Friday, July 1, 2011

Michael Crichton — Short Stories

Michael Crichton is best known for his novels—16 under his own name and 10 under pseudonyms. Less well known is that Crichton published several short stories. He wrote in his autobiography Travels that he started sending short stories to magazines when he was 13 (p. 71). There’s no indication that he sold any of his fiction. Crichton did sell a travel article to the New York Times when he was 14, and he worked as a student journalist in high school and college. His interests changed when he decided to pay for his medical school education by writing. “Clearly I couldn’t make enough writing free-lance articles, so I decided to write novels.” (Travels, p. 73) Crichton’s first novel, Odds On, was published under the name John Lange in 1966. However, he didn’t abandon short fiction, publishing four short stories in all.

“How Does That Make You Feel?” (1968)
What TV star married to what sex symbol pulled a gun on what $100-an-hour shrink?
By Jeffery Hudson, Playboy, November 1968, Vol. 15, No. 11, pp. 115, 156-159

Crichton’s first published short story was written under the pseudonym Jeffery Hudson. There’s no doubt this story was written by Crichton. According to the Playbill page of that issue Jeffery Hudson is “the pseudonym of an American scientist who currently lives in London” who had recently published the novel A Case of Need." Even without that information, I would have recognized Crichton’s style. And one sentence in the story connects with something Crichton wrote in Travels.

“How Does That Make You Feel?”, a story about a famous actor’s confrontation with his psychiatrist, contains this observation about the doctor:

“It was a trick he had, repeating the last part of a sentence.” (Playboy, p. 156)

Crichton describes meeting with his training analyst during the psychiatry rotation of his medical school training at Harvard:

“This was a psychiatrist’s trick, repeating your last phrase to keep you talking.”(Travels, p. 30)

In 1970, “How Does That Make You Feel?” was republished in the book Crime Without Murder: An Anthology of Stories by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. The acknowledgments section contains this:

“How Does That Make You Feel?” by Jeffery Hudson, pp. 125-133
Copyright ©1968 by Michael Crichton. First published in Playboy (November 1968). Reprinted by permission of the author c/o International Famous Agency, Inc.

Perhaps having his story included in the collection inspired Crichton to write more short stories.

“The Most Powerful Tailor in the World” (1971)
You’d better not call this screaming nut a screaming nut to his face—because he does seem to possess the ultimate power.
By Michael Crichton, Playboy, September, 1971, pp. 153, 190-192

This story was released in audio (cassettes) in 1996 as part of the collection Best of Playboy Fiction. While stories by Frederick Forsythe and Joseph Heller are also included, Crichton’s name and the title of his story are the dominant elements on the cover. “The Most Powerful Tailor in the World” is read by David Dressel.

“Mousetrap: A Tale of Computer Crime” (1984)

A fictional tale of computer crime, the new trend in white collar larceny, in which a young genius tries to byte the hand that feeds him.
By Michael Crichton, Life, January 1984, Vol. 7, No.1, pp. 116-126

This story can be thought of as a fictional companion to Crichton’s 1983 book Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers. While the technology in the story is obsolete, I wonder if some of the ideas about computer security could still be applied effectively to today’s machines.

“Blood Doesn’t Come Out” (2003)
A man can only be pushed so far—especially when his mother is the one pushing.
by Michael Crichton, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, pp. 191-201.

The treasury’s editor, Michael Chabon, commissioned the short stories for this collection. In addition to Crichton, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Elmore Leonard, and Neil Gaiman contributed stories.

“Blood Doesn’t Come Out” is very different from Crichton’s previous short fiction. His other short stories follow the same general pattern: a greedy villain is outsmarted by the hero in a clever twist to end the story. In “Blood Doesn’t Come Out”, the main character is not very heroic. While the writing is good, the story is dark and brutal. I found it somewhat disturbing.

One other interesting aspect—“Blood Doesn’t Come Out” is written in first person. The only other creative works by Crichton in first person are the novels Eaters of the Dead, Rising Sun, and Prey.

In addition to his four published short stories, some of Crichton’s earlier work can be read in First Words: Earliest Writing from Favorite Contemporary Authors. Editor Paul Mandelbaum solicited many contemporary writers to share samples of their early work, along with some photographs. Crichton commented, “As you will see from the selection,” he notes, “I have been unflinching.” (p. 48)

There is a poem “Johnny at 8:30” circa 1957, when Crichton was 14. Like many of his works, it has a surprising twist at the end.

Three short stories are included in First Words. The first is untitled, written in 1960 when Crichton was 17. It’s not so much a complete story as it is a fragment, consisting solely of dialogue between two people, with no description or exposition. A comment in the margin reads: “Crichton no longer remembers what this story is about.”

“Life Goes to a Party” was written in 1961 when Crichton was 18. There’s not much of a plot to this story. It’s about a college student attending a Christmas party back home with the people he knew in high school. I wonder if Crichton was describing his own experiences.

“The Most Important Part of the Lab” was also written in 1961. This story has more of a plot, and a stronger narrative voice. The writing reflects the author’s thinking and insights. Crichton’s instructor encouraged him to submit this story to a magazine.


Brent said...

I enjoyed reading these. I found them on an old post of yours about his complete works. I would like to build a new complete works list with all his articles and interviews. what do you think?

Marla Warren said...

Brent, I've already been working on a list of Crichton's nonfiction articles and of his interviews for some time now. It will be far longer than a list of his short stories.

Narayan said...

I had heard about 3 stories. the information on Mousetrap: A Tale of Computer Crime is something new. Have read the other three- as well as the pieces that were featured in First words
it woudl be great if a slim volume of the short stories were published...sort of what John Grisham did recently with FORD COUNTY

Sibusisiwe Nyanda said...

Hello mate great blog ppost