This thick hardcover containing over 400 pages of new stories is the second to be edited (or co-edited in this case) by Neil Gaiman, the first being “The Sandman Book of Dreams.” Some writers seem to enjoy this kind of enterprise, while others avoid it, and concentrate on their own output. I think this anthology is an extension of something Neil likes to do: expose readers to new authors and material they might not have known about, and perhaps the same is true for his co-editor, Sarrantonio, whose work I don’t know, but from his published titles, has a wide range of interests including humor and horror. The authors are gathered not only from the fields and friends of the editors, I think, but from the mainstream best-seller list as well, with some interesting entries like Jodi Picoult and Joyce Carol Oates. The stories themselves seem to gravitate toward two approaches. One, often chosen by authors not known for genre writing, is the small, intense, personal tale of warped relationships and cruelties against a mundane backdrop. The horrors or imagined fantasies of every day life. The other direction embraces a larger canvas, encompassing historic settings, tall tales, legends, fantasy, even science fiction, sometimes with humor and whimsy, other times with horror and depth of emotion, even mixes of the two. The latter stories are the ones that appeal most to me, and there are enough here to make the book well worth reading, in my opinion. I found all the stories well-written, I just prefer my fiction to have at least a good dollop of “otherness.” And, of course, in such a large collection, there are a few stories that don’t fit any of the above descriptions, but are still good reading.
The temptation when reviewing an anthology is to pick out a few favorites and focus on them, which must be frustrating to the unmentioned writers, so I thought I’d offer at least a short comment on each story.
“Blood” by Roddy Doyle is the first of the small, mundane horrors, here focusing on a vampire of sorts who tries to keep his thirst secret from his wife, but is predictably unsuccessful. I liked the unusual technique for dialogue, though.
“Fossil-Figures” by Joyce Carol Oates covers the entire life of a pair of male twins, one robust and dominant, the other weak and sickly. Though very much a mundane story, it transcends that through a chilling outline of two very different but equally twisted lives, and a connection between them the stronger brother tries so hard to break.
“Wildfire in Manhattan” by Joanne Harris is about gods in disguise in that town, being pursued and destroyed by greater powers. More my kind of story, with a trickster god narrating, lots of understated irony and humor, and the kind of resonance one finds in Roger Zelazny or Thorne Smith.
“The Truth is in a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Neil Gaiman is, as one might expect, an excellent example of fantasy with mythic and horror overtones, but one that focuses on very real characters living out lives in a primitive setting as well as they can, making decisions that will come back to bite them later, as we all do, and struggling to find truth and justice. Neil at his best.
“Unbelief” by Michael Marshall Smith is another New York City story of pursuing a godlike figure, one that turns into more of a shaggy dog story at the end.
“The Stars Are Falling” by Joe R. Lansdale is a very powerful story set in the old west, full of insight into the best and worst of human nature, and it tells a tale of almost epic tragedy in a small setting. Deel Arrowsmith has been away fighting in the American Civil War, and his wife and son had given him up for dead. When he reappears one day, all three of them struggle to reconnect with the life they had before. Top notch writing by Lansdale.
“Juvenal Nyx” by Walter Mosley is a vampire story set in Manhattan, one with a creative and convincing logic of its own that works while you read it, at least. It covers a few decades for the main character, and the settings and personalities are well-handled. The action and drama that develops is a bit over the top, but entertaining.
“The Knife” by Richard Adams is a short, sharp episode of boyhood horror that has a biographical feel.
“Weights and Measures” by Jodi Picoult is a depressing tale of a couple trying to cope with the loss of their child, and largely failing. Despite a flavor of fantasy at the end, it might have appeared in The New Yorker or some similar venue. Well written, but not to my taste.
“Goblin Lake” by Michael Swanwick jumps right into tall-tale fantasy, with a Hessian army officer, Johann, exploring a lake purported to be full of strange creatures. It soon breaks the fourth wall, with the characters commenting at length on we the readers of their story. Despite that, it works, and reminded me a bit of James Branch Cabell.
“Mallon the Guru” by Peter Straub is another very short entry, more an episode than anything, but one that has inventive ideas. An American guru is touring India with his own teacher, and the two of them end up in a village where odd things happen.
“Catch and Release” by Lawrence Block is a serial killer story, well told, chilling, not to my taste. Told from the killer’s point of view, full of his rationalizations, ultimately repelling.
“Polka Dots and Moonbeams” by Jeffrey Ford is an odd but appealing mix of 1950s pulp and popular culture characters in a perhaps apocalyptic setting that’s never explained, but resembles a dreamlike Las Vegas. I can’t really say what it’s about, but I enjoyed it.
