William Morrow & Company, 2010
Hardcover, 448 pages. 27 stories, introduction, and brief contributors’ bios.
“Talking to Al Sarrantino I realised that I was not alone in finding myself increasingly frustrated with the boundaries of genre: the idea that categories which existed only to guide people around bookshops now seemed to be dictating the kind of stories that were being written.” Neil Gaiman (Introduction to Stories: All-New Tales titled “Just Four Words.”)
If you are excited by the idea of an anthology ignoring genre classification, then Stories: All-New Tales will be a delight. For those fearful of the idea, you’ve a right to be nervous. Neil Gaiman and Sarrantonio put out a call for stories that would invoke “just four words:” “…and then what happened?” and “Writers rose to the challenge. We learned to expect only the unexpected” (3). Of course, they hoped for good writing and a “lightning flash of magic” (1), as well. They found it.
Stories is a collection of 27 tales by some of the best known, and few of the less familiar, authors publishing* today. And the tales are All-New so next to shedding genre constraints, they’re offering something that hasn’t been re-cycled or up-cycled from another publication. And Neil Gaiman is co-editor.
One of the complaints I’ve heard is that the anthology reads like the kind in University English Lit courses. Those who read from a variety of genres of short stories will understand the complaint. I am fairly new to this realm of possibility that there other kinds of shorts; like those often found in Fantasy and Science Fiction, where apparently stories are tales, potential summaries of longer works, daydreams, where paring down images or honing symbols is not necessarily necessary, a sentence could be saying something individually or nothing at all. Not long ago I was reading some stories in an SF anthology and I was getting frustrated. “I need to explicate!” I’m sure I was sweating. Sean looked at me as if my horns were showing again and wondered, “Why?” Some of the stories were asking the same it seems, because they certainly weren’t demanding examination. (Yes, it seems there are very few times I can shut my brain off, and I’m sure you don’t care to hear about the occasions that phenomena occurs most often.) In Stories the stories do whisper to my desire to explicate. It may be in thinking the authors should be good for complexity and meaning even in their most effortless work; this observation could be unfair. I tested by not looking at the brief bios of the contributors at the back. Yes, I expected little from those I had never heard of before, and much from those I’ve heard the praises sung, or hummed a few bars myself. In short: The quality is such that one should be reminded of a University level Literature course textbook. That it would automatically demand the same rigor on the part of the Reader? Those not encoded with “Explicate!” are safe. They are stories, to be entertained by and live in for a short space of time, and perhaps be haunted by them a short while after. They can say something, or inquire after your opinion, or they mightn’t do either at all. Course, as the collection is determinedly without category you’ll not know which story you will get, or what kind of response it may wring from you. So don’t brace yourself, just be prepared.
Stories contains a story or two concerning outer space, two with elderly sisters in their 70s (strangely enough), there are a couple of serial killers, one with one who murdered only once (I think), there is grieving, there are fairytales, historical pieces, contemporary settings, the experience of a game show by a frat boy on acid, there are the paranormal—vampires eroticized in the way I think they were always meant, a lot of mental illnesses (though theirs or ours, I am not certain), some serious, some meta (and therefore take themselves seriously), many are all out bizarre. Stories that might find similarity in protagonists or theme or plot or trope are spread apart and if you dole the works out to yourself first to last and in portions than nothing should feel repetitious (and it might nip the desire to compare the two).
Gaiman and Sarrantonio were true to their word. Good writing, no genre-generated constraints, and the continual use of “just four words.” And not just “…and then what happened?” but “What’ll I read next?”** I believe Stories has something to entertain everyone; you can pick and choose, and ignore any desire to explicate or no.
*one exception: Life in Fictions is accounted Kat Howard’s first published story.
** a contraction of two words is still counted one word right?
Part two of this post is the ginormous part.. the part where I try to keep it brief in remarking upon each of the 27 stories and the one intro.