The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Anthology of short fiction ideal for quick summer reading

StoriesIn the 428-page anthology Stories, editors Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio have tried to collect tales that keep the reader asking, as Gaiman writes in the introduction, "and then what happened?"

The 27 stories they collected come from a variety of genres, and the length of the stories varies anywhere from three to 48 pages, making the anthology a good pick for quick summer reading.

Several outstanding stories appear in the collection. The first is titled "Fossil Figures," written by Joyce Carol Oates. It tells the story of twin brothers, one born sickly, and the other born healthy and strong. They grow apart until a scandal in the life of the strong twin prompts his return to the weaker twin in adulthood.

"The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" is Neil Gaiman's contribution to the anthology. Told in the first person, the story follows the journey of the protagonist and his guide to the Misty Isle, where he seeks a cave rumoured to contain gold. As more is revealed about the protagonist and his companion, what seemed to be a straightforward fantasy story twists into a tale of revenge.

"The Stars are Falling," written by John R. Lansdale, is also a tale of revenge centred on a man struggling to adapt to life back at home in East Texas after fighting in France against Germany. His receives a cold welcome from his family, and it turns out that the offer of a family friend to go out alone together on a hunting trip has a darker purpose.

"Weights and Measures," by Jodi Picoult, tells the story of a couple's life after the death of their seven-year-old daughter. Elements of magical realism appear as the wife seems to grow taller while the husband shrinks in size as they attempt to deal with their loss.

"Catch and Release," by Lawrence Block, is the chilling tale of a serial killer who now adheres to the catch-and-release strategy that some fishermen use. However, he has no qualms about breaking his self-imposed rules on occasion.

"Land of the Lost," by Stewart O'Nan tells the story of a grocery store cashier who spends her spare time searching for the body of a murder victim. The years go by and she keeps searching, because "she could admit that at least part of the reason she was searching for a stranger's daughter was that no one else needed her."

Editor Al Sarrantonio also contributes a story to the anthology, titled "The Cult of the Nose." Narrated in first person, the protagonist recounts his discovery of this cult, building a case that the sect appears during times of violence and disaster in history, wearing the adornment of the nose.

There are several short stories in the collection, however, that fail to prompt the audience to want to know what happened next.

Included among them is "Wildfire in Manhattan," which relays the story of a fight between old gods in modern Manhattan. While the prose is solid and the voice of the protagonist is strong, the story doesn't really add anything new to the genre that places old gods in a modern setting, whis has been written many times before.

"Goblin Lake" starts out strong but loses momentum as the story continues on. Beginning with a German soldier following a captured peasant to a lake, it turns into a heavy-handed discussion of reality, fiction and character types. "Polka Dots and Moon Beams"" makes about as much sense as its title. The multitude of character names in the short piece proves hard to follow, and no real answers are provided to the questions raised by the story.

"A Life in Fictions" examines the concept of the muse but doesn't add anything new to the idea, with an ex-girlfriend of a writer constantly finding herself being written into his stories. And "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" at 48 pages long is very difficult to maintain interest in at first, although the story eventually picks up.

Although most of the pieces in the collection centre on themes such as death, vengeance and isolation, stories such as "Blood" and "Unwell" add a touch of dark humour to the collection.

All in all, Stories fulfills the purpose that Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio intended, with the majority of the work prompting the question "and then what happened?" The dark themes that many of the stories share can feel repetitive if read all at once.

During the summer it can be left lying around the house, ready to be picked up and read in spare moments – out in the sunlight, away from the shadows.

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