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Book Review: Stories edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

Genre: Anthology
Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: June 15, 2010
ISBN-10: 0061230928
ISBN-13: 978-0061230929
Editor Websites: Neil Gaiman, Al Sarrantonio

Stories edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, was compiled because the editors wanted “stories that forced us to turn the page” to “read stories that used a lightning flash of magic as a way of showing us something we have already seen a thousand times as if we have never seen it before.” The anthology does this successfully, as each story, in isolation, easily fulfills the prescription of the editors. One problem, though. Apparently “stories” as defined by the editors, consist mostly of murder mystery/serial killer/death themes with some small element of magic thrown in. Let’s take a look at each story individually, and then you’ll see that while each of the 27 seven stories in this anthology is fantastic and enjoyable in and of itself, taken together, the collected works are awfully similar, even repetitious.

The anthology begins with a vampire tale by Roddy Doyle entitled “Blood”. In it, a middle class man goes through a mid-life crisis wholly different from the typical trading in of a 40-year-old wife for two twenty- year-olds or the buying of an expensive car. Doyle’s story fulfills the goal of the anthology by taking the typical ennui infused story of middle-aged men and giving it that magical twist, while also satirizing the popularity of similar ennui filled stories of teenage vampires.

Joyce Carol Oates, follows up Doyle with “Fossil-Figures”. Oates tale of twin brothers, one healthy and popular, and the other twisted and shunned, works through the theme of beauty and of self. In Oates story, what is beautiful becomes twisted, and the twisted creates beauty. As the reader follows the two twins from their time in the womb together to the end of their life, but though the two lead very different lives, in birth and death they are inseparable. Though thematically Oates story is fascinating, her choice of making the “demon” brother a conservative politician (rather than just a generic politician) turned off this conservative reader. The political imprint of Oates opinion did a disservice to an otherwise elegantly crafted tale.

“Wildfire in Manhattan” would fit nicely alongside Gaiman’s American Gods though the story is written by Joanne Harris. In it, aspects of the gods are being hunted through a modern city by beings who serve Chaos, a force that eats power. The two male protagonists, a fire god and a storm god, attempt to save a woman who seems not to know that she is an aspect of the sun god from the agents of chaos. Not a wholly original story, but something that could be a companion piece to American Gods or Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout.

Gaiman’s own contribution to the anthology is a novella, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” that follows a dwarf as he seeks out a mythical cave full of treasure from which only the very brave or very foolhardy ever return. Should they return, they come back rich. But the dwarf is seeking truth, or at least validation of a truth he knows, and so finds something quite different when he goes into the cave. Gaiman turns a sword and sorcery tale into a murder mystery, not a whodunit, but more of a The Count of Monte Cristo style revenge narrative.

Michael Marshall Smith relates the tale of a murder in “Unbelief”. A hired hit man gets personal with a target. The story is an allegorical one of a man killing his faith in something he once believed in, and finding that after he had done so, there is emptiness. Those familiar with Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather will find some similarities, though the presentations are vastly different.

In Joe R. Lansdale’s “ The Stars are Falling” and American WWI veteran returns to his farm and his wife and child, only to find that war has changed him, and that his absence has changed his much younger wife. Like the two before it, this one revolves around a murder, as Deel, the protagonist, discovers the truth behind the friendship of Mary Lou and Tom. Lansdale’s story is quite remarkable, a tale of fatal romance and murderous tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.

Juvenal Nyx by Walter Mosley is another vampire tale in which an attractive black man relates the story of how he became a vampire, and of how he overcame it to become a successful of odd happenings in his city. The story is really two stories. One is the origin story of Juvenal Nyx, a dark tale reminiscent of Anne Rice or Edgar Allen Poe. The other tale is a paranormal mystery, one of a thousand such, and lacking in anything new to add to that particular genre. The story ends circularly, so that the end is also the beginning, leaving open-ended the fate of Juvenal Nyx and his human girlfriend. This story was of two minds in its content going in two different directions, both of which have been done before. The only uniqueness of this particular story is its black protagonist, something not used in most vampire tales. “Juvenal Nyx” is simply another story to add to the vast canon of paranormal investigator stories that have been so popular in recent days.

Richard Adams very short story “The Knife” tells a story of a murder at an all-boys English boarding school. This story has been done to death on any number of police procedural TV shows and movies. The British show The Inspector Lynley Mysteries has almost the exact same tale in “Well-schooled in Murder” though in Adams tale, the boy gets away with it. There is also no “flash of magic” in this story, so its inclusion is itself a mystery.

