Tales from Webster's

John Shea


Synopsis: In a universe that seems capricious, void of meaning, and cold, there live strands of significance, if we can but detect and tease them out. That becomes the role of the artist who is not afraid to use chance work within aesthetic constraints. From the unpromising material of an average dictionary, perhaps we can unveil the very fullness of life. Or at least have fun trying.


ISBN: 978-1-60489-188-1 Hard cover $24.95   Sale Price $16.95

ISBN: 978-1-60489-189-8  Trade paper $14.95    Sale Price $9.95

224 Pages

  About the Author: 

 John Shea was born in Rome, the son of a Foreign Service Officer.  He graduated from Columbia University, then earned a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. There, he won Penn’s awards for playwriting and for poetry.  After that,  he worked at Penn for many years as an editor and writer.  He may be the only person to have published stories in both Partisan Review and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  His story “The Real World” received an honorable mention from Writer’s Digest, was published in Columbia Magazine, and was later performed as part of Writing Aloud, a program of InterAct Theatre Company of Philadelphia.  He won second prize in the Philadelphia City Paper fiction competition with a story set in Colonial Philadelphia; it included witchcraft and a cameo by B. Franklin.  Other stories have appeared in The Twilight Zone Magazine, The Café Irreal, Literal Latte, and elsewhere.






 Excerpt from the Book:

Behind the Scene

Inventing a literary form, besides giving one a bear of an appetite, is a heady experience, one that I share with only a handful of visionary people.  For example, there’s Petrarch, who, I gather, invented the Petrarchan sonnet; the Provençal troubadour Arnaut Daniel, who came up with the devilishly clever sestina; and, closer to our time, Rich Hall, who gave us the sniglet.

            And now, the “tale from Webster’s.”  What is it – a poem in prose, a short (very short) narrative, a verbal arrangement?  That question may be impossible to answer conclusively, but there are others.  Where does it come from?  How did this ingenious, often challenging form originate?

            The answer lies in the mists of time . . . or at least more than 30 years ago.  As it happened, I was working on a project completely unrelated to the tales.  I believe the word I was fishing for at the time was monstrance, but I cannot remember whether I was consulting its derivation or verifying the spelling.  At any rate, I opened my dictionary – a well-worn, jacketless copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition (World Publishing Company, 1970) – and ran my eyes down the columns on page 922.  Sure enough, there was monstrance.  But what immediately seized my attention were its neighbors, arranged there so suggestively: monster, mons pubis, monsoon, Monsignor.

            Pay dirt!  I knew it at once.  For did this not seem a story in miniature, a veritable tale of temptation and passion, involving characters clinging to organized religion while adrift in the chaos of emotion?  Indeed, the notion of chaos itself was important: For what I had detected – purely by chance – was a kind of hidden sense within the apparent randomness of the universe.  True, there was – there is – an order (alphabetical) in my Webster’s and yours; but that order is much less exciting than what I had stumbled upon.  Yes, the “tales” that link these seemingly unrelated words together may not be evident – but that was precisely what appealed to me as a writer who manipulates words, or is manipulated by them.  In fact, the Monsignor-to-monstrance sequence seemed to show more of its hidden drama than most imaginable sequences.  After all, I had checked my dictionary on countless other occasions without being rewarded with that flash of insight.  But having had that fortuitous eyeful, I determined to examine other sets of words in the same way.  If there was a tale folded inside these five mere words, were there not other tales elsewhere in my deceptively plain Webster’s?