Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mental Shrillness by Todd Russell

Mental Shrillness
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.

For sale.
Baby shoes.
Never worn.

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?


  1. Hello Jonny and readers of the blog, Happy Mother's Day to mom's everywhere and thank you for letting me a best at your blog today.

    Throughout the day I'll answer your questions plus any follow-up questions from you and your readers.

    Let's get this rock and roll fest started!

    --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?

    I enjoyed your overview explaining the art behind the flash fiction format. When I started writing these stories we called them short short stories and after consulting the Wikipedia entry I see there a good half dozen other names. Whatever folks want to call them, the are lots and lots of fun for me to both read and write.

    The beauty and allure of flash fiction to me is the delicate balance between what is said and left unsaid. It's like bringing in a tree and watching a guy take a chainsaw to it. When he's done he's created art out of a log but what about all the sawdust and wood chips? What story does the compost tell? We tend to focus on the art made and discard the waste when there is another story, or perhaps a deeper meaning by the unused bits.

    I love thinking stories. Not stories where too much is left to thought of course (that's part of the challenge) but the right balance where you start to wonder: hey, that could be an allegory for ___.

    Writers can tell a satisfying story by combining the written and unwritten. One drawback is that you can't control what interpretation the reader will have with the unwritten bits. Some readers will get everything right away, others won't be bothered by or care about what's unwritten instead they'll judge the story solely by the written bits. Other readers might focus too much on the unwritten bits.

    With flash fiction you are dancing with the reader in a way that longer short stories, novellas and novels can't do. It's the brief kiss as far as word count goes with a residual mental impact.

    It's a very challenging dance and one that might seem easy to writers new to the format, especially if they focus too much on the word count. 500, 600 words? Ha, piece of cake! Then one gets into it and can burn 500 words on a little dialogue and a brief action scene. What's left for characterization? Where is the story? What is this thing about?

    Flash fiction writers can study a gifted writer like Ray Bradbury who can paint vivid landscapes with few words.

    Or read Professor Strunk's The Elements of Style where he once pounded his fist on the desk and cried out to his class: "Omit needless words!"

    It's the ultimate voyage in brevity, an exploration of the world without excess.

    Now one could say wait, but we have even shorter stories than flash fiction. Twitter fiction is only 140 characters and then there's a picture with no words at all. The cover art for a book or illustration.

    There are so many wonderful challenges for writers and readers out there.

  2. "thank you for letting me a best at your blog today." = thank you for letting me BE A GUEST at your blog today ;)

    Here's question #2:

    --Do you plan on continuing to write flash fiction/short stories, or do you have aspirations for longer-form fiction?

    I have written brand new flash fiction as recent as a few weeks ago when I entered an online contest and won a keychain for my story entry.

    Yes, I will keep writing flash fiction, short stories and novellas but my home is the novel.

    The shorter works are like visiting a special place for the day while the longer ones (novellas and novels) are fantastic trips and exciting adventures: to love, lose and love again. To fight and make peace, to survive and battle another day.

    Longer works can do something that flash fiction can't do: explore the human condition through a roller coaster of life and death events where the reader is right there, twisting and turning, witnessing the action.

    You can only hint at this with Flash Fiction but you can let the reader experience it with a novella and novel.

    You can also tell more than one story with more than one character. You can tell a group story like what Stephen King did with The Stand and Robert McCammon with Swan Song.

    I wanted to introduce readers to my writing with a collection of grouped stories that had already been published (posted in online contests), if you will allow that expression, had been under public scrutiny of both peer and reader review and a couple of stories which others had judged first place in contests.

    I had already completed seven novels before writing the six stories in Mental Shrillness from 1997-1998 so yes, absolutely I have aspirations of publishing and will publish longer form fiction.

  3. --Are there any other, lesser-known authors that you would like to bring to the attention of the readers?

    I would encourage readers to do what I'm doing: divide their time between reading traditional published, indie and mixed authors. There are some insane bargains for horror fiction from fresh voices.

