Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Short stories long on intrigue

Stories: All-New Tales
edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
(Headline Review, R185)

Short stories: we may lump them together in one big homogenous thing. Sure, there are differences, but basically a story is a story, not so? Yet, there are as many types of stories as there are say, novels, from literary to thriller, romance to adventure.

I admit that I like my stories rather literary: within my own strictly defined limits, characters emerge from page, grow, become aware, and carry this awareness of something defining them off the page.

However, the stories in this anthology stretched me somewhat. Horror rubs shoulders with fantasy, new vampires sprout a special tooth to suck blood or develop a fetish for chickens, and the past develops new underwater dimensions.

There are a few "literary" stories within this volume - in which ordinary people love, laugh and die and there isn't a vampire or strange being in sight - but the majority of these tales plumb depths which I don't normally reach in my own reading of the genre.

Enjoy might be too facile a word to describe my experience of these stories. At times I was horrified and disgusted, I was intrigued, I was admiring.

I kept on reading, for the most part, because, as the editors Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio write in their introduction, "what we wanted to read were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. And yes, we wanted good writing."

The stories in this collection are polished, crafted, well-edited gems, they keep you turning the page, and the images created in your mind live on long after the reading.

Roddy Doyle's gruesome Blood is a case in point turns on a husband's sudden taste for the red stuff, to the point where he takes to murdering his neighbour's chickens while trying to hide this lust from his spouse. The surprise of the story is revealed right at the end? and it's a surprise to the husband himself.

Blood lust is the focus of Walter Mosley's Juvenal Nyx, a meandering story of how a perfectly ordinary man, a member of a Black Students Union, is turned into a man who lives by night and alone, surviving on the blood of others. This long tale also shows what happens when he attempts to live again in the world, emerging from the darkness of his solitary vampireness.

Joyce Carol Oates, a master of the genre, contributes Fossil-Figures, a strange tale of two twin brothers. One is strong and healthy, a popular A-grader who will go into politics with his winning smile and winning ways; his brother is sickly, weak, a victim of his brother's avaricious greed in the womb, or so the narrative suggests. The twins grow up, their lives dissect, diverge, then ultimately come together. A quietly powerful story, yet there's gothic horror wrapped up in the package.

Violence and murder form the spine of a number of exceptional stories.

There's Neil Gaiman's The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a story set some time ago in which two men set out in search of treasure, and yet mistrust will dog them and splinter through.

Lawrence Block's Catch and Release is equally chilling in its presentation of a serial killer, while Jeffrey Deaver's excellent The Therapist is a horrifying yet gripping tale of man in the vice of mental illness.

I loved the fantastical Goblin Lake by Michael Swanwick, in which a man journeys to the bottom of a lake, to emerge with truths and realisations about the nature of paths taken, and not taken.

Meanwhile the narrator in Kat Howard's A Life in Fictions suffers from the fact that her lover keeps writing her into his stories, and thus influencing the course of her own reality. A mind-bending story, and delicious in the telling.

Equally fun was Diana Wynne Jones's Samantha's Diary set in the year 2?, in which the young narrator Samantha writes wittily about a secret admirer who keeps sending her live birds, from swans to pigeons and a partridge or two.

Finally, I also thoroughly enjoyed Michael Moorcock's simply titled Stories in which the lives of a group of friends, from their 20s on to life in their 60s is told in simple language, language that swoops and falls from event to event.

A real delight.

Published The Star Tonight December 9 2010

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