Short stories find a home on the Web

Despite regular predictions to the contrary, e-books still haven't become a threat to the dead-tree variety, and probably won't be for some time to come. One of the obvious reasons for this reluctance to adopt the new technology is that very few people can work up much enthusiasm about reading a 300 page novel off a computer screen.

Short stories, on the other hand, are brief enough to be computer friendly, and at the same time, sufficiently underrepresented in book shops that it can be easier to find a specific work online. Short Stories at East of the Web is a British repository for tales of an easily digestible length - and boasts quality, quantity, and what is as close as possible to the hyperbole of 'something for everybody.'

While the basic concept of making stories available online is hardly new (neither is East of the Web for that matter - online since at least 2000), this particular resource sets itself apart with the impressive appearance, options, and interactivity of its design. Contents include both newly written material (covering such contemporary topics as office temping), as well as such classics of the short story genre as Frank Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger" and Ambrose Bierce's, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." (The latter of which, according to the site, was adapted into "The Twilight Zone's" most popular episode ever.) With talent ranging from current contributors to the BBC to such icons as O. Henry, Jules Verne, Anton Chekhov, the Brothers Grimm, and Edgar Allan Poe, EotW should be able to cater to any literary preferences.

As for the manner in which the stories are presented, East's index page (no splash page) has more the look of a fairly high-end online magazine or mirror for a television program than a repository for free literature. (Liberal use of images helps the site with its text-heavy purpose avoid having a text-heavy look.) The clean design places navigation to the collection's nine categories (children's, crime, fiction, horror, humour, non-fiction, romance, science fiction and hyper-fiction) at the top of every page, and below breaks its featured front page selection under such headings as "Story of the Day," "Random Story," and the current listing of the six "Top Stories." A keyword search is also available for more specific requests.

Each story is given a one line synopsis, along with page length, age recommendations, and a 1-5 star rating based on the opinions of the site's visitors. Choose one of the nine categories, and you'll be presented with a slightly modified look, but the same layout and (now category-specific) options as the index page - with the exception of some new browsing options replacing the story of the day. These new options allow the visitor to concentrate on classics or new stories, or arrange the category's collection by such criteria as rating, story length or author.

So far, EotW's options are numerous but fairly straightforward, but things get more interesting from a design point of view as you proceed. Each story listing offers links both to the story itself, and the author. The story page presents the entire text on a single web page, separated into 'reading' pages by a JavaScripted numbering system ("<1>") designed to minimize scrolling.

Click on the 1 (or whatever number page you're reading), and the browser will move the top of that page to the top of your screen. Click on the forward or backward arrow, and the next or previous page will move to the top of the screen. Along the left of the page are links to reader comments and ratings, versions formatted for printout and handheld (Palm Pilot etc.) use, teaching materials, and more stories by the same author. At the bottom of the page are interactive options related to the site's "Bookshelf" feature (more below).

Click on the author's name in a story listing (or the "More Stories" option on a story page) and you'll be taken to the full collection of that writer's works - which can also be arranged by such options as rating and story length. Though varying from case to case, author's pages can also include links to his or her "Essential Stories," related homepages and commercial sites, short biographies, and even a chance for email contact through the EotW site. These last two options are limited to living authors - and while it can be argued that the policy makes perfect sense when it comes to emails, it would be nice to have a few details about all the writers, dead or alive.

The aforementioned Bookshelf feature will be a boon to regular visitors, and while no registration is required, you'll have to be sure Cookies are enabled while you're at the site. Basically, the Bookshelf allows you to mark stories as read, 'store' them for later reading (in case you don't have the necessary time during a visit), and create lists of favorite titles and authors. (The former saves you the trouble of relocating a tale that can stand repeated tellings. The latter automatically places newly collected titles by your favorite authors onto your bookshelf.)

A few ancillary features include online Forums, Word Games, Teacher Resources, and Story Guides (eg., "The Short Guide to Vampires"). A few links at the top right of each page, to "ebooks" and "interactive" appear to be either in development or suspended animation. As a resource for aspiring or unpublished writers, EotW is open to submissions, and a "Short Stories Uncut" section (accessible through the Submissions page) allows aspiring writers to post their material for comment by other site visitors. Uncut also hosts discussion groups, articles on writing and author interviews, tracks calls for submissions, and invites visitors to take part in writing challenges.

Complaints? One. A maddening and constant barrage of pop-up ads that might have you thinking you're at a GeoCities site - especially ironic when so much of the EotW's design is geared toward visitor convenience. If your browser has the option of disabling unsolicited pop-up windows, you'll be fine - but normal strategies, such as turning off JavaScript, are less feasible here - since the site also uses visitor requested pop-ups to display such features as viewer comments.

Similarly, while disabling Cookies will at least mean that you only see one ad over and over (and over (and over...)) again, you'll have to turn them on again every time you want to use the Bookshelf's functionality. Such is the price that EotW asks for free content and professional web design, but I have to think that a significant number of visitors are permanently driven away by the practice.

But if you can turn off or endure the pop-ups, there is an amazing selection here, in both variety and volume. So much so in fact, that there may actually be enough to keep you entertained until the e-books finally take over.

Short Stories at East of the Web can be found at http://www.short-stories.co.uk/.

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