this is part 2 of my post on Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio edited Stories: All-New Tales (2010, William Morrow). Part one is here. Part 2 involves my [brief] responses to each of the 27 stories collected, and the introduction.
As I was reading Stories I kept thinking how hard it must be to not consider Gaiman your audience while submitting a piece for his anthology because Gaiman comes to mind while reading most of the stories. Many, but not all. And not that this harms the reading experience. It just spurred the contemplation of audiences, playlists, and filter bubbles.
I didn’t read the stories in order of appearance, though I did start with the first one first and was glad because it really does whet the appetite (though I am not sure I should have phrased it in that way). I parceled out the reading based on time, or interest (in known author and/or title), and length. The writing was good, all of it; although Grammarians may have issue as commas appear to affect some Writer’s differently. I tried to write a brief note after every story I read and what follows are they (cleaned up a bit and in order of the stories appearance): I will put a # sign if I have ever read something by the author before:
If you have not read Stories and aren’t one to consult the chart in the box of assorted chocolates, you may want to stop here.
A–The Introduction by Neil Gaiman “Just Four Words.” (1-4) I actually read this first because I’ve been trained this way. Also, I didn’t really know how this anthology was intended, especially after noting the unusual company many of the authors were keeping. Sometimes the Introduction in collections and Forewords are entertaining in themselves—and Gaiman wrote it. I like what he had to say about stories: the reference to the oral tradition, the relationship of storyteller/audience/story, and how we’ve become constrained by fear/ignorance/marketing.
1–Blood – Roddy Doyle (5-14) A man experiences a mid-life crisis in “Dracula’s city.” “He was a normal man, slipping into middle age. […] His mind was fine, but something in him had been running amok. His biology, or something like that” (12). Blood was easily one of the most entertaining reads for me. The protagonist is humorous, self-deprecating, and the story has a brilliant ending. If you like Guy Ritchie films, you find some lovely similarities in rhythm, voice, and comedy.
2– Fossil-Figures – Joyce Carol Oates (15-28) “Why two when there should be one?” …This story is gorgeously written; a deliciously weird and creepy story about twin brothers; a demon brother and the younger. This tale is atmosphere and imagery all the way, and I’m sure there is meaning and symmetry, but I was really absorbed by the first few sections. If it were being read aloud, I would have told the storyteller these four words “…what was that again?”
3– Wildfire in Manhattan – Joanne Harris # (that is, I saw Chocolat) (29-45) This urban setting is home to some old god’s in different “Aspects,” and the protagonist is one, trying to be inconspicuous and yet still his self. The conversational first-person narrative wants to please and is comfortable in the languages of myth/lore, pop culture, and young adult fiction. I was mildly embarrassed to be reading it, actually.
4–The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains – Neil Gaiman (46-69) at the end I thought, this historically set, though at the beginning I couldn’t be sure, but I think it might be. It’s just that the Fey seem so relevant and the telling feels both old and new—I guess that would be summed up as “timeless.” The confusion is in regards to the “King across the water.” Anyway, I am sure there are references in this story to lore with which I am unfamiliar; which doesn’t affect the overall enjoyment of the story at all. It is a story of vengeance—you are told this right away. You have to learn everything else along the way, along the journey and through strange encounters and carefully placed conversation. Gaiman knows how to unfold a story, I like that he doesn’t worry over the details at the beginning, telling you things as you might want to know them, revealing so as to intrigue—a proper temptress—tempter? The little phrases to keep the reader interested in the mysteries is important in this story as the journey is long and the pacing may tire about the middle (which for me might be due to being tired physically and missing some references). The vengeance part isn’t as simple as it would seem, we suspect and then we learn things, and it becomes complicated—and then quite simple.
5–Unbelief – Michael Marshall Smith (70-76) This story felt as if it were trying too hard at Philosophical and Clever. A Hitman, an Almighty, and ta-da Belief. I was thinking Terry Pratchett during this one, and felt bad immediately; I was comparing, and Smith doesn’t measure. A dull read I was determined to finish. But it is among the shorter and I am sure there is an audience for this one, it just wasn’t me. (do recall I mentioned all the writing was good.)
6–The Stars are Falling – Joe R. Lansdale (77-103) I started this one and it is so lovely. The gravity in the descriptions of place, the transitions in time, in memory. The dialog was marvelous. The conditions a soldier returns from war in and to is of interest, and while the story is set in the past, it is no less relevant. Maybe it is safer set in the past as it is painful, the terms in which the protagonist is treated (in description and action) the things that have occurred and will occur. The story is an unhurried 26 pages, volatile, and looking to resonate. This piece is inarguably Lit.
7–Juvenal Nyx – Walter Mosley (103-131) This a story involving vampires; though it takes a few paragraphs to get to that part. I thought there might be political and racial implications, and there could well be but I wasn’t titillated enough to stick around for the end of the story. I excuse myself from vampire lore, but I did appreciate the return of sexual mesmerization to the conversation of necks and biting. And as I skipped to read the last few paragraphs, there is nice return to the story opener.
