Ron Carlson’s “Keith” Made Me Contemplate What Makes a Short Story Truly Memorable

Last night, I began a frantic search for a short story I’d read years ago in a college English class–fueled, of course, by the same feverish, all-consuming waves of OCD as always. My search brought me to/r/tipofmytongue, a very helpful forum where users can post everything from B movies they watched while drunk to commercial jingles they heard in grade school. My hopes of finding this particular story were low, because I only recalled a few random details like “the narrator had a trophy” and “the love interest had cancer.”

But fate must have been on my side: Because against all odds, one of the posters said my description reminded them of Keith–and they were 100% right!

Now, in my year of reading for the Science Fiction/Fantasy magazine Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores I’ve learned one thing. Most stories aren’t at all bad, but they’re unremarkable, and like most things, they don’t resonate with my personal tastes in the slightest. But every once in a while, someone submits a story that still pops into my head months later. It’s a phenomenon that’s as predictable as the clouds drifting gently in the breeze: There’s always that one that comes along sooner or later and makes it all worth it.

Now I haven’t been reading for the magazine long enough to see if any of the unpublished stories will stick with me years later, but Keith did. I guess it’s no surprise, because the author Ron Carlson has quite an impressive list of credentials (which we all know matters surprisingly little when crafting a truly memorable story, but it certainly tips the odds in his favor). But this one had such unique, intriguing characters that I seriously couldn’t get it out of my head on a random May night at least 5 years after reading it for the very first time.

As I’m sure most of you reading this blog can gather, I prefer Science Fiction and Fantasy 99% of the time–and a dash of horror is usually a must for any story to truly resonate with me as well. But Keith defied all this and wormed its way into my heart with a truly vivid “slice of life” that seemed like it could have taken place in any American high school over the past 50 years.

The characters seemed so authentic that I recalled their voices and motivations as if they were real people, long after I forgot the name of the story. I remembered it the way you’d remember a quirky gas station attendant who called you names on a road trip, years after you forgot what state you were passing through. Everything about this story persisted in my mind in a very lifelike way that seemed to blur the lines of reality and fiction–which is precisely what I love about Science Fiction and Fantasy most of the time.

I have no idea if the story will resonate with you as much as it did with me, but I’d highly recommend giving Keith a read. Who knows, it might stick with you five years later too–or you might absolutely hate it and close it out after the second page. Because if there’s one more thing I learned from reading for a magazine, it’s that taste is the most subjective thing in all the universe.

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