    When do you last remember that you could read a horror novel or collection of stories for less than $3 USD (and not in the bargain bin at the used book store either)? Some of these NEW books are going for less than a cup of hot chocolate. I've graduated from kid in Willy Wonka's factory to horror fiction paradise!

    If you follow me on Goodreads you'll see me reading different indie artists. Here are some authors that are working hard for a chance to earn new readers: Ed Kurtz, John Paul Allen and Shaun Jeffrey. Ania Ahlborn is about to come out with her debut novel Seed next month and there are dozens more hard working indie authors.

    I have been trying to think of a creative way to help inspire, foster and promote fellow indie horror authors. I have one idea that won't exit my brain so maybe I'm onto something...

  4. It's time for a factoid. Collect all of these during the tour and at the end take a quiz and score 75% or better for a chance to win one of six ebook prizes:


    Mental Shrillness Factoid #6

    The title of the book, Mental Shrillness, was picked as both a variation on the words 'mental illness' and because the author couldn't find another book with this name.


  5. --Where do you draw your inspiration from? What books and movies have inspired you the most?

    Wow, I've been inspired by a lot of great works over the year. Below is a small sampling.

    TV and movies: Twilight Zone (the original), Outer Limits, Night Gallery, Ray Bradbury Theater, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales from the Crypt, Creepshow, various classic monster movies (Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi), late 70s and 80s horror films like Halloween 1 & 2 and Friday the 13th before they succumbed to sequelitis. Some of the earlier Stephen King books translated to movies like Stand by Me (from the short story "The Body" in Different Seasons), Apt Pupil, Christine, Carrie, The Shining.

    Books: Swan Swong and The Wolf's Hour by Robert McCammon (but anything he's done in the horror genre is good), King's earlier books like Pet Semetary (my pick for the scariest book ever), Salem's Lot, Dead Zone, Firestarter, the Bachman books (Running Man, Long Walk). Ray Bradbury (short stories) and Isaac Asimov (robot stories)

  6. --Now that Mental Shrillness has been released...what's next?

    On deck is the paperback version of Mental Shrillness. I have several friends (and some family) who don't believe a book is a book until they see the DTV (Dead Tree Version). The plan is to announce a release date for this before the end of the tour. This is very close.

    With the next book I plan to have the DTV ready from day one. It's just one of many things I'm learning about the publishing side of things.

    My next new book will be a horror novel. It is at/near beta reading stage now. There will be an announcement on this book as well before the tour ends with more details.

    I also have another horror novel that is about to undergo an additional edit stage and afterward will be ready for beta readers too.

    Meanwhile I'm sitting on enough short stories to fill a few more collections if/when I can get those out, perhaps spaced between the novels or around holidays and/or other themes.

    I'm also working on outlines for several new longer stories (one could be a novella, another is going to be an epic novel and from the outline could be the longest and most ambitious in scope and size work I've ever undertaken).

    I plan to begin writing the first draft for at least one of these works before the month is out.

    I will be very busy the rest of 2011 and 2012 writing, editing, publishing and actively promoting my work when I can.

    I encourage interested readers to follow my website to keep updated and I will make it worthwhile with some discounts, goodies and freebies along the way :) Earlier today in fact I setup an opt-in newsletter.

  7. Ok, Jonny, I think we're at the last question of yours.

    --And finally, is there anything else that you would like to add?

    I would encourage those reading to visit the other Mental Shrillness Blog Tour stops.

    We've covered something a little new at each stop (at this one we talked about the flash fiction format in greater depth, which was cool) and I look forward to the rest of the stops.

    Tomorrow I have a guest post on compelling horror movie cover art that might appeal to your readers.

    Thank you for hosting a day on my blog tour, Jonny :)

  8. Todd,

    Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to answer my questions. I'm sorry that the reader interaction was nil--I'm sure they were reading, even if they weren't commenting!

    Best of luck in the future, my friend!

  9. Hey, it's all good :) Readers like to read, not necessarily comment and God bless 'em for reading :)

    Thank you, again, Jonny! :)


What do you got to say about it!?


Related Posts with Thumbnails