Feb 24, 2008

A Handful of Short Stories

As I mentioned some time ago, when I was up in Inverness and found myself bookless, I ended up finding a great book for £3 in the clearance basket at Waterstone's. The book was McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, and I was thrilled to find it, not only because it would solve my predicament, but also because it was perfect for the Short Story Challenge.

McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories is an anthology edited by Michael Chabon and illustrated by Mike Mignola. One of the reasons why I love Michael Chabon (other than the fact that I really enjoy his writing) is the fact that he uses the credibility that being a Pulitzer-winning author gives him among certain circles to voice his belief that genre fiction has as much merit as so-called literary fiction; that it needs not, should not apologize for being what it is; that any classification that sends the kind of literature that bends the boundaries of the real to the ghetto is nothing short of absurd.

The contributors to this anthology include Margared Atwood, Daniel Handler, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, China Mieville, Peter Straub, Poppy Z. Brite and Roddy Doyle, among others. I love the fact that Chabon picked stories by both "respectable" and "ghetto" authors and allowed them to stand side by side, as they should. What all these stories have in common is the fact that they could all be classified as genre fiction. It could also be said that all these stories defy classification.

I decided to start by reading 5 stories by new to me authors. To make things more interesting, I picked 5 authors I had never read before even though I really should have - they are all very well-known authors that have been recommended to me countless times, but for one reason or another I had yet to read them: they are Roddy Doyle, Stephen King, China Mieville, Poppy Z. Brite and Peter Straub.

"The Child" by Roddy Doyle is probably the most disturbing story of the lot. I really enjoyed the writing style - the story is written in short sentences that perfectly convey an increasing sense of anxiety and are evocative of a person short of breath. This is a ghost story, maybe, or a murder mystery, or perhaps just the story of a man losing his mind.

"Lisey and the Madman" by Stephen King is the short story that originated the novel Lisey's Story. I found it intriguing, and it made me want to read the novel. In the story, Lisey Landon's husband, a famous writer, is shot during a ceremony in Tennessee. The story ends with him still alive in the hospital, and there was a detail at the very involving glasses that really peaked my curiosity. I wonder how relevant it is in the novel.

"Reports of Certain Events in London" by China Mieville is, at first glance, an almost Lovecraftian tale. It stars with the author saying that what he is about to present are some reports addressed to one Charles Mieville that the he received in the mail by mistake. It takes some time for the reader to realize what the whole thing is about, but once we do, it's fascinating. It reminded me a bit of Neverwhere, it the sense that it also recreates magic and myths in contemporary urban landscapes.

"The Devil of Delerey Street" by Poppy Z. Brite is an exquisitely written New Orleans ghost story, and also a story about growing up. It was an acute reminder that I really need to get around to reading some of her novels

Finally, "Mr. Aickman's Air Riffle" by Peter Straub was very intriguing, and also very disturbing. It is the story of four men connected to the writing and publishing world. In an increasingly oppressive context, they realize that they have more in common than they ever supposed. This is a story
where the natural and the supernatural, the psychological and the surreal, get all tangled and intertwined.

Needless to say, my experience with this anthology has been great so far, and I really look forward to reading the rest of the stories. Perhaps I'll use some more of them for the Short Stories Challenge in the future. I have 5 more new to me authors and 5 more old favourites to go until I complete it.


  1. Oh, this sounds like a perfectly wonderful collection! And I've got to say that cover is deliciously irresistible for some reason.

  2. You always read the best books! I must read this. Thanks for the review, Nymeth.

    I don't know too much about Michael Chabon, but I would agree that he is doing a great thing by continuing to try and prove that genre fiction is just as worthwhile and good as literary fiction. I enjoy reading it all and don't see why there has to be such a fuss made about which is better. Why does one have to be better than the other?

  3. What an awesome collection! This one might just skip the wishlist and go right to my shopping cart ;) I don't remember glasses in Lisey's Story, but then again, it's been over a year since I read that one. It's an awesome book though and I know you'd love it! That whole scene is in the book though as a flash back. From what I understand, Mieville is a big fan of Gaiman, so it's no surprise that it reminded you of Neverwhere. I'm dying to read some of his stuff! And I think you'd like Poppy Z. Brite's novels too. All I've read of hers is her older stuff which isn't great literature, but they're good, spooky books and I think they're well written. Lost Boys and Drawing Blood are both good, angst ridden, goth-kid books ;)

  4. Oh man, I am so behind on my Short Story Reading Challenge!

  5. Debi: isn't the cover great? It managed to seem both vintage and modern, and it just looks so cool.

    Literary Feline: I hope you enjoy this one! And yeah, I don't understand all the fuss about genre vs "regular" fiction either. Sometimes they do different things, which is fine, and sometimes they do the same thing, which is fine as well, and I don't see why one should be seen as inherently superior to the other.

    Chris: It is an awesome collection! I hope you enjoy it when you get around to reading it. Hm, maybe the thing with the glasses wasn't as relevant as I thought it'd be, but it sure was creepy! About Mieville, that makes sense. I've seen his YA book Un Lun Dun being compared to Neverwhere too. I really want to read that one. As for Poppy Z. Brite, I'm curious about both her vampire novels and about the realistic New Orleans novels that she has been writing more recently...if I remembered correctly, Neil Gaiman once posted about how much he enjoyed "Liquor".

    Dark Orpheus: Worry not, there's still plenty of time!

  6. that looks like quite a unique collection! very cool.

    i didn't know that chabon championed genre fiction like that... wow!

  7. Glad to hear this is good. I have a copy that I picked out of a bag of giveaway books simply because I loved the cover. I was thrilled when I got to looking at it to see all the quality folks attached to it.

  8. You know, a while back I read this collection. I completely forgot about it, except the cover pic on your blog looked familiar. I remember really liking a lot of the stories in the collection. Its the one with the story about the wild streets, right? Boy that was a crazy story. I loved it! I wanted to know how on earth that author thought of it.

    I also remember really liking the story about the man who was all by himself for a year in a lighthouse. The progression of his sanity was so well-written!

    I'm not a huge Steven King fan, and Lisey's story didn't make me want to read the book. I dunno, I guess I just don't get into his style.

    Thanks for the review and reminding me of those short stories!

  9. Sounds like a good read.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Terry Finley


  10. JP: It's cool that he does that, isn't it?

    Carl: Yep, it's really good so far! I can totally understand picking it because of the cover even before seeing the contributors...it's such a cool one!

    Kim: The one about the wild streets is the China Mieville one. I loved it too! I haven't read the one with the lighthouse yet, but you've made me very curious! I need to read the rest of the book to find out which one it is.

    Terry: You're welcome! :)

  11. Great retro cover - lots of fun! I love many of the authors in the collection, so I'll definitely have to check this one out. Thanks!

  12. This looks like the kind of collection me and Alex would both enjoy. I can't believe you haven't read any Stephen King before now. I am not a big fan but I assumed everyone had read him! I want to read more Poppy Z Brite, she is dark and disrubing which is always fun ;)


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