8–The Knife – Richard Adams (132-134) the shortest story in the collection is about a boy taken with fantasies, a boy tormented by a bully, a knife, and a question. The form the narrative takes creates a reliability issue and complicates the first response the reader is likely to have to said question. A nice short tale that shows what only a couple of pages can do with a familiar story.
9–Weights and Measures – Jodi Picoult This one is not to be read without tissues. And if one has a daughter, it would be best if said daughter were not in another State, staying with a moron, and days from coming home. You’ll want to hug her—a few times. I had not read anything of the esteemed Ms. Picoult before, and I think that I shall have to now. I was so impressed with the story, though I was made sad, was haunted by it, and tend to avoid stories of loss as much as possible. The story takes on a bit of magical realism as the narrative alternates in progression between husband and wife and an ending. The wife’s part was lovely but I really enjoyed reading the husband’s side. I love how the title comes to bear on the story. This one was a beautiful piece.
10–Goblin Lake – Michael Swanwick (150-161) one would think this was just a fairytale, but it isn’t just. It is about tales and characters and readers. Imagine you were a character in a story, that the world is a stage, that there is an Author/Creator who devised you… Which do you prefer: Fantasy or Reality (as much as Reality can be defined, and really who decides what is reality, anyway)? Yes, one of those.
11–Mallon and Guru – Peter Straub (162-167) My first response to this tale was: “What?” Is he making fun of those who go to India for spiritual guidance; especially those who are looking to validate their own Guru status pre-manufactured back home? I think I sought meaning because I didn’t find this one particularly entertaining or inspiring (writing-wise).
12–Catch and Release – Lawrence Block (168-180) I don’t want to spoil this one if you are reading the notes and have yet to read the stories. Suffice it to say, I will never look at this fishing metaphor the same way again; and Block has spoiled Luke 5:5, as well. The voice is so matter-of-fact, the telling so disturbingly well-done. Well done, Block, well done!
13–Polka Dots and Moonbeams – Jeffrey Ford (181-193) Ford really brings his setting and characters to life, and so alarmingly quick (which is good of course, because the story is short). Still, what is going on is not all that clear, except for the desire to escape from something recursive in nature…but what? And do I care? I’m ready for the next spin.
14– Loser – Chuck Palahniuk # (194-201) I was thrilled to see Palahniuk was on the roster and he doesn’t disappoint. A group rushing for a fraternity licks a Hello Kitty stamp and goes on The Price is Right. Our narrator (a hopeful member of the fraternity) recalls watching the game show as a boy sick at home from school was horrified by it even then. It is the contestants, the host, the models, the prizes… But what are you going to do? This is part of our cultural rite of passage, isn’t it? (literally or metaphorically) You feel as trapped inside the protagonist as he does in his situation. It is fantastic!!
15–Samantha’s Diary – Diane Wynne Jones # (202-215) set in the future, a young spoiled fashion model is tormented by a suitor. The diary is one to be experienced; and somewhat suffered as well. Samantha is annoying, and her ex-boyfriend isn’t much better. But the torment part is amusing because it takes a bit to catch on as to what is actually going on. Love the imagination of this one.
16–Land of the Lost – Stewart O’Nan (216-220) at the end of this one Flannery O’Connor came to mind, but I am not all that sure why. The story is oddly compelling; and what to do with that ending? The title is thankfully appropriate and helps direct the story’s thoughts a bit: looking for the lost, some purpose/meaning, the need to be right…
17–Leif in the Wind – Gene Wolfe (221-232) after I diligently scrubbed my internal audio-file of “I’m a Leaf on the Wind” (thanks Serenity) I was eager to start this one, because I’ve heard of Wolf. Sean read his Books of the New Sun. The space venture was highly descriptive and the relationships between the crew were interesting, but the story was an odd experience. If the challenge was to transport a reader into completely foreign and possibly poetic climes while entrancing both the plot-and character-driven reader Wolf wins.
18–Unwell – Carolyn Parkhurst (233-242) I adored this story! Arlette and her younger-by-18-months-sister Yvonne are in their early 70s. Yvonne is getting married to a man the two had met on a cruise and Arlette is not pleased, nor is she well. This is a deliciously demented tale. I mean, just when you don’t think Arlette could get any worse… Humorous and poignant.
19–A Life in Fictions – Kat Howard (243-247) I read this one before Goblin Lake. This, too, is a story where fiction and reality overlap and become ambiguous. A decision must be made; questions of identity and existence; and there is an incapacitation of the protagonist by a Writer/Creator–but the treatment of the ideas/themes differ dramatically in tone, delivery and invention. Many may prefer the contemporary, light, conversational tone of this story over the other, or they might find it a bit too quaint.
