I tend to be wary of collections of short stories, as they rarely live up to their longer counterparts. Don’t get me wrong — I will on occasion come across short stories I love. For the most part though, they leave me underwhelmed. This particular collection, Stories: All-New Tales Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, pulled me in despite that. It was mostly due to the names on the author list: Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, Jeffrey Deaver, Joyce Carol Oates. Names I recognize, respect, and have produced work I enjoyed in the past. Plus, it was crazy on sale. I’m a sucker for a sale, I admit it.
I started this collection with high hopes. Gaiman’s introduction was charming, reflective, and honest. He focused on the four words that every storyteller wants to hear from their audience when they pause: “… and then what happened?” Gaiman discusses his own feelings on stories and their potential, as well as the implications they can have on those who hear them. It was a strong start, and gave the reader the momentum and motivation to dive into the stories themselves.
Unfortunately, the stories did not build on Gaiman’s promising beginning. They weren’t bad, but they certainly weren’t great either. Roddy Doyle’s “Blood” was just sort of gross. Joyce Carol Oates could have shortened “Fossil Figures” by half. “Wildfire in Manhattan” by Joanne Harris was anticlimactic and cliched.
Neil Gaiman’s contribution could not come soon enough. His story, “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” was a full of imagery and sensory details, a miniature epic of violence, tragedy, and revenge. My responses were both emotional and visceral: at one point chills literally crept up my neck. Gaiman’s short story was on par with any full-length work he’s done, which in my opinion is a trait of a good author; he can tell an excellent story in exactly the amount of time it requires. Novel or flash fiction, Gaiman can hit it out of the park.
Richard Adams had a decent story in “The Knife,” but it was just alright. It certainly benefited from comparison to the works around it. I hate to say it, but I really felt that “Unbelief” (Michael Marshall Smith), “The Stars Are Falling” (Joe R. Lansdale), and “Juvenal Nyx” (Walter Mosley) all could have benefited from a ruthless editor. [Oooh! Oooh! Pick me! Me! I happen to have a red pen right here!] On top of that, the overwhelming dark and dismal tone of these stories started to take a toll on me. Next up: Jodi Picoult’s “Weights and Measures.” I actually considered skipping this one, as I could make an educated guess based off of every book she’s written that her story just might be a downer. I gave it a shot anyway and lo and behold: a story about a couple whose only child dies suddenly, leaving them unable to continue their lives together. Cheerful. I set the collection aside for a while, actually choosing to grade papers rather than continue reading.
When I came back to Stories, I picked up with “Goblin Lake,” by Michael Swanwick. This particular tale really stood out to me because of its strong meta-literary theme and content. Swanwick turned the focus of his story on the nature of fiction, and through that, the nature of life and our perceptions of reality. It was one of the few stories that made me stop and think, and I found myself mentally returning to it over the course of the afternoon. The main character is forced to confront serious decisions about his existence, and I wondered what my own course of action would be were I in his position.
After “Goblin Lake,” however, it was back to the bleakness. Even Chuck Palahniuk’s “Loser” failed to impress. The stories were just too one-note. They were dark, twisted, and hopeless. The protagonists were irredeemably flawed. Violence was the norm, gratuitously so. I skimmed them with ever-decreasing interest. A lonely bright spot popped up courtesy of Diana Wynne Jones. In the futuristic “Samantha’s Diary,” Jones explores the increasingly comical plight of a woman whose admirer sends her the gifts from the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas” carol. Jones deftly combined descriptions of a Margaret Atwood-esque future with the very relatable exasperation of the recipient of a ballooning menagerie. Kat Howard also presented a strong story in “A Life in Fictions,” a tale of magic realism in which a real-world woman begins literally to be pulled into the stories written by her boyfriend.
The problem with Stories was that the gems were few and far between. For every short story that I enjoyed, there were several that I was ambivalent toward and several more that I didn’t like at all. I was eager to read this collection, since short stories offer the benefit of being able to read in short bursts and walk away at virtually any time. I was, simply put, let down. I am not giving up on short stories across the board, nor on any of the authors contained in this collection. I believe that each author is capable of greatness. I believe that there are short stories out there that will knock my socks off. This book just didn’t do it for me. I was disappointed in this instance, but hey — at least it’s nudging me to go back and keep reading The Hare With Amber Eyes (yes, I am still moving along in that — albiet slowly).
My final word is this: unless you’re very into darkness and melancholy, this is probably not going to be your cup of tea.
Go find some happy reading!