Michael Chabon’s name is well known as a novelist. Summerland, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay have all been universally recognized by pundits and readers alike. But editor? Taking the love for the pulps expressed in his novel Gentlemen of the Road and converting into commissions for short stories, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2002) features a swathe of stories showcasing what can still be done in the 21st century with plot at the forefront.
A type of story that one encounters rarely these days, the anthology kicks off with “Tedford and the Megalodon” by Jim Shepard. Precisely why it is exceptional needs to be discovered by the reader, but this story of an Australian biologist working off the southern coast of Tasmania trying to discover a supposed great white shark is everything that short adventure fiction should be, and at the same time rarely is. A story based on a real life occurrence, “The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter” by Glen David Gold tells of a late 18th century traveling circus proprietor and bizarre (read: murderous) circumstances surrounding a clown, an elephant, and revenge. A human portrait of a man trying to atone for years of drinking and leaving his family, “The Bees” by Dan Chaon describes precisely what happened when all those good intentions catch up.
Flashing and darting wonderfully, like a school of minnows, never giving a hint of where it will go next, “Catskin” by Kelly Link tells of a witch, her three children, and what happens when a rival kills her. One foot in fairy tale land and in the real, edgy world, the back and forth play (like a cat batting a ball, har har) makes for a highly engaging read that unravels itself delightfully. Feeling western through and through, “How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman” by Elmore Leonard is about an outlaw bank robber getting his just desserts, but in a fashion so rooted in character and idiosyncrasy the reader entirely forgets the stereotypes at play. Playing off heroism and the image of heroism in early 20th century press, the story somehow even feels a bit Quentin Tarantino-esque in its characters.
‘Sparkle’ is the word I most associate with Neil Gaiman—his dynamic sense of storytelling, vigor, and diction leading me to think of that. But with “Closing Time” I’m missing sparkle. A brief story that is framed for some reason, it tells of a group of boys and a ‘haunting encounter’ they have one day while playing. A story carried by its superb authorial voice, “Otherwise Pandemonium” by Nick Hornby tells of the supernatural circumstances which pave the way for a highschooler in Berkely in the 90s to lose his virginity. Wanting to tape basketball games, he buys a used VCR from a junk shop for fifty bucks. Testing it once he gets home, everything seems to work fine. Watching the basketball game later, however, takes a turn for the weird. Not a cheap sci-fi idea exploited for a story idea, Hornby keeps teenage interests front and center.
One of the longer pieces in the anthology, “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” by Dave Eggers tells of a young woman and a trek she and a group of tourists take up Kilimanjaro. A story whose tension only subtly builds, the altitude begins to take indirect effect on the people and their group of porters and guides the closer they get to the snowy summit. I sometimes get the feeling reading Michael Moorcock that he is just spinning something off for a commission, and with “The Case of the Nazi Canary” my instincts are twitching. Informed by James Bond, time travel, and playing with Hitler and WWII like a toy, the story navigates several solid set pieces, stereotypes, and jumps in space/time to solve a murder mystery in what is ultimately a forgettable story.
It’s not often that I read an actively bad story, but I have to say “Chuck's Bucket” by Chris Offutt qualifies. Meta-fiction in the most pretentious, insecure way possible, this story of a writer trying to come up with story ideas via a time travel device that sees him interacting with real world writers falls on its face—for me, at least. Somewhere, there is someone who will like it. Not actively bad, but certainly a story making the reader wonder what the substance is, is Aimee Bender’s “The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers by Aimee Bender”. (One of the opening lines tips the reader off problems lay ahead: “He lay on the floor sprawled in the fetal position.”) Thankfully a brief affair, the “story” tells of a detective at the scene of a dual, husband-wife murder. The dead couple formerly avid collectors of salt and pepper shakers, Bender attempts to make a metaphor of the deaths to limited effect.
In another lackluster entry, “Ghost Dance” by Sherman Alexie plays with the ghosts of Little Bighorn in white-man’s-guilt fashion. Ignoring the fact that the Lakota wiped out several native tribes, not to mention white men in America will someday see their own doom (nothing is forever), this bit of sympathy play lacks consistency from a technical perspective, and a broad overview from a thematic. I have not read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which may be the reason why “The Tale of Gray Dick” bumbled and mumbled its way to a lackluster halt. About the gunslinger and a stop he makes on the trail, he becomes involved with a family, the matron of which wields a metal plate sharpened to a razor’s edge. Wild west mediocrity ensues.
As classic as Harlan Ellison can be, “Goodbye to All That” tells of a traveler in Tibet on a quest up a mountain to find the most zen of holies, and receive from it the wisdom that will unlock the secrets of life. What he actually finds is (cynical) Ellison in a nutshell. “Private Grave 9” by Karen Joy Fowler sees a man exploring a recently discovered Egyptian tomb. A novelist also onsite collecting information for an upcoming book, together they see first-hand the grave of Princess Tu Api. The pieces not strongly congealing and fraying near the ending, it’s a story without plot at the helm. The longest piece in the anthology, “The Albertine Notes” by Rick Moody tells of a journalist tracking a supposedly deceased drug dealer named Cortez through post-nuclear New York. Trick is, the post-apocalyptic world is inundated with a drug called Albertine which, when ingested, allows the user to relive a random memory from their past. A dark, murky story, it is also perhaps a bit too twitchy, but does deliver a subtle-enough mystery.
Closing the collection, “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance” by Michael Chabon is a piece of alternate history wherein the American Revolutionary War never happened, and is instead pushed back to the middle of the 19th century, round about the time the American Civil War took place. The story of two boys separated from their family, it is a superbly written story that never goes where the reader thinks it might, poignancy pulling the reader along whether they want to read or not—or martians, or not.
In the end, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is a mixed bag. A handful of pretty good stories with nothing truly stand-out, there are, however, a handful that leave no mark, and one or two to avoid. The yarns varied in backdrop, from western to horror, fantasy to pirates, adventure to detective, and everything between, it’s at least a good beach read that largely accomplishes its goal of offering the reader plot-centric stories, even if a few are less than inspired.
The following are the twenty-one stories selected for McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales:
Tedford and the Megalodon by Jim Shepard
The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter by Glen David Gold
The Bees by Dan Chaon
Catskin by Kelly Link
How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman by Elmore Leonard
The General by Carol Emshwiller
Closing Time by Neil Gaiman
Otherwise Pandemonium by Nick Hornby
The Tale of Gray Dick by Stephen King
Blood Doesn't Come Out by Michael Crichton
Weaving the Dark by Laurie King
Chuck's Bucket by Chris Offutt
Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly by Dave Eggers
The Case of the Nazi Canary by Michael Moorcock
The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers by Aimee Bender
Ghost Dance by Sherman Alexie
Goodbye to All That by Harlan Ellison
Private Grave 9 by Karen Joy Fowler
The Albertine Notes by Rick Moody
The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance by Michael Chabon