Only Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio could have pitched the idea for Stories to their publishers and not been met with blank looks, awkward fidgeting and a polite but firm ‘no thanks’. Stories is a marketing department’s nightmare: no obvious genre, no clear indication of which shelf it ought to sit on in Waterstone’s, too literary to be called ‘fantasy’, too fantastical to be called ‘literary’.
And that’s the whole point.
With this anthology of all-new short fiction, Gaiman and Sarrantonio set out to show us that genre classifications are irrelevant and often restrictive – if a tale is gripping enough, the reader won’t care. As it turns out, they’re absolutely right.
It should have been a disjointed mess – fine stand-alone stories that didn’t quite fit together as a coherent whole. And yet we have new authors sitting comfortably alongside household names, science fiction flowing seamlessly into fantasy, crime, and historical drama. On the surface each tale is wildly different from the next, yet they complement one another in ways no one would expect.
From Roddy Doyle’s punchy, attention-grabbing opener Blood to Joe Hill’s unsettling The Devil On The Staircase, this isn’t just 28 disparate pieces of writing bound together for the sheer hell of it – it’s a collection, and it works.
The standard of writing is exceptionally high, but don’t fear the prospect of style over substance. You won’t find pages of prose so lofty and inaccessible that there’s no room left for any real action. The book is dedicated to those storytellers – Dickens, Dumas, and especially Scheherazade – who understood that a writer’s job is to hold the reader’s attention and leave them desperate to know what happens next.
In compiling this anthology, Gaiman and Sarrantonio were after more than just good writing – they wanted ‘stories that used a lightning flash of magic as a way of showing us something we have already seen a thousand times as if we have never seen it before.’
And there are many different kinds of magic at work in Stories. Sometimes it’s right there in front of you, as with Wildfire In Manhattan, Joanne Harris’ terrific tale of runes, gods and rock’n’roll.
Sometimes it’s in the telling – take Joe R. Lansdale’s masterful evocation of landscape and atmosphere in The Stars Are Falling, or Joyce Carol Oates racking up the tension in Fossil Figures with prose so ominous and deliberately overwrought that a simple story of two brothers reads like a chronicle of the apocalypse.
Sometimes the magic is all in the big reveal, a final twist that impels you to go back to the beginning and look for the clues you missed the first time. See Michael Marshall Smith’s Unbelief, or Gaiman’s own The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains, a standout piece with a final line of dialogue so perfect it makes you beam with satisfaction (right after you’ve shuddered with horror).
Sometimes we are shown the world we know through a carnival mirror, skewed and distorted, revealing things we might not otherwise see, as with Jodi Picoult’s weirdly beautiful Weights And Measures, a tale of grief and disconnection with a surreal ending reminiscent of Kelly Link at her best. And sometimes an unreliable narrator is called upon to dazzle and confuse us like the best kind of conjuring trick. I defy you to read Jeffrey Deaver’s The Therapist or Al Sarrantonio’s The Cult Of The Nose and remain absolutely, definitely, 100 per cent sure of who to trust.
It isn’t perfect, of course. No anthology is, or ever could be. The examples of metafiction won’t be to everyone’s taste – although Kat Howard’s A Life In Fictions is nicely-handled – and too many tales seem to end abruptly just as they’ve gathered momentum. But, whether out of eagerness or occasional frustration, you won’t be able to finish a single story without thinking those four crucial words: ‘…and then what happened?’
It is heartening to see that none of the contributors to Stories has chosen to play it safe. Some stories may work better than others, but none shows a lack of imagination or originality. It is also fascinating to see so many of the same themes and ideas – sibling rivalry, fluid identity, Christmas, isolation, tales within tales, the spaces between life and death – appear again and again, as though these stories – and perhaps all stories – come from the same dark place in the collective unconscious and are more alike than we realise.
Stories isn’t a book to be read once and then forgotten. You’ll want to revisit at least one story, if not all of them, and something in these pages will stay with you. It may be a single tale, or several. It may be the voice of a certain character – perhaps Carolyn Parkhurt’s catty, calculating Arlette or Harris’ sardonic trickster-god – or a single eerie image, like Gene Wolfe’s alien birds or Jonathan Carroll’s silent child. Something will call to you, perhaps even haunt you, hooking itself into your thoughts and refusing to let go.
However it was intended, Stories can be interpreted in numerous ways: a celebration, an act of defiance, a manifesto, a cri du coeur. We are not horror writers, it tells us. We are not sci-fi writers or commercial fantasy writers or ‘women’s contemporary fiction’ writers. We are the spinners of tales, and only the stories matter.
Stories deserves to be praised, preferably loudly and in public. It is remarkable and inspiring and important and necessary and many other things besides. But perhaps the best thing that can be said for it is that it’s a great read.
That’s the whole point, after all.