The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 4, No. 1

Letter to the Reader

by Adrienne Brodeur

Three years ago this winter, fifty thousand copies of the premier issue of Zoetrope: All- Story rolled off the wheels of a printing press in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and were sent to cafés, bookstores, and potential subscribers around the country. At the time, the forecast for our new short-story magazine was grim. "This is the age of the Internet," I was told. "People don't want to read, let alone buy a fiction magazine." But if there is one thing that I've learned from Zoetrope: All-Story's short history, it is that the story is alive and well, and that even in this fast-forward age of new media, the oldest medium still tells the human saga best.
    One hundred years ago, fiction magazines were the popular entertainment, the equivalent of today's television and movies. Like Zoetrope: All-Story, those publications (known as "the pulps") were printed on newsprint, had few ads, and featured wild cover art designed to entice readers to pick them up from among dozens of other magazines on the newsstands. The pulps specialized in short stories and serials that ran the gamut from literary to mystery to romance to science fiction. Often the stories they printed were as sensational as the art with which they were illustrated. It was in 1912 that the original All-Story magazine--our namesake--published Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan: Man of the Apes, with a cover illustration of a well-muscled ape-man wrestling a ferocious lion. The story went on to inspire twenty-four Tarzan novels and some seventy-six movies, most recently last summer's blockbuster animated version.
    With that All-Story in mind, we dedicate this issue--our third-anniversary issue--to our fiction-magazine heritage. Instead of presenting the work of a new guest designer, we have illustrated this commemorative issue with old pulp-magazine covers from the 1950s and earlier. In that same spirit, we commissioned an essay on the history of pulp magazines by the noted pulp enthusiast Frank Robinson and reprinted an excerpt of Burroughs's famous story.
    It is our seven new stories, however, that best celebrate the American storytelling tradition, and capture the vitality of the original All-Story magazine. The first story, "O Logos" by T. E. Holt, is a page-turner that literally summons the power of the word in the form of a deadly literary plague. Francine Prose's "The Witch" and Pete Rock's "Stranger" blend classic literary suspense with the dark realm of American suburbia while David Lida's "Shuttered" explores death in Mexico City. Rebecca Lee's "Fialta"--based on an idea commissioned by Francis Coppola--and Chitra Divakaruni's "The Blooming Season for Cacti" bring romance into the twenty-first century in unconventional ways. But perhaps it is Pinckney Benedict's "Zog-19: A Scientific Romance" that strikes closest to the spirit of the pulps, by combining sensational sci-fi with that most human of elements--love.
    So now when I hear skeptics questioning the survival of the story into the new millennium, or debating the likelihood that the creative spirit will suffer in the digital era, I think about the increasing number of subscribers we have with each new issue of Zoetrope: All-Story. I also think about what the story has had to compete with in the last hundred years, and how it has prevailed. When my grandparents were born, around the turn of the century, people had to take a horse and carriage into town to get their copy of All-Story or its equivalent. They read for pleasure, of course, but also to hang on to common strands of experience in the midst of the mind-boggling social and technological changes that marked their time. Things we now take for granted--electricity, radio, the telephone, the automobile, and the office building--multiplied the scope of their existence, dimension by dimension. Science presented new challenges to religious and spiritual identity. Empires, mores, and aesthetics crumbled. Revolutionary changes in literature and the other arts occurred. Cinema was invented.
    Throughout this transformational era the story has thrived (as I'm sure it will into the twenty-first century). This is not merely to suggest that the more things change, the more things stay the same, but rather that we will never outpace our need to be in touch with humanity. There will always be new methods of seeking and discovering, and accompanying them, new forms of telling. However, in all of this, the story has remained deeply rooted in its subject, the human experience, and thus ineluctably modern. Far from being eclipsed, fiction, along with music and art, might be the essential antidote to the emotional hazards of contemporary life. Could anything be more provocative or charmingly low-tech than reading a story magazine? You don't need to plug in. You don't need to log on. You don't need to drive anywhere. It is just you and some pages to turn--human scale for the human story.