen to a lot of podcasts. The ones listed here and last post are just a sampling of my full playlist, and I consistently look to add more. Drop me some of your favorites.
I don’t mind chores. Because both my job and my hobby are mentally (and often, emotionally) taxing, I find mindless chores like dishes and vacuuming to be a nice reprieve from being in my head. To make them even more tolerable, I have a secret weapon: Podcasts.
Mindless chores (and long drives) has led me to discover a lot of podcasts. That means, to be thorough, this’ll be a two-parter. How exciting!
So, no one asked, but here’s part one of what I’m listening to and why, broken out by how I define the podcast type:
If you’re looking for a podcast that’ll give you a few laughs, these are the ones I like.
372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back: Hosted by Mike Nelson and Conor Lastowka, both of Rifftrax, this is the most consistently funny podcast I know. The podcast is essentially a bookclub where the books chosen are bad. They started reading the works of Ernest Cline and have since covered everything from terrible, rambling self-published science fiction to major publishing successes like E.L. James and Dan Patterson. Hilarious and often enlightening in how they find plot holes and writers’ ticks, this is the podcast I most look forward to hearing.
How Did This Get Made?: I only recently started listening to this, but have quickly burned through a lot of back catalog. Hosted by Paul Sheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas with a rotating cast of guests, this is similar to 372 Pages in that they purposefully watch movies they expect to hate and then discuss them together. Usually, they’re right. Sometimes, they end up enjoying the films and recommend them. No matter what, though, they’re funny and endearing and Paul tries to work in movie trivia to every episode.
Reply All: This is a weird podcast because I’m never sure exactly what it’s meant to be. The hosts, Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt, describe it as a podcast about the internet–a pretty broad premise. Whatever each episode ends up being, Alex and PJ are endearing and funny, unafraid to let the listener into their thoughts and emotions. The episodes where they perform investigations into weird internet problems are often disarmingly enlightening.
Podcasts have brought me into the world of oral storytelling. Not audiobook, per say, but legit campfire storytelling. You’ll notice all of these recommendations have a certain bent to them.
Lore: One of the largest podcasts out there, having spun out to books and TV, this is the podcast that introduced me to this type of storytelling. Aaron Mahnke is gifted at weaving historical information with the fantastical, all told in a compelling, entertaining way. Its sister podcast, Cabinet of Curiosities (also hosted by Mahnke), is also good for bite-sized (10 minutes, usually) stories.
Spooked: I don’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural, and this podcast makes me glad for that. Each episode is an interview with someone who claims to have had a ghostly experience. Some are frightening, some are fun, some are benign, but all are interesting. Unfortunately, the latest seasons are behind a paywall.
Camp Monsters: Literally about sitting around a campfire with a good friend and listening to a spooky story, Camp Monsters discusses one supernatural creature per episode. My favorite so far has been “The Tale of the Thunderbird,” an interesting legend from the midwest that doubles as an unsettling alone-in-a-cabin story.
The Moonlit Road: Defunct now (the last podcast went up in March, 2018), this podcast is worth listening to as a way to get in a good story when you only have 15 minutes to kill. Focused on Southern tales, I found this podcast to double as a cultural experience with entertaining storytelling.
Bedtime Stories: Like the others on this list, Bedtime Stories tackles myths, legends, ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena from around the world. While being a nice audio experience in and of itself, the creators go the extra mile to illustrate the stories for their YouTube Channel.
What sort of an aspiring writer would I be if I didn’t listen to podcasts about the writing as an artform? Check these out for equal parts inspiration, advice, and technical improvement.
The Bestseller Experiment: What began as an aimless attempt at writing a self-published novel that would hit an Amazon bestseller list became an inspiring podcast focused on learning about writing from the best around. The two Marks are easy-going, bring a fun yet practical perspective, and are well-connected enough to get interviews with a wide range of amazing authors.
Writing Excuses: Perfect for those moments when you only have 15 minutes, but are in the mood to listen to established authors wax philosophical on writing technique and process. There are 14 seasons of this show, with the later seasons going deep into different aspects of a specific topic, so there’s lots of gold in these thar hills.
Scriptnotes: A screenwriting podcast hosted by wildly successful writers (across mediums) John August and Craig Mazin, Scriptnotes is an honest, enlightening look at life inside the film and television industry. Established segments like the “3 Page Challenge” and “How Would This Be A Movie?” are insightful peeks into industry criticism and where ideas come from, respectfully, while the frequent high-profile guests bring challenging perspectives to Craig and John. And it also gave me the phrase, “Chim-chim the chip chimp champ,” for which I’ll be forever grateful.
Reedy’s Bestseller: Reedsy is a self-publishing enterprise, so it’s understandable if you’re skeptical about the intent behind their podcast. But I’ve found it to be a well-produced, enjoyable deep dive into the process behind self-publishing from authors that have succeeded.
These aren’t all the podcasts I like under these various topics, but they’re a good starting point if you’re looking for something new to listen to while doing chores. Next post I’ll talk my favorite political, educational, slice of life, and financial podcasts.
Future Soldier in the Word Wars
Craig Gusmann is a writer currently stationed in PA with his wife and two cats. Sent from the future in a clear homage to The Terminator, he wanted to get a head start on perfecting his use of words. Feel free to let him know how he’s doing.