Given the sheer volume of text appearing online in the past ten years (not excluding this blog), it’s fair to say the answer to: ‘What makes a good story a good story?’ is different for many, many people. For some, it’s the marriage of political or social themes to setting, event, or character, while for others it’s non-stop action. But for certain, what all sides appreciate is flat out, good storytelling. Well told stories simply resonate beyond the borders of genre taxonomy or reviews would put on them. Attempting to capture this magic is editor Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantino’s 2010 anthology Stories: All-New Tales.
Dazzling with the stars and lights of a 20’s jazz club in the desert, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” by Jeffrey Ford A drop dead gorgeous bit of storytelling, is. Ford proving mood matters, this tale perfectly captures the essence of action and romance without being either of those things. The neon of this story will burn in memory. The shortest story in the collection, “Parallel Lines” by Tim Powers is about a dead twin trying to get back into the world through the writing hand of her sister. Setting the tone for the collection (edgy, apparently), “Blood” by Roddy Doyle is about a everyday man who develops a thirst for blood—or at least seems to develop, the tendency possibly having been there all along. The story walking a strange, unpredictable path (from raw meat to parallels with Ozzy Osbourne antics), the man is not able to keep his thirst a secret from his wife, but they do come to a common agreement, which is the biggest surprise of all. About demon twins, “Fossil-Figures” by Joyce Carol Oates traces their paths through life from the very different dispositions they begin with. One weak and frail the other strong and virile, it takes the ending of the story to confirm the relationship.
A bizarre story, “Loser” by Chuck Palahniuk tells of a frat boy who takes acid and becomes a contestant on The Price Is Right. A surreal experience, Palahniuk juxtaposes a variety of things, from the mundanity of the items up for bid on the show, the verve of the contestants, the cheering, shouting crowd, and the young man’s psychedelic situation. Not sure how well the psychedelic side of the story is captured, but the point is clear. A brief but bizarre story of revenge, “Unbelief” by Michael Marshall Smith tells of an everyday man who confronts another in a park. With the mundane activity of others’ lives occurring around them, the revenge is enacted. It’s the contrast of the everyday man’s return to said revenge where the story twists in strange ways. A vampire story unlike any vampire story I’ve ever read (almost deserving of quote marks around ‘vampire’), “Juvenal Nyx” by Walter Mosley tells of a black activist in the 60s, the strange audience member who attends a rally one evening, and the new future it starts for him. Vampire, but nothing resembling cheesy vampire.
Perhaps still leaning on the weight of Watership Down, I’m not sure how Richard Adam’s “The Knife” meets Sarrantino & Gaiman’s outlay of escalating and intriguing plotting. A story that escalates and intrigues but fizzles, “Mallon the Guru” by Peter Straub tells of a European who goes to India to achieve a higher spiritual and mental plane. But there is a damn good meeting with a maharishi. An extremely tough, emotional story for anyone who has children, “Weights and Measures” by Jodi Picoult tells of two parents, the sudden loss of their 7-year old daughter, and their different reactions. A powerful, difficult, but true read. A serial killer story that attempts to keep the reader guessing (and therefore draw them in) by applying a fishing technique to murder, “Catch and Release” by Lawrence Block sees a single man picking up young women hitchhiking and deciding their fate. One of the least successful stories in the anthology.
A story that attempts to spin the tables on the idea of reactionary anger, “The Therapist” by Jeffery Deaver tells of a man who believes he can see ‘nemes’ in people, a certain something that causes people to suddenly lose control and do things like kill people. Believing therapy will help these people, when he encoutners a woman who does not succumb spins the tables. A simple story at best, “Human Intelligence” by Kurt Andersen tells of a woman who discovers a piece of alien technology, then tracks down the alien, living in disguise in London, for a conversation. Unless there is something I missed, it’s very blasé material. A solid story (as ever seems the case with Jonathan Carroll), “Let the Past Begin” tells of a woman who visits an oracle regarding the uncertain parentage of her son. Ultimately a reflection on age and ageing, Carroll re-frames our perceptions in effective fashion. “A Life in Fictions” by Kat Howard is a relatively cheap conceit; a writer borrows from aspects of his girlfriend to create characters in his novels, and eventually, well, it’s a fantastical, so you can imagine. I have an extremely stong feeling this idea has been done before.
