TagStories

Tony Lovell, ‘The Shell’ (2010)

Stephen Peters is troubled by vivid dreams of a life he doesn’t recognise with an old woman who is apparently his wife; though she’s not his actual wife, Carla, with whom he’s about to go on holiday in the hope that he can relax for a change. But the cares of life are still nagging at him; and those dreams aren’t going away, either. Lovell’s prose flows nicely, but I don’t think the two strands of the story mesh together as strongly as they might.

Rating: ***½

Stories: Conclusion

Having reached the end of Stories (click here for the index of my posts), it’s time for a few remarks in closing. I’d characterise this as a solid anthology — a broad range of material, and nothing particularly bad (Gene Wolfe’s is probably the weakest story, and even that has a certain amount of interest). However, more stories fall into the ‘quite good’ bracket ( as opposed to the ‘good’ bracket) than I’d have liked, and this is what makes the anthology solid rather than spectacular for me.

What, then, are the best stories in Stories? Roddy Doyle and Jodi Picoult do interesting things with fantasy, and demonstrate how fruitful the results can be when ‘mainstream’ writers try their hand at the fantastic. Michael Swanwick, Jeffrey Ford, and Joe Hill contribute perhaps the best-told tales; and Kat Howard’s piece is a strong debut.

Finally, how far does the anthology meet its stated aim: to collect stories that encourage readers to ask ‘and then what happened’? Quite well, I think — for all the criticisms I might make of some 0f these stories, they’re rarely dull. I’m wary of saying that any anthology has ‘something for everyone’ — but I think Stories comes close.

Joe Hill, ‘The Devil on the Staircase’ (2010)

And so, we reach the climax of the anthology, and this is a great way in which to end it. Hill tells of a boy who lives in Italy (towards, I’d surmise, the end of the 19th century), in a mountain village accessible only by a network of staircases cut into the cliffs. The boy has eyes for his cousin, Lithodora, and one day kills her lover in the heat of the moment. He then encounters a devil in the form of a child, who gives him a tin bird that sings a beautiful song when told lies.

Hill’s telling has the flow of a folktale; the rhythm of his prose is emphasised by the downward slopes in which the text is arranged on the page. Add to this a neat metaphorical undercurrent (the tin bird comes to represent the spread of propaganda), and you have a fine story indeed.

Rating: ****

Elsewhere
Joe Hill’s website

Elizabeth Hand, ‘The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon’ (2010)

A museum exhibit designer takes it upon himself to restage the first flight of the Bellerophon, a Heath Robinson-esque aircraft which crashed in mysterious circumstances, and of which only a few seconds of film footage survives. At fifty pages, this is the longest story in the anthology — but it zips along so briskly that it feels only half its length. Told with brio, Hand’s tale is great fun, and saves a moment of real poignancy for the end.

Rating: ***½

Elsewhere
Elizabeth Hand’s website

Michael Moorcock, ‘Stories’ (2010)

I don’t quite know what to make of this. ‘Stories’ is the first-person account of a magazine editor reflecting on his friendship with a writer named Rex Fisch, who has recently committed suicide. The idea of telling stories in both fiction and real life runs through this piece, and Moorcock is doing something of this himself here — his narrator is named ‘Mike’ and apparently modelled on himself, whilst Rex Fisch and the other characters are apparently fictional. I’ve no idea how far Moorcock has fictionalised his own life in the story — and therein lies the difficulty I had connecting with it.

The portrait of the characters’ lives and relationships is interesting enough; but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to know more about Moorcock’s life (and, perhaps, his work) to really appreciate this story. That’s why I’ve ended up feeling ambivalent about it.

Rating: ***

Elsewhere
‘Moorcock’s Miscellany’ website

Kurt Andersen, ‘Human Intelligence’ (2010)

A twist on the staple sf idea of an alien spy living on Earth, disguised as a human. In this story, the alien’s Arctic monitoring station is discovered by a scientist; the twist is that the scientist , far from trying to deny that she has found an extraterrestrial artefact, is so enthused at the thought of meeting an alien that she tracks down the spy’s house and pays him a visit. The knowingness of Andersen’s telling makes ‘Human Intelligence’ a pleasure to read; but, unfortunately, after such a good beginning, the story seems to fizzle out after a shaggy-dog-style revelation.

Rating: ***½

Elsewhere
Kurt Andersen’s website

Al Sarrantonio, ‘The Cult of the Nose’ (2010)

This is fun: a researcher believes he has found evidence of a vast historical conspiracy involving people who wear ‘the Nose’ (exactly what kind of nose is left to the reader’s imagination) — but is he right, or delusional? Sarrantonio keeps it nicely ambiguous, and amusing, too.

Rating: ***½

Tim Powers, ‘Parallel Lines’ (2010)

Caroleen Erlich reaches her seventy-third birthday, her first without her twin sister BeeVee. But it looks as though BeeVee may turn out to be as domineering in death as she was in life, because she’s writing out messages with Caroleen’s right hand. I like the way this is introduced and handled – Powers’ down-to-earth treatment gives the idea a freshness –but I don’t think the ending lives up to the promise of that beginning.

Rating: ***½

Elsewhere
‘The Works of Tim Powers’ website

Jeffery Deaver, ‘The Therapist’ (2010)

Martin Kobel is a behavioural therapist who specialises in treating patients who have (he believes) been affected by ‘nemes’ — bodies of negative energy that cause people to commit harmful actions. On encountering Annabelle Young, a teacher who has clearly come under the influence of a neme, Kobel is so concerned for her pupils that he ‘treats’ Annabelle by stabbing her to death. A court case follows, which hinges on the question of whether or not Kobel is insane.

There are two modes of narration in ‘The Therapist’, and it’s along those lines that my opinion of the story divides. I think the passages narrated in first-person by Kobel are very good, as the journey in his company becomes ever more disturbing; but I found the courtroom sequences rather dry by comparison. Still, Deaver keeps the state of Kobel’s mind nicely ambiguous, and the twists of the court case pay off in a very satisfying way.

Rating: ***½

Elsewhere
Jeffery Deaver’s website

Jonathan Carroll, ‘Let the Past Begin’ (2010)

‘Let the Past Begin’ sits squarely in the middle of what I’d think of as ‘Jonathan Carroll territory’, in that it gives the impression of a world that, if only you scratched the surface, would be far stranger than it appears. Carroll’s protagonist hears from his pregnant girlfriend, Ava,  about the time she visited a fortune-teller/sage in Azerbaijan, whose powers (Ava believes) were genuine, and who told Ava that her child was cursed — its life would be the same as its father’s, in every major detail. The thing is, Ava doesn’t know whether the father is her current boyfriend or her ex, Eamon Reilly — and Eamon’s life is one that Ava would certainly not wish her child to live.

Carroll evokes ambiguity very well in this piece — if Ava’s oracle appears beyond belief, the known details of Eamon’s life are almost as strange, in their own way. I didn’t quite feel the full affect of fantasy that I have from some of Carroll, but this is still a fine story.

Rating: ***½

Elsewhere
Jonathan Carroll’s website

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