by Todd Russell
Historically speaking, flash fiction is nothing new although the term itself didn't come about until the early 1990s. Some of Aesop's fables have retroactively been dubbed flash fiction, as have some of the more airy stories of H.P. Lovecraft. The greatest piece of flash fiction ever written is often referred to as the shortest story ever written, although surely someone somewhere has attempted to usurp that distinction in word count if not in quality. Apocryphally attributed to Ernest Hemmingway in some instances, the fact that the author's true identity will never be known with any certainty only heightens its power. It's like a message in a bottle that has washed upon our culture's shore. Six words, that is all. So simple and yet it has it all.
That is flash fiction at its finest, at its purest, and at its shortest.
Despite its age and pedigree, flash fiction did not truly come into its own until the birth of the internet, when any number of amateur authors were suddenly able to share their works with anyone willing to read them at little or no cost. Coupled with the fact that the newborn e-zine format required original content to fill its pages, and that this new age of information was the dawn of the Short Attention Span generation, its easy to see why the artform took off during the early days of AOL and the BBS.
Now the main problem with flash fiction is that while it is extremely easy to write, it is extremely difficult to write well. The short story format has its disadvantages--mainly, less time to build the action, storyline and character; indeed, subtlety, nuance, character growth, and subplots are virtually unheard of in the short story format except when crafted by a true master.
Flash fiction is the short story taken to the extreme, so it suffers all of the same weaknesses, only they are magnified ten-fold. By virtue of the format, too much is left unspoken, only hinted at, and left up to the reader to fill in the gaps. Even the aforementioned Baby Shoes story, a sterling example as it may be, suffers from the maladies. One reader may assume that the mother in question is selling the shoes because her pregnancy scare was a false alarm. Another reader may assume that the baby was miscarried or stillborn. And another, slightly more warped reader, may assume that the baby is alive and well...but it was born without legs. None of these interpretations can be wrong, and yet none of these interpretations can be right. It's the nature of the beast.
Author Todd Russell recently supplied me with a copy of his ebook Mental Shrillness, and while each of the stories contained within are significantly longer than Baby Shoes, five out of the six of them definitely fall into the flash fiction category. As with anthologies of any sort, the quality varies from tale to tale, so let's do a Flash Review for each piece, shall we?
MEMORIAL DAY DESCENT This cross between classical gothic and Jacob's Ladder attempts to surprise you, but the ending is too easy to see coming.
PAINS IN THE GLASS A woman's broken heart manifests itself in surprising ways. Viewed literally, it's only decent. Viewed symbollically, it has a certain potentcy that may not be visible at first glance.
DEAD WARMED OVER The premise, revolving around a man trying to revive a dead lover killed during a kinky sex act, seems like the opening act of some underground German horror flick. Brief as it is, it attempts (moderately succesfully) to emulate the feel of a Tales From the Crypt back issue.
FALLING THE BOBBIT WAY Every man's dream becomes every man's nightmare in this epistolary tale. Again maintaining the underground German film feel, the surprise of this sexually explicit story is given away by its title. It just goes to show that there really can bee too much of a good thing.
DUELING EYES If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out seems to be the motif for this story of madness. Unfortunately the methods and motivation of the madness are never fully explored, and while this could be a good chapter in a great book, it is only mediocre as a standalone piece.
THE ILLUSION This is the longest piece in the collection, and also one of the strangest. It's a sick fantasy variation of the kid who wants to run away and join the circus. Occasionally convoluted and pretentious, and feeling almost like an excised portion from a lost Clive Barker novel, I'm still a sucker for all things circus and carnival related, so I enjoyed every minute of it.
Like I said...a mixed bag.
At this point, I would like to point out that Mental Shrillness author Todd Russell is visiting Midnite Media today as part of his promotional Blog Tour for the collection. He will be answering the following interview-style questions in the comment section of this post, and will be checking back periodically to interact with you readers who choose to leave a comment as well.
--What is it about the flash fiction format that appeals to you? What do you feel are the benefits and the drawbacks of working in the format?
--Do you plan on continuing to write flash fiction/short stories, or do you have aspirations for longer-form fiction?
--Where do you draw your inspiration from? What books and movies have inspired you the most?
--Are there any other, lesser-known authors that you would like to bring to the attention of the readers?
--Now that Mental Shrillness has been released...what's next?
--And finally, is there anything else that you would like to add?