Title: Stories

Authors: Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio with stories by several authors.

Genre: This is a collection of short stories in a variety of genres.

Publisher: Harper Collins US/ Headline UK
Publishing Date: 1st edition 15 June 2010; paperback to be published April 2011
Hardcover/Paperback: 512 pages

One hell of a huge book of great, exciting stories which will become a uniting force for readers of all forms of imaginative fiction.

Rather than being dictated by genre, for co-editors Gaiman and Sarrantonio there is only one true distinction in fiction: the one dividing realistic and imaginative fiction. STORIES is a collection of the very best original fiction from some of the most imaginative writers in the world, as well as a showcase for some of fiction’s newer stars.

Contributors include: Roddy Doyle; Joyce Carol Oates; Joanne Harris; Neil Gaiman; Michael Marshall; Smith; Joe R. Lansdale; Walter Mosley; Richard Adams; Jodi Picoult; Michael Swanwick; Peter Straub; Lawrence Block; Jeffrey Ford; Chuck Palahniuk; Diana Wynne Jones; Stewart O’Nan; Gene Wolfe; Carolyn Parkhurst; Kat Howard; Jonathan Carroll; Jeffrey Deaver; Tim Powers; Al Sarrantonio; Kurt Andersen; Michael Moorcock; Elizabeth Hand; Joe Hill

Stand alone or series: All stories seem to be stand alone.

How did I get this book: In celebration of its release in paperback in the UK, the publisher offered a copy which I happily accepted, having had the collection in my Wish List since last year.

Why did I read the book: I have wanted to read this for ages because 1) Neil Gaiman involved and I lurves me some Neil Gaiman and 2) quite a few heavyweight authors contributed, including many I have never read before (and I think short stories are a good sampler) and 3) I simply love short stories and don’t read nearly as many short stories as I would like.

Review:

In a video introducing this collection of stories, Neil Gaiman says:

“Genre no longer exists and genre no longer matters. (..) What matters is storytelling, what matters is stories.”

Thus the editors of this anthology procured original stories from a selection of awesome writers, all under the basic proposition that genre is merely a marketing exercise to help shelve and sell books, rather than a series of presupposed conventions that authors are preoccupied with when writing their books. The result is not a thematic anthology, but an anthology that focuses instead on the readability of the stories (the cynic in me would like to say: but isn’t that what should matter ANYWAY?), free from possible genre restraints, always with one goal in mind: that the reader should be asking

“and then what happened?”1

***

The anthology starts really well, with a story called “Blood” by Roddy Doyle. I was reading as I was leaving the house to catch the bus, and I found myself walking down the road whilst still reading this story about a man who craves blood and tries to explain (or perhaps “excuse” is a better word) this sudden need with the most interesting explanations. Does wanting to drink blood, preferably fresh and warm, makes him a monster? You decide.

Then I read the next story up on that same bus journey, “Fossil-Figures” by Joyce Carol Oates, about twin brothers who are as different as day and night, and who live separate adult lives until it’s time to reunite again. It’s rather affecting and it, too, made me want to know what came next.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Joanne Harris’ “Wildfire in Manhattan,” a tale of old deities from Norse Mythology living in the new world, fighting old and new enemies. All I could think about while reading “Manhattan” was… Neil Gaiman has done this before (and better) with his American Gods.

Which brings me to the next story in Stories: Neil Gaiman’s own “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.” It has an old fashioned fable feel to it as a man with no name sets out to find a cave in search of treasures (or is he?), bargaining with a guide to get him there. It is – not surprisingly – one of the best stories in the collection and one that has that sense of wonderment and mystery that we readers were promised in the introduction.

The next four stories are a mixed bag, some quite effective in providing some fantastic realism others not so much. The former comprise “Unbelief” by Michael Marshall Smith, about a hired assassin set out to kill an important figure in one of the most celebrated holidays of the year, followed directly by the excellent “The Stars Are Falling” by Joe R. Lansdale Smith, about a soldier coming back home from war only to find that his wife and son have moved on. Mr. Smith’s story has my favourite opening line in the entire collection:

Before Deel Arrosmith came back from the dead, he was crossing a field by late moonlight in search of his home.

In the not-so great latter category, there is the (rather over-long) tale of the vampire “Juvenal Nyx” by Walter Mosley and the (rather over-short) “The Knife” by Robert Adams.

What came next was one of the biggest surprises of my life. In a collection of stories with some of my favourite writers (Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, for example), my absolutely favourite story turned to be the one from a writer whose books I’ve never enjoyed before (and I’ve tried two or three). “Weights and Measures” by Jodi Picoult is a story about a couple who has just lost their daughter and what starts to happen to them – emotionally and physically – in the aftermath of their loss. Though situated firmly in the “magical realism” genre, just like many other stories in this collection, “Weights and Measures” is the only story that actually provoked a viscerally emotional response from me (tears).

And then came…a bunch of stories that were not compelling and did not inspire me at all to ask what happens next. “Goblin Lake” by Michael Swanwick, is a meta-story that brings to life a fictional character; the forgettable “Mallon the Guru” by Peter Straub; the confusing “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” by Jeffrey Ford (it was a shame that the story was not as inspiring, as the pulp fictional setting and prose were wonderful) ; “Loser” by Chuck Palahniuk; “Land of the Lost” by Stewart O’Nan and my first introduction to Jonathan Carroll’s writing with “Let the Past Begin” (again, I liked the prose more than I like the story).

Thankfully, those were only a handful of duds in the midst of truly good stories. “Catch and Release” by Lawrence Block is the chillingly horrific tale of a serial killer who sees himself as a Catch and Release fisherman – but bear in mind that even those fishermen have to eat sometimes.

