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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
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.
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
the story beyond an exploration of normal parental grief. A sad story, but also a poignant and effective one.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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