Never tell a book by its cover? What if the cover reproduces the October 1940 issue of Red Star Mystery Magazine? What if the internal layout replicates that of all pulp magazines of the era? What if each story appends a breathless come-on like "The mummy's eyes gazed out of the ancient past… and into the depths of his soul!"? What if the guest editor's introduction disses "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story" and promises the reader the chance to revel in the wonders of reviving "the lost genres of short fiction… by 'non-genre' writers who, like me, found themselves chafing under the strictures of the Ban"?
What if you are such a reader who picks up such a book? What are you supposed to think will be contained in these splendidly unfashionable tales? Exotic climes and tentacled aliens and feats of derring-do? Mean streets and dead-eyed men and jaded women? Gloomy pits and chambers of horror and frothing demons? Thrills? Chills? Spills? Ills?
What if nobody told the authors about any of this?
The result, I fear, is this issue of McSweeney's Quarterly, reviewed here in its incarnation as a separate volume released by Vintage Books. Its all-star collection of bestselling authors has garnered it much media attention, no two reviews managing to agree on what is good or bad about it. Or what its intentions were or whether any of them were achieved. Or why a group of genre writers were invited at all.
What the ordinary reader will find is an olio of works – some genre, some mainstream, some a hideous hybrid mutant monstrosity - that barely seem capable of inhabiting the same bookshelf, let alone the same themed volume.
The first two stories, the very opposite of Thrilling, are paired in their early 20th century settings, their large animal subjects, and their crisp, measured, almost non-fictional prose. An amateur naturalist searches for a Creature Unknown to Science in Jim Shepard’s "Tedford and the Megalodon." A circus promoter helplessly watches his star elephant go rogue in Glen David Gold’s "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter." Shepard’s protagonist travels around and eventually from 1923 Australia to track to ground the legend of a giant killer shark. He encounters along the way a cast of characters who in another story would be colorful but here are as muted and lost as the sea off the southern tip of Tasmania. Gold’s circus folk have a bit more life to them, if having sad and angry clowns counts as life. Both stories have elegantly meticulous descriptions of their worlds; Gold perhaps the splashier with a naming detail that deserves a place in an Ellery Queen story. They make for a solid foundation, but also make the reader hope for a bit of flash in the 400 pages to come.
Dan Chaon attempts horror in "The Bees," whose now-sober hero is horrified to find that his young son has started to scream uncontrollably in his sleep. The boy is the same age as the son he abandoned in an alcoholic haze in an earlier marriage. While any good reader will realize instantly that the two will come together in some way, the ending is still abrupt and arbitrary.
Kelly Link’s stories are surrealistic and imaginative and horrific, and "Catskin" is no exception. A witch sews up her death in a catskin so she can remain after her demise to protect the last of her stolen children – and, not incidentally, to revenge herself on an old foe. From the initial dying scene ("The witch panted as if she were giving birth to her own death.") to the equivocal ending, the story fascinates.
Such a distance from Kelly Link to Elmore Leonard. What is a reader to make of a volume that places them back-to-back? Both are masters of their respective arts, though, and "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman" is possibly the best story in the collection, a perfect transference of the archetypal cowboy ethic to the gangster-laden world of 1921. In his quiet, drop-dead-gorgeous prose, Leonard uses a series of encounters with the deadly Frank Miller to create deeper characterization in young Carlos’ transformation to U. S. Marshal Carl than in a dozen literary novels.
The title character in Carol Emshwiller's "The General" is the vicious enemy. Or the hero of his people. Or a posturing troublemaker. Or a victim of ideological condescension. While his life and character are complex, the actions of the General are simple: survival, compassion, recompense. This year's Nebula winning short story writer, Emshwiller puts forth notions of simple decency that parallel almost exactly those of her contemporary Ursula Le Guin in her latest Earthsea novel, and both wrest gripping fiction out of old-fashioned morality.
Neil Gaiman is a tale-teller, with "Closing Time" being a throwback to the 19th century bar tale, in which a group sit late in an evening at a pub and listen to tall tales that nevertheless resonate in their current lives. One of the tellers remembers a ghost house of his youth, and one of the listeners remembers what never was told.
The one plot that might truly have appeared in the pulp era – and did – propels Nick Hornby’s "Otherwise Pandemonium," in which a 15-year-old boy gets a magic VCR that sees the future. The inadvertent point seems to be that Hornsby thinks 15-year-old boys are too stupid, self-involved, and hormonal to care about the future, and so I found this the scariest horror story this side of reality tv.
