Susan Rich, editor,
Half-Minute Horrors
(HarperCollins, 2009)

Former co-worker John Drybred, a congenial bear of a man who always had a groan-worthy joke at the ready to share, introduced me years ago to the joys of the short-short story. Now referred to in some circles as "flash fiction," the genre refers to stories of 1,000 words or less -- often much less -- that usually takes up only a page or two in your average paperback.

The challenge with short-shorts is giving readers an entire story, with characters, conflict and resolution, in such a short space. Well handled, these tales can be a delight.

"Delightful" describes maybe half of the entries in Half-Minute Horrors, a new volume out just in time for Halloween, edited by Susan Rich and boasting work by a who's who of contemporary writers. The other half, sadly, are less satisfactory.

The purpose here is to give readers a spook or a shiver in 30 seconds or less. Some of these stories succeed. A really good example of success comes from Jerry Spinelli's "The Chicken or the Egg."

"I was first," said Egg.

"I was first," said Chicken.

"I was," said Egg.

"I was," said Chicken.

"I was!"

"I was!"

"I was!"

"I was!"

"Okay," said Chicken. "You win." And pecked Egg. Seven times. From seven holes Egg bled yellow into the barnyard dust. Until all of Egg was out instead of in.

Chicken grinned. "But guess who's last."

That, my friends, is a really good story. Chosen totally at random when I first opened this book, it gave me a taste of what was to come.

Jon Klassen, in "The Legend of Alexandra & Rose," uses a single, one-page illustration with caption to provide his audience with a perfectly horrible tale of jealousy, murder and dismemberment. Neil Gaiman's "The Shadow" sets up an eerie scene in the woods that falls just short of satisfying; it feels like one too many details was left to the reader's imagination. Ayelet Waldman, on the other hand, doesn't fill in the gaps but left me tense with the grubby children in "At the Water's Edge."

On the other hand, Francine Prose feels like she was grasping at an idea in "Chocolate Cake," sets up a bodysnatching scenario but leaves spooky at the door. Abi Slone jumbles some potentially scary imagery together without giving readers enough character or setting to make "Stuck in the Middle" actually scare.

Other authors represented here include Margaret Atwood, Avi, Holly Black, Michael Connelly, Faye Kellerman, Gail Carson Levine, Gregory Maguire, Brad Meltzer, Joyce Carol Oates, James Patterson, Brian Selznick, Lemony Snicket, R.L. Stine and many, many more. (With stories so short, it takes quite a few of them to fill a book!)

Half-Minute Horrors is a solid collection overall, but Rich needed to be a little more selective when putting the package together. Targeted for readers 9-12, portions of this book will also entertain teens and adults -- and some of these stories might spook a younger audience, if read aloud in an appropriate setting.

review by
Tom Knapp

31 October 2009

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