Stories: All New Tales
  Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

Headline Review

 Awards: Fossil- Figures by Joyce Carol Oates Best Short Story, 2011 World Fantasy Awards; The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand nominated for 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novella

"Jenny talked me out of it. ‘I love hearing you and Rex tell your stories.’ She grinned. ‘You’re such great liars.'"

Reviewed by A J Kirby

Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio are men on a mission. They’re self-appointed caped crusaders full of desperate zeal to save the story from the evil clutches of those who seek to constrain it within genre boundaries and instead "ignite a new appreciation for the limitless realm of exceptional storytelling." Sarrantonio, the self-confessed "Master Of" the anthology; Gaiman the black leather jacketed, gravelly-voiced Batman figure, generally a lone hero but here, to save the world, for one time only, appearing with a comrade.

Stories, their 2011 collection of short fiction, is their secret weapon. Only, it ain’t exactly unassuming. It couldn’t steal into a quiet store overnight and quietly start rearranging the shelves in order that those "categories which existed only to guide people around bookshops" no longer count, no longer "dictate the kind of stories that were being written" (from Gaiman’s introduction.) No, it comes rippling with muscle (and a little body fat too, this is one weighty volume, over five hundred pages.)

Squaring up for the fight, Stories becomes collection-as-manifesto. This is the handbook of Gaiman and Sarrantonio’s Storytelling Superhero Union, as Gaiman’s rather dictatorial introduction - subtitled "Just Four Words" – makes plain. Those four all-important words are "…and then what happened?" and this, Gaiman argues, is the basis of any good story. More, Gaiman argues that this should be the only criteria for a good story. We shouldn’t concern ourselves with whether a story is literary or fantastic, or romantic or horrific.
The joy of fiction, for some of us, is the joy of the imagination, set free from the world and able to imagine.
Which all sounds very laudable. But this deadly duo won’t let us rest at that conclusion. No, Stories is both their secret weapon and their back-up. It’s the muscle which sneers !come and contradict us if you think you’re hard enough" over our talesome twosome’s leather-jacketed shoulders.

And they really have got the heavies in. From all "sides". The twenty seven stories contained in this volume are the work of lauded literary "luvvies", rosy romance writers, gritty grim-city crimesters, horror authors from the darker side of the street, bells and whistles magical realists and fwuffy bunny wabbit children’s storytellers.

In Stories there is no "theme" per se. Some of the stories which have answered Gaiman’s "call" (here I imagined him blowing a Boromir-type horn which vibrated through the internet, or, alternatively, jabbing a finger into the dial on the Bat-phone) are wildly different. But, if you read this bulky tome in a week, as this reviewer did, then you’ll notice some interesting harmonics pulling through, linking the stories in small ways. Sometimes, a note will sound in one story towards the front of the collection, only to snag in your mind somewhat later, as you’re approaching the end. Some of the pleasure in reading collections such as this is in identifying the echoes where they happen. And for this, our caped crusader/ anthologist heroes deserve great credit. For some of the unevenness of quality, I’m not so sure they do.

Imagine an announcer in a ring pulling down a mic on a wire.
For one time only, appearing on the same bill-ah. We got Watership Down’s Richard Adams playing the undercard to Fight Club’s own Chuck Palahniuk. We got the heavyweight, eminently readable Jeffrey Deaver fighting in the same ring as the King in Waiting (Stephen’s son, Joe Hill.) We got the cocky young upstart, Kat Howard – our one and only debut author - whose A Life in Fictions, in which an author "borrows little pieces" of the protagonist for his fictions, takes on the similarly-intertextual- themed Goblin Lake by the more established Michael Swanwick (and wins, hands down.) We got "chick-lit" from Jodi Picoult - whose Weights and Measures packs a hefty uppercut: "The loudest sound in the world is the absence of a child" – up against Lawrence "the chore of killing" Block.

There are stories about blood, from Roddy Doyle (whose Blood opens the collection, and does exactly what Gaiman asks of it in capturing the imagination and making the reader laugh), and from Walter Mosley (whose Juvenal Nyx sadly could not escape its vampire story roots and sagged, badly, as though all the blood had been sucked out of it.)