“Samantha’s Diary” by Diana Wynne Jones, quite possibly the lightest, funniest story in the bunch, is set in the future, when a woman’s admirer starts to send her gifts inspired by the old song “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

“Leif in the Wind” by Gene Wolfe is a great, ultimately beautiful piece of science fiction that I completely enjoyed reading. “Unwell” by Carolyn Parkhurst is about the worst sister in the world, written with black humor; “A Life in Fictions” by Kat Howard is another meta-story in which the main character is muse to a writer, who is eventually pulled into his fictional tales and forgets about real life. This is perhaps one of the most interesting stories, along with a tale of a therapist that believes in Nemes (vulture-like things that might possess people) in “The Therapist” by Jeffery Deaver. “The Therapist” is also rather similar in tone and in its ending to “The Cult of the Nose” by Al Sarrantonio, a tale of a man searching for the historical occurrences of a cult in order to prove its existence (or is he?).

To my surprise, then came another sibling/twins story in which one twin survives the other and has to make a pretty important decision in “Parallel Lines” by Tim Powers. “Human Intelligence” by Kurt Anderson is another sci-fi entry in the collection about first contact – from the alien’s perspective. I look at “Stories” by Michael Moorcock with mixed feelings. “Stories” is a tale about the life of a writer and his group of friends over the years – at times, this story felt a bit pretentious, but in the end it won me over because of Michael Moorcock’s portrayal of flawed yet deeply-resonant friendships.

The last stories close the collection on a high note. “The Maiden Flight Of McCauley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand is a moving tale of friendship, lost love and lost time, and “The Devil On The Staircase” by Joe Hill is a triumph of form and content, as the protagonist goes up and down the steps in the village he lives in, so too does the trajectory of his life.

***

Not all stories in Stories are created the same. Few are truly excellent and few are truly bad. The majority are good, solid stories and I liked them well enough, although there was only a handful I truly, really loved. Overall, even though there is supposed to be no theme connecting the stories, I was left with a certain despondent feeling of gloominess stemming from the majority of them. There are more unhappy endings, deaths and killings (quite a few murderers and serial killers here) in this collection than in any other I have read before. Strangely, there were THREE dark stories about siblings, two of them about twins, and only 2 of the stories can really be described as “happy” or “funny.” All this perhaps defeats the point of the collection – Stories was meant to be a collection of short fiction that cannot be easily defined and goes beyond genre restrictions and lables. As a matter of fact, the overall feel of the collection spells “doom and gloom” or “gritty and grim” – and rather than leaving me with a true sense of variety and wonderment, I was left feeling bereft and tired.

Notable quotes/Parts: A favourite quote from “Weights and Measures” by Jodi Picoult:

What he remembered was not how still she was, or how her skin grew ashen under his touch, but how she had weighed just the tiniest bit less than she had that morning, when he’d carried her through the double doors of the emergency room. It wasn’t remarkable to think that he – a man who lived by weights and measures – would be sensitive to this even at a moment as overwhelming as that one. Abe recalled hearing medical examiners say a person who died lost twenty-one grams of weight – the measure of a human soul. He realised, though, holding his daughter in his arms, that the scale was all wrong. Loss should have been measured in leagues: the linear time line he would not spend with her as she lost her first tooth, lost her heart over a boy, lost her graduation cap she tossed in a silvered sky. Loss should have been measured circularly, like angles: the minutes between the two of them, the degrees of separation.

Additional Thoughts: Check out Neil Gaiman’s video for Amazon where he talks how the collection came to be: HERE.

Rating: 6 – Good

Reading Next: How Lamar Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen.

  1. It makes me sad – and very surprised – that Neil Gaiman in his introduction says, rather restrictively, that “Commercial Fantasy, for good or for ill, tends to drag itself through already existing furrows, furrows dug by J.R.R. Tolkien or Robert E. Howard, leaving a world of stories behind it, excluding so much.” Clearly, there is so much more original fantasy than Neil Gaiman allows for.
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6 Responses to Anthology Review: Stories by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

  1. I know how long this review took you to write, Ana, and I can see why: what a brilliantly written piece. I didn’t skim at all, as I sometimes do with reviews when I’m short on time. Thanks for always putting your heart & soul into what you do here.

    Kaz

    p.s. I’ll have to lend you a Jonathan Carroll novel. Or! I have a collection of his short fiction… Maybe I should get you to read one of his other stories. *sigh* I do love me some JC. ;)

  2. Al Harron says:

    I think Neil was talking about a particular type of fantasy literature, not fantasy literature as a whole. Obviously there’s plenty of original, unusual fantasy out there that doesn’t hew close to the High Fantasy/Sword and Sorcery archetype, but those aren’t “commercial fantasy,” for the most part. Look at how many Lord of the Rings-ripoff doorstoppers clog the bookshelves at most shops: that’s what he means by commercial fantasy.

  3. mb says:

    From what I can remember, by reactions to the stories were pretty much the same as yours.

    Diana Wynne-Jones’ story–which I loved, and needed as an Upper by that point–reminded me a lot of some of Joan Aiken’s short story collections. I miss her. That whimsical, intelligent, humorous, and most of all Upbeat fantasy writing is hard to find. I treasure DWJ! Long may she prosper.

  4. Tipsy Reader says:

    For some reason I’ve never been able to read through a N.G. novel. Maybe this is a good intro? Plus, the roster of other authors is awesome!

  5. vivian mari ozalbo says:

    i found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with your review. and i truely loved that little pearl of a story weights and measurements. im delighted to see you noticed it too, it really has struck me and stuck with me since i read the book years back. a very strong story, i truely reccomend it.

  6. Jenn says:

    I know this is so late. But I’ve just read Samatha’s Diary and I don’t know if I understood the ending fully.

    Whose voice was “a man’s voice” and what happened?

    Thanks in advance!

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