Back in May, I bought the Kindle edition of Chesya Burke’s short story collection Let’s Play White with the intention of reading it on the way home from WisCon. After our plane was delayed until the middle of the night (and possibly the next day), I shelved that because I needed to keep my phone battery charge available for being a phone.
Funnily (at least in retrospect) enough , the author was stuck in the same airport as us. For a while we were even both at the same gate, even though we had different planes. That’s how messed up it was. Anyway, after WisCon it was one thing or another: summer sickness, family weddings, depression, computer crises, more sickness, flooded bedroom… so it was only last night that I made it back to the collection.
I’ve said before on a blog that I think Stephen King is a better storyteller than he is a writer. Some people get the distinction right away. Some people don’t really think there is one. To me, it’s just simple truth: he is a master of storytelling who also happens to be a competent, workmanlike writer. Well, I say “happens to be” but I know he worked for those skills. No amount of storytelling gift would let him make the kind of money he does if he didn’t know how to package it. The storytelling ability is magic; the writing is the ability to bottle it.
I think it is because he is better at storytelling than he is at writing that Stephen King’s best short stories and novellas far outshine his best novels, in my mind. As fat paperback novels go, Stephen King is right up there with a lot of other people whose novels you can find in airports and drug stores. Right up there with them. Koontz, Barker, and people who write other stuff. Right up there with them.
But the shorts? The really good shorts? And the novellas?
Forget about it. That’s where King is King. That’s where he’s in a class of his own.
You might wonder why I have several paragraphs in a row talking about Stephen King in a review of someone else’s book. I want you to understand exactly how I feel about Stephen King, so that when I say that Chesya Burke’s book of shorts is like having a collection of the best Stephen King stories you’ve never read, you understand what I’m saying.
She doesn’t read like Stephen King. She has her own voice—her own voices, even—but in terms of storytelling? In terms of blending the fantastic, the grotesque, the mundane, and the banal? In terms of finding the voice of a time and a place… well, actually, there’s no point or need in comparing her to anyone else there, because I can’t think of anyone who’s managed it as well as she does.
The other place where she exceeds Stephen King as a writer of horrific short fiction is her ability to write emotively, with words that hit you like ice water dumped down your back or a sledgehammer to your heart. Where his prose is workmanlike, hers is alive with the weight of grief, of guilt, of doubt, of hopelessness… and the blazing intensity of joy, of hope, and triumph. It’s hard to tease out art from artifice when looking from the other side of the looking glass, but I suspect that as a true literary empath she feels what she writes and she writes what she feels, and she makes you feel it, too.
It’s hard to single out a favorite from the book. The story that gives the collection its title is the one that first put me in mind of Stephen King, and where I first really noticed her talent for plumbing the deep well of feeling. “Purse” is an honest suckerpunch to the gut. “Chocolate Park” is a richly braided mosaic story that makes me hungry for a longer work. “I Make People Do Bad Things” is a true American gothic, an amorality play rooted in historical drama. “He Who Takes Away The Pain” is a haunting and powerful allegory without being preachy.
“CUE: Change” is an interesting one: is it zombies being portrayed as a social revolution, or a social revolution portrayed as zombies? It’s possibly my favorite in the bunch, though I’m not good at picking favorites because I tend to like different things for different reasons, and this collection gives a lot of very different things.
I linked to the Kindle version above. You can find all the format/buying options at the publisher’s website: http://www.apexbookcompany.com/products/lets-play-white-by-chesya-burke. Note that while I endorse this collection on its merits, it is primarily a collection of horror stories. The content is very raw and includes the frank portrayal of racism, violence (particularly against women, and including sexual violence), exploitation, and horrific imagery. It will not be too everybody’s needs or tastes. Caveat emptor.