Jodi Piccoult turns the emotional distancing that occurs between parents from simply emotional to an actual physical ailment. “Weights and Measures” tells how Abe and Sarah (notice the Biblical allusion) get more and more distant after the death of their daughter. Sarah begins to grow in size, and Abe to diminish, each manifesting physically they psychology they use to deal with their daughter’s death. Though very sad, this story is one of the best of the anthology, as it only needs a simple device to create a unique narrative.

It seems that almost no anthology is complete without one writer including a story about fiction, a sort of “meta” story if you will. Such is Michael Swanwick’s “Goblin Lake”. Initially seeming to be a like a Grimm’s fairy tale, the story quickly moves into a tale about a man escaping the confines of literature to become truly human. Swanwick uses the tale to philosophize about whether infinite life of literature or the short span of human existence is the fuller of experience. An interesting story of philosophy cloaked in a fairy tales clothes.

“Mallon the Guru” is an inscrutable tale. Peter Straub tells of how a young man, gifted with an ability to heal, goes with his mentor to visit a great guru, but in doing so causes disruption in the town of Sankwal, India. Perhaps the story follows the great tradition of describing how those with gifts are never accepted by those with the power. Spencer Mallon is a modern-day Jesus – gifted with healing powers but rejected by the establishment. Or maybe the story is about Karmic balance, and how one act can disrupt that balance and that its disruption is worse than letting someone die. I could not discern what this tale was about, as it was simply too short and lacking in something, I know not what, to make its intent guessable.

“Catch and Release” is a story of a killer a la Dexter. But unlike the serial killer who only kills other serial killers, this one practices a system that gives him the thrill without the actual murder. This theme is being explored in depth by the Showtime original series Dexter, though Lawrence Block’s twist on the idea is thrilling in its twist on the “good” serial killer genre.

Jeffrey Ford’s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” gives off a sort of 1930’s vibe as it tells a story of paired hired killers, Dex and Adeline, as they navigate a trap sent to end their lives. A little bit of James Bond superspy, a little bit of Bonnie and Clyde, the story is quite fun, though it ends rather oddly.

“Loser” uses the setting of a well-known game show (never titled, but known to those who watch daytime television around noon everyday) to point out the transience of stuff. Chuck Palahniuk’s story shows the fleeting nature of the things we surround ourselves with, though a familiar twist on a mainstay of TV culture. Great story of a fraternity pledge brother that expresses dissatisfaction with the materialism of his forebears in a profound way.

“Samantha’s Diary” by Diana Wynne Jones has lots of fun making the old Christmas Song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” into reality for one model with a secret admirer. Quirky and funny, though for some reason this reviewer seems to remember that another notable author has done the same thing with the story, though the name of the other story cannot be brought to mind. A fun and funny story, a rarity in these pages, but also something that has been done before.

Gene Wolfe gives readers the only true science fiction story of the anthology with “Leif in the Wind”. Though in true Wolfe style, there is as much magic as science in this tale of madness in deep space. But even so, as seems so common in the stories in this anthology, the tale hinges on a death, several in fact, both in the pages and off. A 2001: A Space Odyssey sort of tale, this story is appreciated for its lack of an urban setting, and its mix of science and magic.

“Unwell” is a suspenseful semi-murder mystery. Told through and unreliable narrator of a grandmotherly persuasion, Carolyn Parkhurst’s tale, build suspense to a grand reveal. Readers will dislike the protagonist and her selfish ways, though they may recognize her nature in those of the aged they have come into contact with. Evil has a wrinkled face in this clever bit of talespinning.

“A Life in Fictions” by Kat Howard, as its name implies is another story about the writing craft. In this case, the narrator tells us about how an ex-love keeps using her in stories, keeps making her a part of his craft. But rather than just emulating what he sees in and learned from her, he literally writes her into the story, and she disappears from this world to enter his as he is writing the story. I really liked this particular story, as it is simultaneously whimsical and serious. It is an interesting take on the theme of finding one’s self and one that will resonate strongly with longtime readers of any sort of fiction.

In “Let the Past Begin, Jonathan Carroll relates a tale of a woman cursed, who speaks to a man who might be the father of the child. But is she really cursed or is she just crazy, the narrator, Eamon, doesn’t know, but he is willing to love her. This particular tale does not start off spooky but ends in such a way as to give the reader a chill down their back. Again, the turning point of the novel involves death, so while the story in isolation is quite excellent, with its similar mood to its companions prevents it from standing out.

