Me First

Beware the Ninja Weenies by David Lubar

Written by David Lubar

As one of the few writers fortunate enough to have published a large body of short stories for young readers, I suspect many kids might have their first encounter with short genre fiction by way of my books. This presents me with both opportunities and responsibilities. If I wrote a story about a village that drew lots to see who would be on the receiving end of cast stones, my young readers would think the idea was fresh and new. When they got to high school and read “The Lottery,” they’d spew cries of outrage about how this Shirley Jackson lady had gotten her idea from the Weenie Guy. We all, of course, know better. And I know better than to consciously pilfer from the sacred canon.

But every genre contains a communal well. Most basic ideas can take thousands of paths from conception to execution. I’ve had the pleasure of introducing young readers to time-travel, the embodiment of a figurative being, the inadvertently resurrected dead (though not by means of a monkey’s paw), and endless and diverse variations of “be careful what you wish for.”

The reader who meets The Spirit of Christmas Presents in my short story, “Christmas Carol,” will not have had the magic and enjoyment spoiled when he later encounters Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality. He will be prepared, and will happily suspend disbelief again. The frightening sideshow performer in “Thresholds of Pain” helps pave the way for the reader as she moves toward the stories of one of my own idols, Ray Bradbury. (Please note that I do not put myself in the same class as these writers. I just share a paintbox and an outlook.) My dark stories will create a hunger that my readers will later sate with Richard Matheson, Brian Lumley, and other masters. My comic pieces will, I hope, enhance my fans’ eventual enjoyment of Douglas Adams and John Scalzi.

My responsibilities are two-fold. First, I must respect the genre and its rules. There are things no writer of adult speculative fiction could get away with. Stories for young readers must be held to the same standards. My characters will never be renamed and reequipped cowboys riding barely disguised horses. My lone pair of postapocalyptic survivors will never reveal, at the end, that they are named Adam and Eve. One citizen of a future civilization will never casually explain to another how the hovercraft in which they are riding works. I know better and my readers deserve better. (And were I to stray, I have the advantage of an editor, and indeed an entire publishing house, that knows the rules of the genre even better than I do.)

My other responsibility is to never spoil a classic surprise that another writer has produced. If I find myself heading toward an ending that is too close to a beloved plot twist, I need to find another route. True, my young readers will see my version as original. But that doesn’t make it right. (On the other hand, when a young man asked me whether I was inspired to write about vampires because of Twilight, I had the pleasure of telling him I’d published my first vampire story, “Count = Count – 1,” way back in 1979.)

Because of my reluctance to tread too close to the classics, I almost withheld a story from my new collection. After I wrote “Alien Biology,” which was inspired by realizing the meaning of the term is relative (and contemplating how people traveling to another country often view the residents as foreigners), it struck me that the story was a close cousin of the iconic “To Serve Man.” After a lot of thought, I decided it wasn’t so close as to ruin the amazement of anyone’s first encounter with Damon Knight’s great story, as brought to us by Rod Serling (or as parodied by a Halloween episode of The Simpsons).

Having said all of this, I’d like to end with a bit of a boast. I think many of my stories tread new ground. I’m unaware of any classic tale that explains the production of gorgonzola cheese by means of Gorgons, surrounds two young anglers with vampire catfish, crushes ant-frying brats with the flash-frozen contents of a jumbo jet’s lavatory, or reveals that chipmunks are the smartest lifeform on our planet. At least, I hope I got there first.

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