An interesting story for the singularity of its premise (difficult to do these days), in “Unwell” by Carolyn Parkhurst a vindictive, older sister continues to plague her younger sister even into old age. Both funny and heartbreaking, Parkhurst captures a mini-character portrait in good form. Michael Swanwick’s contribution “Goblin Lake” takes a micro and macro look at storytelling through the lens of a Grimm Brothers-esque haunted lake. While perhaps a touch overt, it remains reflective. A story that begins on a Jack Vance note, “The Cult of the Nose” by Al Sarrantonio tells of one man’s growing obsession with the appearance of people wearing a large, prosthetic nose at disastrous events throughout history. (The story does not end on a Jack Vance note.) Almost a surreal story, “Land of the Lost” by Stewart O'Nan tells of a woman searching for something only she seems to know of. A very brief affair, Nan ends the story in complementary fashion to the premise, but which perhaps may leave the story more specimen than a tale.
Consumate yarn-spinner Joe R. Lansdale’s contribution to the the anthology is “The Stars Are Falling”. Set (invariably) in East Texas in the early 20 th century, Lansdale channels the film Sommersby in featuring a man apparently dead in war (WWI) returning home, with domestic troubles of the romantic and familial variety ensuing. Some expected Texas swang with not much meat, “The Stars Are Falling” by Joe R. Lansdale is about a dead man who returns to his East Texas home after being shot in WWI. Coming upon the man, his reaction subverts the reader’s initial opinion of the man. Dark like a day threatening to rain, Neil Gaiman’s “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is the story of a dwarf looking for treasure but with much more on his mind. Possessing a beautiful storytelling voice, it should be read aloud.
Stories closes on not one, but three high notes in a row. Despite the pretentious title, “Stories” by Michael Moorcock is one of the highlights of the anthology. Feeling almost autobiographical, the story tells of a writer who recounts the life of a fellow writer and friend after he has commited suicide. Possessing an excellent flow of prose, the underlying idea of sthe story, whether Moorcock intended it or not, is one decidedly realist (and all the better for it, in my opinion). “The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon.” The story of three men who organize an act of kindness for a woman who meant a lot to their early careers at the Smithsonian, and in one man’s case something more, it is an emotional piece that involves the history of the U.S flight program in North Carolina and a little something extra. Hand’s fine prose telling an affective story with real substance, it is arguably one of the best things she’s ever written. (For a longer review, see here.) And lastly is Joe Hill’s excellent “The Devil on the Staircase”. Experimental in form (the text takes the shape of a staircase), it’s an almost mythological tale of the choice one man faces in the slopes of Italian mountains, and the after effects it leads.
In the end, Stories: All New Tales, once you get past the generic title, is a worthwhile anthology. The level of quality one typically reserved for curated anthologies, the fact the stories are all originals adds to the intrigue. For me, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Moorcock, Elizabeth Hand, and Joe Hill knocked their stories out of the park, with Roddy Doyle, Jodi Picoult, Carolyn Parkhurst, and Jonathan Carrol close on their heels, though undoubtedly other readers will find something different to love. I guess the bottom line is: for any reader who complains that fiction today is too political and not story-driven, Stories delivers.
All original to the anthology, the following are the twenty-seven stories in Stories:
Introduction: Just Four Words by Neil Gaiman
Blood by Roddy Doyle
Fossil-Figures by Joyce Carol Oates
Wildfire in Manhattan by Joanne Harris (read but forgotten…)
The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman
Unbelief by Michael Marshall Smith
The Stars Are Falling by Joe R. Lansdale
Juvenal Nyx by Walter Mosley
The Knife by Richard Adams
Weights and Measures by Jodi Picoult
Goblin Lake by Michael Swanwick
Mallon the Guru by Peter Straub
Catch and Release by Lawrence Block
Polka Dots and Moonbeams by Jeffrey Ford
Loser by Chuck Palahniuk
Samantha's Diary by Diana Wynne Jones (not read)
Land of the Lost by Stewart O'Nan
Leif in the Wind by Gene Wolfe (not read)
Unwell by Carolyn Parkhurst
A Life in Fictions by Kat Howard
Let the Past Begin by Jonathan Carroll
The Therapist by Jeffery Deaver
Parallel Lines by Tim Powers
The Cult of the Nose by Al Sarrantonio
Human Intelligence by Kurt Andersen
Stories by Michael Moorcock
The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand
The Devil on the Staircase by Joe Hill