20–Let the Past Begin – Jonathan Carroll (248-259) The story begins with “Eamon Reilly was handsome and sloppy,” and continues on to talk about Eamon, though the story really isn’t about him. We are introduced to the questionably sane (but most certainly obnoxious) Ava but the story isn’t really about her either. I come to the conclusion that the story is about the unreliable narrator who is Ava’s current lover and friend of Eamon who was Ava’s previous lover. Neither Eamon or the narrator know who is the father of Ava’s baby, but only one of them cares. I feel like this story is inspired by the same true events as those which inspire daytime television. It is told in a bass-ackwards sort of way where the end is where you come down to it, and where perhaps the story should have begun, and where you would have just edited out most of the first part of the story you just told. I believe it to be up the Reader to find this Cute or Inspired; I chose the third option.
21–The Therapist – Jeffery Deaver (260-292) by the time I read this I had given myself permission not to finish a story, so I didn’t finish this one. The author would insert phrases to tantalize the reader into continuing on in spite of his protagonist’s self-important didactic ramblings which narrate his current pursuit of saving a young woman in danger of being destructive to others. I think it turns increasingly creepy, but I couldn’t get past my boredom. Mr. Kobel is evidently a psychopath, or is it sociopath, I am sure he could wax eloquent on the differences, but anticipating 32 pages in length I didn’t want to be driven mad myself. I skipped to the end. I skimmed over a court procedure (not sorry to miss that). The end hinted at some interesting twists, some manipulations to further entice the reader, but I wasn’t going to go back to where I left off.
22–Parallel Lines – Tim Powers (293-303) Here are another pair of sisters (aged 73), another story with twins, and one where siblings are still modeling a dominate and a submissive pairing. However, this story has a nice paranormal angle of one sister reaching out from the grave to possess the life of the other, not unlike how she did in life. The remaining sister decides to take control of her own last; and while it may seem late at age 73 to be doing so, I was still proud of her for doing so. Really, the alternative was just too awful to think about. I really enjoyed the two stories with the non-traditional stars.
23–The Cult of the Nose – Al Sarrantonio (304-312) If you are looking for an example (outside of politics) of how to take something absolutely absurd and make it serious, Sarrantonio will show you. “Here was a sect so arcane, nefarious and secret (a kind of truly devilish Freemasonry?) that no more than widely scattered references to it remained, or had ever existed” (307). The protagonist (1st person) is telling how he came to discover The Cult of the Nose and the evidence he uncovered in order to prove their existence and the crimes perpetrated. The academic tones descend into a present tense pursuit which has the Reader suspended completely—you really think the guy is a nutter, but he is so utterly amusing that your are fascinated—and I was turning the page. What in the world? The incredulity is the best part and the ending is awesome. You can see how mental illnesses can be so convincing here—while simultaneously admitting—absolutely not!
24–Human Intelligence – Kurt Anderson (313-329)This one is science fiction, espionage, and anthropological thriller (Indiana Jones) all in one—but not. The protagonist had me curious and I was sad when the young woman was introduced; she was hardly as interesting (however necessary). I like the angle of The alien’s perspective on becoming stranded and alone in the Universe. And I was amused by the idea of going to Murdoch with the story considering all that has been going on with spying/recording etc, in the news.
25–Stories – Michael Moorcock (330-350) another one where I was wondering “Who is this story About really?” Yes, I know the first line reads “This is the story of my friend Rex Fisch who….” Unfortunately it reads more like the kind of Eulogy a narcissist would tell. Names are dropped, Literature referenced, kinky sexcapades shared, and a secret homosexual relationship exposed—involving/revolving around an author Rex Fisch, of course. If only I could get past the narrator, even as I began to skim I couldn’t get over my repulsion of his voice. And really, I was quickly bored. I can hardly get excited about the non-fiction memoir, the blatantly admission of a fictional one wasn’t any more favorable—although I can appreciate its honesty. I mean, there is that, at least.
26– The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon – Elizabeth Hand (351-398) this one is 47 pages so I thought I would save it for last, or at least, its own sitting. I quickly became bored with it. In part I was tired, and two, I just couldn’t get interested in the story. I didn’t care about the characters or what they were doing. There is a sense of someone trying to redeem themselves, maybe as a group the men can find a glorious moment in the son, and blah blah, I have no idea what I am saying. It is a story about relationships—I think I can say that. And the aviation parts are well described so even I can grasp the images, etc, but I forgave myself the disinterest. Tell me if I missed out and I will try again. I skipped to the end in case I found a guilt trip waiting, but I couldn’t find one. Another time.
27–The Devil on the Staircase – Joe Hill (399-423) This is one of the better ones and I kind of wish I had saved it for last. That the protagonist is given the last name of Calvino is fitting. The story is set in Italy (at the right time), plays with format, and is a bit of a fairytale. The story is a dark one, and don’t expect the end to have a shine other than one turned. I think Guillermo Del Toro could do a nice short with this one.