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McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber
of Astonishing Stories

Various

" Perhaps in Heaven I’ll look like an angel. Or, perhaps the angels will look like me. "

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

Must short stories be “plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew”, wonders Michael Chabon, champion of the ripping yarn with literary attitude. Or can they have a damn good plot as well? Judging by the calibre of contributors to this collection, Chabon is not the only one keen to inject a little horror, mystery or adventure into the short story form and seeing what happens. The results crackle with energy, wit and some excellent writing.

Nightmare creatures are usually the object rather than subject of horror stories, too ghastly to be looked at straight on. Margaret Atwood’s Lusus Naturae puts her freak of nature centre stage and gives her a coolly knowing voice. “Perhaps in Heaven I’ll look like an angel,” the creature muses as the inevitable mob arrives at the gates. “Or, perhaps the angels will look like me.”

David Mitchell’s What You Do Not Know You Want is a masterclass in claustrophobia and mounting tension. Even more compelling than the narrator’s hunt for clues about his dead business partner is Mitchell’s language, which perfectly evokes the cynicism and strangeness of the Hawaiian setting. “Hotel rooms store up erotic charge, and men sleeping alone are its copper wires,” he says, an observation that not only sets up the transient half-world of this story but also foresees his grisly end.

My personal favourite was by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket). Delmonico is a cute, nourish tale about a vanished wife that is cracked wide open by the quiet sadness of the nameless narrator. “Time and time I want to tell Davies that I love her,” he tells us at the start, “but she’s so smart there’s no way she hasn’t figured it out already”. Repeated as the story closes, this line makes the whole piece reverberate with loss and longing.

Throughout the collection, dazzling imagination and fine writing go hand in hand – from China Miéville’s feral streets, to Jason Robert’s old light, a murder in reverse. Joyce Carol Oates’ The Fabled Light-house of Vina del Mar is apparently based on Edgar Allen Poe but owes as much to HP Lovecraft – an uneasy tale of isolation and identity undone. Even those who usually shun genre writing should find much to enjoy in Stephen King’s Lisey and the Madman where the horror lies less in the eponymous madman and more in the “things you could only see if you looked through the fingerprints from a water glass”.

Inevitably not everything works. Charles D’Ambrosio’s The Scheme of Things felt baggy and meandering, while the chill cruelty of Ayelet Waldman’s Minnow was clumsily undone by a last-minute point of view switch and an unnecessary reveal.

For those who like their ripping yarns, this collection confirms that a healthy dollop of mystery, horror or even SF does not preclude startling, accomplished writing and thematic depth. For those who usually shy away from anything genre – can so many literary heavyweights be wrong?

Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson started writing shorts as an excuse not to redraft The Novel and now can't kick the habit. Born in Dublin, she lives in London where she works as a writer and editor. Her short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and Pulp. The Novel is coming along nicely despite the lure of more concise forms.

Publisher: Random House (USA), Vintage

Publication Date: 2004

Paperback/Hardback?Paperback

First anthology?: Yes

Editor: Michael Chabon

Authors: Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, Ayelet Waldman, Steve Erickson, Stephen King, Jason Roberts, Heidi Julavits, Roddy Doyle, Daniel Handler, Charles D’Ambrosio, Poppy Z. Brite, China Mieville, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Straub.

 

What other reviewers thought:

ContemporaryLit

San Francisco Chronicle