“AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED?—four words that children ask, when you pause, telling them a story. The four words you hear at the end of a chapter. The four words, spoken or unspoken, that show you, a storyteller, that people care. The joy of fiction, for some of us, is the joy of imagination, set free from the world and able to imagine.”
These are literary rock star Neil Gaiman’s words that graced the first pages of Stories: All-New Tales, a compendium of twenty-seven bite-sized fiction by an eclectic set of tale-spinners and storytellers. Edited by master anthologist Al Sarrantonio and Gaiman himself, the stories comprising this collection do not fall under any umbrella genre; they’re simply written to celebrate good storytelling.
While most of the stories did succeed in making me go “I want to know what happens next!”, some just lacked the necessary ‘oil’ to propel themselves up to the five-star rung of my rating ladder. It’s a mixed bag—just like most anthologies—but as a whole I enjoyed it very much. Most of the contributors are immensely popular; I’ve heard positive things about them even if I haven’t read their works. This anthology then provided some sort of tasters for me, and after I turned the last page I have a new list of authors to keep tabs on.
Here are mini-reviews for my favorites and runner-ups from the collection, in no particular order:
•Fossil Figures by Joyce Carol Oates. A story that reads like a real parable, this is about the fates of twins who are each other’s yin and yang even when they’re still inside their mother’s womb. It’s the epitome of picturesque writing and rather peculiar but effective dialogues. I sort of expected a ‘bang!’ at the end, but the imagery that closed it is haunting enough to stay with the readers.
•Wildfire in Manhattan by Joanne Harris. Basically it is a whimsical tale that reads like a twee descendant of Gaiman’s American Gods. The tale is set in the modern times where Norse deities are living among ordinary humans after the Ragnarok, working as restaurant owners, rock stars, and the like. But even with mortal facades, the gods are not safe from their nemeses. I enjoyed this one. The ex-trickster god Lucky/Loki is practically humor-on-legs that reading from his POV is such a fun experience, but the recycled premise and execution deducted a couple of stars from my rating. Who can blame me? I’ve seen this kind of thing with a better caliber (wiggles eyebrows at Gaiman).
•The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman. It is a fairytale with beguiling imagery and dark undertones reminiscent of Brothers Grimm’s works. The spotlight bounces from a dwarf’s search of a cave allegedly filled with gold to a revenge story involving a missing daughter. Magnificent as usual, this tale is a fine example of Gaiman’s magic with words. I liked how even the smallest of descriptions can tell a story on their own. Call me predictable, but this gem is one of the few in this collection that I loved.
•Weights and Measures by Jodi Picoult. This is a poignant account about a married couple emotionally and physically suffering in the wake of their daughter’s death. Nothing much happened, but damn if the heartbreaking lines and scenes didn’t find a chink in my emotional armor and widened the damage to a bigger fault. I will try reading Picoult’s longer works, I guess.
•A Life in Fictions by Kat Howard. This is an extremely inventive tale about a young woman who finds herself sucked into a story—literally—whenever her boyfriend writes fiction, with her as the muse. It may be flattering at first, but she realizes she can’t return from a story truly unscathed. It’s very quirky and I enjoyed it for the most part.
•Catch and Release by Lawrence Block. This is a tale about a serial killer who has a peculiar habit of catching and releasing his victims, rendering himself a ‘vegetarian’ criminal…but not really. It’s a thrilling and creepy ride and it can keep you on the edge of your seat.
•The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand. One of the longest in the anthology, this is an affecting story about three men who attempt to create a present-of-sorts for a dying friend, who has a penchant for things concerning aircrafts and their histories. I guess the piece’s length has something to do with the characters becoming easier to love page by page. In general it’s a touching story.
•The Therapist by Jeffrey Deaver. Divided into mini-chapters, this story is about a behavioral specialist who saves people—in his unconventional way—from ‘neme’, a virus-like entity that purportedly possesses a person and causes its host to relinquish emotional control. It’s intriguing and very engrossing, especially the courtroom scenes. There’s a little science fiction feel to it at first, what with the long but good explanations of ‘neme’ that engulfed almost the first mini-chap. I’m commending this for cleverly toying not only with the psyches of the characters but also of the readers.
•The Cult of the Nose by Al Sarrantonio. A tale about a man’s obsession over a cult whose members appear in scenes of carnage and ruin. I find it tedious at first, but a second reading rewards me with a realization that the man’s state of mind is better explored with the writing style. There’s a wee shock of a twist at the end. Now that I think of it, it is a tad similar with The Therapist.
•The Devil on the Staircase by Joe Hill. Amazingly written both form-wise and content-wise, this story centers on an Italian boy who meets the spawn of Lucifer at the bottom of the staircase of his hometown after committing a crime. I wish to read more works in the same vein soon, if ever Hill has more of them.
•Samantha’s Diary by Dianna Wynne Jones. The lightest piece among the bunch, this is a rather cute story with shades of science fiction and backboned by the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. I find myself chuckling while reading it, even if most of the scenes are pretty predictable.
•Leif in the Wind by Gene Wolfe. This is perhaps one of the best speculative shorts in the compendium, zeroing in on the thirty-year, six-man space mission to an alien planet. Its ricocheting atmosphere of desperation and hope, reality and illusion, is a great plot device to build such a clever piece of science fiction.
The duds (most of which are not mentioned here) are not downright bad—they are either run-of-the-mill or they just failed to make me say the first four words of this review. Indeed, Stories: All New Tales is a treasure box of gems with a few stray rocks in it, but overall I loved it.