Stories: All-New Tales, by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio (eds.)

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The editors, Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, have managed to persuade some well-known names to contribute, and this anthology is worth a look for that reason alone.  Gaiman’s introduction talks about wanting to show us something we have seen a thousand times as if we had never seen it before, rather like Brecht making the familiar strange, but he and Sarrantonio only partially achieve that aim, and the “lightning flash of magic“ he invokes strikes intermittently.

Of the best tales (in no particular order), Jeffery Deaver in ‘The Therapist’ manipulates the reader to suspend disbelief and take the protagonist at face value initially, the titular therapist’s offbeat theories assumed to be part of a fantasy scenario, until the rug is pulled and it transpires the fantasy is all the protagonist’s – except at the end, in a masterstroke of ambiguity, we are left to wonder if he really was deluded after all.

In ‘Weights and Measures’, Jodi Picoult writes almost unbearably about the effect of the death of a small child on her parents, particularly the way a mother might feel that her grief has priority over everyone else’s, but Picoult strays into the fantastic, which undermines the poignancy of the story and blunts its emotional impact.

‘Catch and Release’ by Lawrence Block features a serial killer modelling himself on a fisherman who releases his catch, unfortunately not all the time.  This is disturbing in a refined way, and may qualify as a counter-argument to the theory Gaiman propounds in the introduction that a good story is defined by wanting to know what happens next.

Sarrantonio contributes a satire on conspiracy theories in ‘The Cult of the Nose’ by depicting a conspiracy so preposterous that it stretches the idea to breaking point.  In ‘Human Intelligence’ by Kurt Andersen, a benign alien ’anthropologist’ has been stranded on earth for centuries.  Now his space craft in the Arctic is gradually being uncovered by the retreating ice, making his exposure inevitable.  That exposure when it comes is surprisingly low-key, and wholly touching.  Rather than the familiar being made strange, the strange is made familiar.

Two stories deal with twins, which indicates how fertile a subject they are for quirky fiction.  The twin brothers in ‘Fossil-Figures’, by Joyce Carol Oates, are anything but identical, and Oates traces their diverging, then converging, (twin) tracks with assurance.  ‘Parallel Lines’ by Tim Powers is another story about twins, sisters this time, where one is dominant.  The twist here is that the dominant one has died, and isn’t happy about it, but finds that manipulating her sister is not quite as easy beyond the grave.  Also dealing with siblings, ‘Unwell’ by Carolyn Parkhurst is a splendid portrait of two sisters, one of them a monstrous bitch worthy of Joan Crawford who misses no opportunity to crush her mousy sister’s happiness.

‘The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon’ by Elizabeth Hand is the longest story, and one of the strongest, mixing themes of loss, bonding, mortality, and the transience of achievement, in the attempt to recreate, in miniature, a supposed powered flight that preceded the Wright Brothers’.  The final story in the collection, ‘The Devil on the Staircase’ by Joe Hill, uses an adventurous typographic layout to suggest the steep hills the characters inhabit, and has a delicate ending filled with foreboding.

The second-tier stories include ‘Blood’, by Roddy Doyle, who shows that you can’t lie to your spouse forever, especially if you have developed a craving for blood.  Michael Marshall Smith also shows that secrets are hard to keep in ‘Unbelief’, in which a hit man becomes soulless because of his profession, alienating his family.

Rather than the expected crime story, Walter Mosley turns in an offbeat vampire tale, ‘Juvenal Nyx’, which works well enough, apart from a character introduced as a deus ex machina, her lost ‘dog’ providing a neat way to tie the plot together.  While it reads like the start of a novel, it feels like the product of someone who isn’t that interested in vampire fiction.

Gaiman’s contribution, ‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains’, is the account of a journey to a mystical cave for gold to fund the Jacobite cause.  It is in danger of outstaying its welcome, but has a superb climax that redeems it.  ‘The Stars are Falling’, by Joe R. Landside, examines a man who has returned from war to find that he is not exactly welcomed with open arms.  The tragic ending may not come as a surprise, but it is satisfying nonetheless.