“Loser” by Chuck Palahniuk is about a nightmarish game show that no one seems to be enjoying much, especially the main character.
“Samantha’s Diary” by Diana Wynne Jones is a funny set piece, a diary outlining the days after Christmas, 2233, for a spoiled, sarcastic teenage girl who finds herself barraged with gifts from a very wealthy suitor. The nature of the gifts soon becomes clear to the reader, if not the girl, with most of the fun coming from her furious reactions to them. A lightweight piece of fun from Jones, but entertaining.
“Land of the Lost” by Steward O’Nan is one of those mundane horrors stories about a woman who becomes obsessed with newspaper reports of a murder, and spends more and more of her time trying to solve it.
“Leif in the Wind” by Gene Wolfe is a science fictional entry, but one that focuses on the relationships of three now-elderly space explorers, two of whom just want to get back to Earth from the planet they’ve been sent to investigate, the third seeming to have had some kind of revelation or vision that makes him act crazy in the eyes of the other two. But is he really?
“A Life in Fictions” by Kat Howard manages to cover both the fantastic and mundane angles in one story, in which the main character has become the inspiration for a fiction writer, but finds that as he writes about her, portions of her life seem to be disappearing. Clever and though-provoking.
“Let The Past Begin” by Jonathan Carroll focuses on the relationships of a courageous woman reporter, Ava, who thrives on going to dangerous locations for stories and two men she has relationships with. Then there’s the fortune-teller Ava visits on one of her visits to war-torn Azerbaijan and the horrible method she has of finding out things. What she tells Ava will change the lives of her and the two men forever.
“The Therapist” by Jeffrey Deaver is again about the twisted mind and ideas of a killer, this one with some unusual theories about what causes people to act violently. He seems to be trying to help people with violent tendencies, but perhaps he’s only feeding his own. Another story not to my taste.
“Parallel Lines” by Tim Powers is a claustrophobic little horror tale about twin sisters, one dominant, one submissive. When the dominant one dies, she tries to continue her dominance from beyond the grave. Again, not much to my taste. Now, put these sisters together with the brothers in the Oates story, and it might go somewhere interesting to me…
“The Cult of the Nose” by Al Sarrantonio, co-editor, is a tale of a man investigating an overlooked cult that appears to have deep roots through history, and elusive members, all wearing false nose masks, that keep turning up in accounts and images of famous tragedies. I enjoyed most of the story, but felt kind of let down by the ending, which gives the entire narrative a different, more mundane slant.
“Human Intelligence” by Kurt Andersen is the second science fictional entry, and a good one. The narrator is an alien sent to observe humanity centuries ago, then stranded here, cut off from his own Arctic home base and left to wonder what might have happened to his own people, who seem to have severed all contact. When a woman researcher finally uncovers his secret, he’s ready to talk, and has lots to say. Well done.
“Stories” by Michael Moorcock is a fascinating account of two writers, told by the surviving one, that covers their entire careers from early days in the 1960s through to old age in the present. It seems autobiographical, though I know little about Moorcock’s life, so that could just be good writing. Certainly the details of their literary careers are. Having little plot, this reads more like a lengthy and personal obituary, but it kept me glued to the pages throughout.
“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand is a heady stew with lots of great ingredients. There’s the friendship of some middle-aged friends who all once worked at a science museum (one still does), who have learned that their older colleague, once their boss, is dying. There’s the odd history of McCauley, who might have succeeded in powered flight before the Wright brothers, but the only evidence, a brief film of the event, has been lost. There’s a trip to the scene of that flight, and an attempt to recreate it with a scale model, one that is interrupted by very odd phenomena. There’s Robbie, one of the older guys, his son, and the son’s friend, who make the trip with Emery and Leonard to the abandoned island on the coast of North Carolina. Finally, there’s the trip to visit the dying Anna to show her what they’ve produced and uncovered. Lots more than I can describe here, this long story has enough material in it for a good novel, and it’s one I’d buy.
“The Devil on the Staircase” by Joe Hill is the final entry, and one that employs a clever visual trick. Building on the staircase idea, much of the text is stacks of ever-longer lines, making stairs down each side of the page, alternately. (To make it work, they had to switch fonts to a monospaced one, but that’s just an unimportant detail.) The story is an intense and moving mix of high fantasy and human tragedy, with an unlikely but believable ending. The narrator, a poor child who labors with his father, climbing up and down the lengthy stairs from one cliff-side coastal Italian village to another, is drawn into a romantic triangle in which he’s fated to be the loser until he takes a violent approach. Escaping from his crime, he stumbles his way down a much longer stair that seems to lead to Hell itself. What he finds there will surprise you, as it does him. Great story, and a nice way to finish this anthology.