Stephen King fans will be pleased to know that "The Tale Of Gray Dick" will be part of his next Dark Tower book, although that crucial fact is mentioned nowhere in this volume. Crucial because the story begins and ends in the middle of lives and will surely gain in meaning and power from some knowledge of the characters and their world.
"Blood Doesn’t Come Out" has Michael Crichton giving a hard-boiled private eye the one thing no reader wants: a realistic ending. Under any other name this would be a middling story in an average issue of a mystery magazine.
In "Weaving the Dark," Laurie King tells a fine story of an adventurous woman on the verge of blindness fighting any urge to cede control of her life to others. There is a plot line that neatly ties off at the end, but it is so fortuitous that it almost mocks the sincerity of the previous struggle.
"Chuck’s Bucket" is the tale closest to Chabon’s c.q.p.m-o-t.r. story, a seemingly autobiographical piece by the son of a science fiction writer who has spent his writing life determined not to relive his father’s embittered existence. Somewhere along the way, Chris Offutt learned about the many-worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics that states that an infinity of possible worlds are being created each moment, the future as a string mop in which all the strings exist separately but interweave around one another. This is old hat to the genre reader and the story creaks alarmingly trying to balance modernistic structure with genre apparatus.
You'd think that of all people Dave Eggars would support his guest editor with a genre story tailored to his specifications. But there is hardly any piece in the volume more today than this novella about a tourist walk up Mt. Kilimanjaro. Fortunately, "Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly" is sheer excellence, a story that explores the many shadings and meanings of "distance" in human lives and relationships.
Although we never see any metatemporal activity in "The Case of the Nazi Canary," Michael Moorcock places us quickly into an alternate 1931, subtly underscored by the presence of two upper-crust Englishman who are not anti-semites. The perfection of the idea - Sir Seaton Begg, Moorcock's metatemporal alter-Holmes, must clear Adolph Hilter of the murder of his mistress so as not to jeopardize his rise to power – is soon lost in a sea of Nazi names-to-be and yanked-on-stage characters from other Moorcock tales.
I have to assume that Aimee Bender meant "The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers" to be a parody of detective stories, because it makes no sense to approach it in any other way. Alas, it also doesn't work as a parody.
When the rotting remains of the corpses of Custer's troops spring from their graves and attack all at random, a parable about history is sure to be in the offing. No question that the Native American writer Sherman Alexei is truly angry at history, but he is far too angry for his "Ghost Dance" to make a lick of sense. It carries some incidental power in the telling but leads nowhere.
"Goodbye to All That" is a Harlan Ellison non-sequitor-laden, popcult-reference-dropping, shaggy-god-story riff in Ellisonian tones so arch that I thought the story to be a secret Dave Langford parody.
Back in the past again, Karen Joy Fowler uncovers an archaeological party whose opening of "Private Grave 9" is a much more modest find than their contemporaries at Tutankhamen's tomb. There is no excitement other than the visit of a young mystery writer looking for local color. Nevertheless, Fowler's usual mastery of implication reveals that the supernatural is never more than a finger's breadth away from the human mind.
A drug novella told in a single long breath as if written on speed, Rick Moody’s "The Albertine Notes" also hints that Moody mixed in a large tab of Philip K. Dick. Lost amidst the post-bomb remnants of a New York City more metaphor than real, addicts line up for the chance to relive memories of a better age. These memories influence reality, which itself can be changed by memory, assuming that reality is not a self-delusional conspiracy to diminish the pain of too much memory. Dick, er, Moody twists reality into the mop of strings Chris Offutt could only suggest, each string a connection to past, present, and future. It is a virtuoso performance, a symphony in one chiming note, best read in a single sitting so that memory is never called upon to make sense of it all.
Michael Chabon gives us part one of yet another alternate history in "The Martian Agent: A Planetary Romance." England never lost control over its American colonies and maintains its domination despite the long series of doomed American heroes who rebel against it. The sons of one such rebel are taken into a sumptuous airship by their English inventor uncle after a series of flat and unadventurous scenes out of boys' adventure novels that Chabon is never able to lift out of their clichéd roots.
The story's end calls for a second installment, "The Indistinguishable Operations of Empire and Fate" in a McSweeney's Second Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales but you will pardon me for thinking that no such volume will ever follow this ill-conceived, badly-executed misfit of science. Readers who truly want to slip between the bounds of genre and mainstream are much better off searching for last year's literary journal's special issue, the Peter Straub guest-edited Conjunctions:39.
Or just search eBay: Key word: Thrilling. The prose will not compare, but you can trust the covers not to lie to your face.
Copyright 1996 by Steve Carper