‘Wildfire in Manhattan’, by Joanne Harris, is a lightweight – certainly not a saga – tale of Norse Gods who demonstrate surprising vulnerability, being menaced in New York.  Peter Straub’s ‘Mallon the Guru’ is a curiosity about a complacent would-be American guru who meets the real thing in India.  It is too short to do the material justice.  In ‘Land of the Lost’, by Stewart O’Nan, a lonely woman becomes obsessed with finding the body of a murder victim, but after a false alarm has to be careful.

‘Let The Past Begin,’ by Jonathan Caroll, is a confusing tale about a promiscuous pregnant ex-journalist who believes that she is part of a curse.  The main lesson seems to be, beware of visiting fortune tellers when in Azerbaijan because they will mess with your head.  And try not to sleep around.

In ‘Goblin Lake’ by Michael Swanwick, a fictional character has the choice to remain in his safe but dull eternity, or step outside the pages to experience real life, with its emotions and shortness.  It is no surprise which he chooses, but the telling is assured and entertaining.  For those readers who may sometimes wish they could inhabit the pages of fiction, this is a reminder that it wouldn’t necessarily live up to their expectation.  Similarly blurring fiction and real life, as its title indicates, ‘A Life In Fictions’ is Kat Howard’s first published story, and tells of a woman who, in being a muse for her writer boyfriend, finds herself disappearing into his work, literally.

‘Loser’ by Chuck Palahniuk manages to capture the idiocy of daytime television quiz shows, and how appearing on one (and probably watching it too) improves if experienced through a haze of drugs.  One might still want to find something better to do, but reading about it is fun, though a little of Palahniuk’s fractured style goes a long way.

Of the, relatively few, duds, ‘The Knife’, by Richard Adams, is the weakest story in the book with some clumsy writing, surprising coming from such a veteran storyteller.  ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’ by Jeffery Ford has a noir setting, but there may be hints that it is some kind of virtual reality – possibly.  It is atmospheric for most of its length, but the ending is too cryptic, and the characters sketchily drawn, to be satisfying.  ‘Samantha’s Diary’ by Diana Wynne Jones puts the Twelve Days of Christmas idea into a supposedly futuristic setting, though it isn’t particularly futuristic, and while it is mildly amusing, it feels laboured.  Gene Wolfe’s space story ‘Leif in the Wind’ feels old-fashioned, but the characters are well drawn.

The big surprise is the contribution from Michael Moorcock, ‘Stories’ sharing its title with that of the book.  This is a very strange entry – one does not know whether to regard it as fiction or autobiography.  The narrator is ‘Mike’ who edit’s a magazine not a million miles from New Worlds, and sounds like Moorcock himself, but other characters’ names appear to be fictional, yet it seems “Rex Fisch” is based on Thomas M Disch.  If this is memoir, why not use the real names (it‘s clearly not fear of being sued), and if fiction, it’s not very interesting.  Another puzzle is the title of the collection being the same, as if somehow this was supposed to be the title story.  Yet there is no reason why this privilege might be granted to Moorcock in particular.  Coincidence, or Moorcock being cheeky?

 Gaiman talks about Sarrantonio having previously edited “cutting-edge” anthologies of horror and fantasy, but I don’t think you could fairly use that term to describe the present volume.  Still, it’s good to see a mainstream publisher pushing the sort of work that is often confined to small-press compilations.  The quality of the writing is generally high, but an eclectic set of stories crossing genre boundaries by a range of authors from very diverse backgrounds is likely to contain some that appeal more than others to any particular reader.  It’s difficult to see the criteria for inclusion, other than the enjoyment of the editors (one hopes), but everybody should find something to appeal, and perhaps be forced out of their particular comfort zone.  Gaiman’s touchstone of a good story, that it makes the reader or listener want to ask “…and then what happened?”, is mostly fulfilled here.

First posted on Goodreads website 26 December 2012

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