“The Therapist” by Jeffrey Deaver is about the attempt of a psychiatrist to prevent suffering by noticing the indicators ahead of time. His knowledge of the human psyche allows him to see the indicators for potential damage to self and others. Though his belief in demons riding on the shoulders of these people is a tad off, his heart is in the right place. Narrated through the eyes of the therapist, we slowly begin to find that perhaps his narration is not all that reliable, and though we believe his perspective in the moment, in retrospect, that may have been unwise. This is another story that hinges on a murder, so while it is particularly clever with perspective and ability to make you trust the narrator, it is still yet another murder tale among many.

Tim Powers’ “Parallel Lines” is similar to Carolyn Parkhurst’s tale, though his story is more of a ghost story. Like Parkhurst, Power’s has an aged protagonist, as well as the set up of two sisters who both love and are at odds with one another. In it, a twin who recently lost her sister finds that for somehow, her sister is communicating from beyond the grave by controlling one of her hands. It is up to Caroleen to decide if she will let BeVee return from the grave to live in her body. A fun story of a younger twin getting her life started.

In “The Cult of the Nose” by Al Sarrantonio the narrator tells the reader about how he has found the cult of the nose, a secret society almost no one was aware of, when he worked for counterintelligence in Vietnam. Most of the story is taken up with building the reader’s belief in the cult until, yes, you guessed it, the story becomes a tale of murder. Again we have a seemingly reliable narrator turncoat on us, whose mind is more than a little twisted. This story is great all on its own, but amongst these others, it just another murder tale as related by its perpetrator, of which there are many in this anthology.

Kurt Anderson provides the reader a tale of the alien arrival on earth in “Human Intelligence”. The story relates how the alien (singular) arrived, how he hid around the world, and how his identity came to be revealed in this early twenty-first century. We find the alien to be a sympathetic character, made all the more so by circumstance, and though we have found the aliens, we may find that we really are still alone in the universe. A nice bit of respite from the murder tales that pervade this anthology, and one of the few that is science fictional in content. It’s a story that would have fit well into Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern’s Is Anybody Out There anthology from DAW.

Michael Moorcock, tells a fictional memoir of Rex Fisch in “Stories”. Told as if it truly happened, and from Moorcock’s own perspective, it is almost as if the reader was listening to an elegy, or a memorial published in a newspaper. Throughout we encounter the story of Moorcock, Fisch, and his lover Chick Archer. Mixing the real and the unreal, Moorcock tells life stories, and though seemingly innocuous, this is probably the most poignant and original work of the anthology.

“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerephon” by Elizabeth Hand tells the story of a man, his friends, and their sons, as they attempt to recreate the failed flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon for a friend dying of cancer who staked her reputation on the story. This is a fictional happening that represents some of the pre-Wright brothers’ attempts. In this story the Bellerophon was actually more successful than the Wright’s, though it ended in the death of McCauley and his cameraman by some mysterious force which these men also encounter. It is a long tale of friendship gained, lost and regained.

If you have never been to the Amalfi Coast of Italy, suffice it to say that people live on what is essentially the sheer face of a steep mountainside. Joe Hill sets his murder story “The Devil on the Staircase” in this country, where a boy makes a Faustian deal to save himself from prosecution for his crime. The clever bit of this story is not in its content per se, but in its construction. Disdaining laying out the words in standard prose (like this review) Hill instead tells lays out the text in the form of staircases, so that each paragraph starts a new one either on the left or right hand side of the page. The only time Hill slips into standard prose format is when the boy speaks with the devil, which is significant. It was a great way to end the anthology, as it highlights what so many of the stories focus on, namely murder and death, but does it in a really unique presentation that makes it the best story of the anthology hands down.

As you can see, Gaiman and Sarrantonio have a preponderance of murder tales, or at least tales associated with death. Though each story in the anthology is really good, the combination of them all being fantastic writers, and that most of them seem to hinge their storytelling on murder or death, makes the anthology both repetitious and lacking in any standouts. If each story had been in another anthology with other authors, they likely would have been some of the standouts, the ones everyone is talking about, but to find the best among greats is an impossible feat.

Do I recommend this anthology? Yes, if you like stories with a tone of despair or at least a brooding darkness. Overall, though, it seems that Gaiman and Sarrantonio think that ““stories that forced us to turn the page” only seem to come in one color, and that color is black.