There are stories about those with super (Gaiman-like) power: Joanne Harris’s disappointing Wildfire in Manhattan, and Peter Straub’s Mallon the Guru. Stories about Christmas: Diana Wynne Jones "comic" take on the twelve days of Christmas in Samantha’s Diary read like eating too much Christmas dinner. By the end, the punchline was lost in the stodge. Kurt Andersen’s Human Intelligence is more satisfying, and promises "the truth about Santa.’"

There are stories about siblings and rivalry: Joyce Carol Oates' Fossil-Figures, tells the tale of twins and a "demon brother" whilst Tim Powers' Parallel Lines centres around a dead twin apparently trying to communicate with her sister from beyond the grave using automatic writing (“touseyourbodyinvitemeintoyourbody”) and contains a nice twist.

And we’ve also got Gaiman and Sarrantonio themselves. Both have taken the brave (some might say arrogant) step of including their own work within these pages, although Gaiman’s story is his weakest offering I’ve ever read. Sarrantonio’s The Cult of the Nose is much the better read.

The best two stories in the collection, the two brightest stars in this glittery superstar universe are towards the end of the book. The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon, by Elizabeth Hand, a writer I’d never encountered before, was a wonderful surprise. It’s the rather off-beat tale of a crew of former security guards at a famous flight museum, who, for reasons the story will make clear, decide to attempt to pull off "the great flight hoax", recreating the lost film footage of the unweildly Bellerophon, and "then pass it off (…) as the real thing." The story balances brilliantly between the olde worlde charm of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines and the new world of doctored Wikipedia entries and Youtube sensations. There is some lovely use of a trapped moth as a metaphor.

And then there’s Stories by Michael Moorcock, the piece which best speaks to Gaiman’s aim of creating that "two way street" between the "two cultures." It’s the story of "my friend Rex Fisch who blew out his complicated brains in his Lake District library all over his damned books one Sunday afternoon". It’s also the history of a creative movement, in which the stated aim of Rex et al is to "reunite junk, middle-brow and highbrow fiction. Some people out there had to be as frustrated as us, dissatisfied by pretty much everything on offer, literary or commercial."

Finally, a note on the piece which concludes Stories. Although Joe Hill’s The Devil on the Staircase wasn’t the stand-out story of the collection, it was certainly the most interestingly constructed. Literally: here form and function overlapped and the story became the staircase in question:
I was
born in
Sulle Scale
the child of a
common bricklayer.


    and                                       each

         down                          with       step
                carrying        until                    it
                           freight                             seemed as
                                                                  if the bones
                                                                  in my knees were
                                                                  been ground up into
                                                                  sharp white splinters.

A J Kirby is the author of three published novels (Perfect World, Bully and The Magpie Trap) and a host of short stories. His crime fiction collection, The Art of Ventriloquism, is due for publication in early 2012. He welcomes comments and visitors at his website:
A J's other Short Reviews: Route "Book at Bedtime"

Al Riske "Precarious"

Lorraine M. Lopez "Homicide Survivors Picnic"

Guy Cranswick "Corporate"

Johnny Towsend "Zombies for Jesus"

Howard Goldowsky (ed) "Masters of Technique"

Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 3

Steve Morris "Jumble Tales"

Erinna Mettler "Starlings"

Ralph Robert Moore "I Smell Blood"

Roald Dahl "Switch Bitch"

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Authors 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.

Editors: Neil Gaiman  is a tour de force of creative talent. He is the bestselling author of Coraline and Stardust, both of which are major motion films. Neil also co-wrote the script for Beowulf starring Anthony Hopkins and Angeline Jolie. He is the creator/writer of the award-winning Sandman comic series and has written several books for children. His latest title, The Graveyard Book, won the Teenage Booktrust Prize 2009. Neil has been immortalised in song by Tori Amos, and is a songwriter himself. His official website now has more than one million unique visitors each month, and his online journal is syndicated to thousands of blog readers every day.”

Al Sarrantonio is the author of forty previous books, including several highly acclaimed novels. He has edited numerous collections, including the groundbreaking 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense’ and Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy. He lives in Newburgh, New York.