Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


Onyx reviews: Stories: All New Tales, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

Trend-setting anthologies like Dark Forces (1980) and 999 (1999) are mostly a thing of the past. For at least the past decade, genre anthologies have become mostly the province of the small press. Short stories have fallen so much off the radar of the reading public that it takes big names to sell a collection. Though Al Sarrantonio is a well-known anthologist in the horror genre (he edited 999), his name probably isn't enough to make a blockbuster. Neil Gaiman, though, the author of Coraline and the creative force behind the Sandman graphic novels, is a "rock star" writer.

Gaiman and Sarrantonio have assembled an eclectic group of authors in Stories: All New Tales. The collection has no theme, nor is it restricted to a specific genre. In his introduction, Gaimansays that they sought stories that would keep readers asking, "What happens next?" 

Even without an overall theme, common threads emerge. Several stories feature Christmas or Santa Claus. A number are metafictional, and several deal with rival siblings ("Unwell" by Carolyn Parkhurst, "Parallel Lines" by Tim Powers and "Fossil Figures" by Joyce Carol Oates), not all of whom are alive. Some  stories ("Mallon and the Guru" by Peter Straub, a scene from the life of a character from his recent novel A Dark Place, and "The Cult of the Nose" by Sarrantonio) are coy about whether or not they're supernatural. As with any collection, readers will appreciate some stories more than others, and preferences will vary from person to person.  

Booker Prize winner Roddy Doyle opens the collection with "Blood," a creepy story about a man trying to hide his sudden appetite for blood from his wife. He cooks his meat less and less thoroughly until he's eating it raw. Once he starts eying the neighbor's chickens, he risks discovery. The story has a jaunty tone and conjures thoughts of vampires, though it has no supernatural elements whatsoever.

Elizabeth Hand’s novella, "The Maiden Flight Of McCauley’s Bellerophon," with its Ray Bradbury-esque nostalgic feel, is the book's standout. It's about a man who wants to create a special gift for a dying friend. She was a museum curator who mourned the loss of an apocryphal 20-second film depicting a flight that supposedly took place before the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. Three men and two teenagers head off to the mysteriously abandoned barrier island where the original film was shot, armed with a video camera and a scale model of the Bellerophon to recreate the lost film clip. This touching, uplifting story has mild elements of the surreal lurking beneath the surface.

Jodi Picoult’s "Weights and Measures" is about the different ways a husband and wife react to the death of their young daughter. Picoult has amazing control of the English language and impressively creative ways of saying things. An element of magic realism element pushes the story beyond an exploration of normal parental grief. A sad story, but also a poignant and effective one.

Neil Gaiman's "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" is a revenge tale featuring a dwarf who shows up at the door of a man who supposedly knows the way to a mythic cave on an equally fabulous Scottish island where a person can find whatever he desires in exchange for something valuable, perhaps part of his soul. Both the dwarf and his guide have ulterior motives.

"The Stars Are Falling" by Joe R. Lansdale is set on an isolated farm in East Texas after the Great War. The main character abandoned his wife and young son to enlist. Because he can’t read or write, he couldn’t communicate with his family, so for all intents and purposes he’s been dead to them for four years. He returns to discover that people have moved on. Lansdale allows readers to entertain the possibility that he actually is dead.

Joanne Harris's whimsical "Wildfires in Manhattan" is about Norse gods living in Manhattan who are being pursued by a shadow figure who means to do them harm. Richard Adams, author of Watership Down and Shardik, contributes a quirky story ("The Knife") that, on the surface, seems to be about an abused child’s revenge but is really about the storytellers reaction to hearing this confession. The story's brief simplicity is belied by the lasting impact of its final lines. 

In "Fossil Figures," Joyce Carol Oates writes about the divergent lives of twins, one of whom tried to consume the other in utero.  Edward Waldman, the younger, smaller brother fails to thrive while sibling Edgar excels, eventually becoming a prominent politician. Edward turns into a hermit artist, creating bizarre works, yet Edgar aggressively resents his younger, weaker brother.

Joe Hill
uses creative 
typography in "The 
Devil on the Staircase," set 
in an Italian hillside town. Most
of the story is laid out like the ascending
and descending stairs the protagonist navigates
to escape the authorities after he commits a crime of passion.

At the other end of the spectrum are stories that don't live up to their potential. Walter Mosley wastes several promising premises in "Juvenal Nix." After a black civil rights activist is turned into a vampire, he loses all interest in racial matters. In fact, he effectively becomes colorblind in the metaphorical sense, which is an interesting development. The story of his conversion and the relationship with the white female vampire who turned him is erotically charged. Then, after a couple of decades of merely existing and feeding, he decides to use his supernatural powers to help people. He hangs out his shingle, sets up shop, runs ads, has a web site designed, the whole nine yards—also an idea with limitless possibilities. The story derails, though, when someone hires him to slay a strange creature that's feeding on homeless people in the subway system. Nothing about this weird development arises from anything before. "Juvenal Nix" feels like an origin story for a character from a larger series...but it isn't.

Using a tedious song like "The Twelve Days of Christmas" as inspiration almost guarantees a tedious story, which is what happens with "Samantha’s Diary" by Diana Wynne Jones. It takes place 200 years in the future, when most Christmas traditions have been forgotten. Sam isn't amused when she receives a bizarre gift. She doesn't recognize the bird as partridge or the kind of tree that comes with it. The anonymous gift giver is absolutely faithful to the spirit of the song, sending another partridge in a pear tree along with the turtledoves on the second day, and so on. By the time the cows and their milkmaids show up on day eight, her house is a disaster, with gaggles of geese pooping everywhere. Other than the valuable sets of heirloom rings she’s been amassing since day five, she wants none of it. She has to place a standing order with the pet supply shops for all the different kinds of birdseed she needs for Σ(n) partridges, Σ(n-1)*2 turtledoves, Σ(n-2)*3 French hens, et cetera. Then the lords show up with their trampolines–so they can leap, of course. The tedium of the story ends abruptly and unexpectedly...and mercifully.

The remaining stories are a hodge-podge of crime ("Catch and Release" by Lawrence Block, "Unbelief" by Michael Marshall Smith and "The Therapist" by Jeffery Deaver), some of which have mild or ambiguous supernatural overtones, science fiction ("Leif in the Wind" by Gene Wolfe, "Human Intelligence" by Kurt Anderson), and fantasy (Jonathan Carroll's "Let the Past Begin" and "Goblin Lake" by Michael Swanwick). Some are marred by quirky endings, and others ("Polka Dots and Moonbeams" by Jeffrey Ford, for example) benefit from a second reading, as they are slow to give up their secrets. 

For outright bizarreness, it's hard to beat Chuck Palahniuk, whose "Loser" is told from the perspective of a sorority girl who takes acid before being selected as a contestant on The Price is Right. Metafictional stories like Michael Swanwick's "Goblin Lake" sometimes collapse under the weight of their literary gimmicks, though Kat Howard 's "A Life in Fictions" is a thoroughly successful tale about a woman who is losing her identity to the fictionalized versions of herself in her ex-boyfriend's stories, and Michael Moorcock's mainstream "Stories" packs a ton of story into relatively few pages, telling the complete histories of a small circle of influential writers over the courses of their bohemian lives. 

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2007-2010. All rights reserved