Stories: All-New Tales, Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, Headline Review RRP£18.99, 432 pages
Anthologies are almost as hard to review as they are to edit. This is especially true when, as here, the emphasis of the editors is on something intangible rather than on some very obvious organising principle. We can judge collections of stories about cute cats or left-handed socket wrenches on the grounds of how they fulfil their brief and open out a simple set of categories into something more varied. An anthology such as this – where the emphasis is on story and narrative drive – is always going to produce essentially subjective reactions.
It’s clear from Neil Gaiman’s introduction that he and Al Sarrantonio, when they invited a number of authors to contribute to this book, made their sole requirement that the stories be involving and attention-keeping. Gaiman argues that “and then what happened?” is something which writers should keep perpetually in mind. Several of these stories are tightly plotted or, which is not the same thing, packed with incident, enough for a piece two or three times their length. Jeffrey Deaver’s “The Therapist” almost convinces us of its main narrator’s pseudo-scientific theory of rationalised demonic possession, then shifts our involvement to the prosecutor who has to go after him when he acts on his theories, and then back to the narrator’s further understanding of the implications of his own ideas.
The authors represented here are a mixture of writers identified with particular genres (Gene Wolfe with science fiction and horror and Michael Marshall with the paranoid thriller) and those who fit more closely into the “literary” mainstream (Joyce Carol Oates and Kurt Anderson) or middlebrow bestsellerdom (Joanne Harris, Jodi Picoult). Most of them, though, are working cheerfully outside their comfort zones. Both Roddy Doyle and the African American private-eye writer Walter Mosley contribute vampire stories, and Harris’s tale of dying gods duking it out on the streets of New York is a long way from the provincial France of her most famous works.
Ultimately, though, the test of such an anthology is that the stories in it make us want to read them again. Michael Moorcock’s fictionalised memoir of the world of pulp magazines and the 1960s avant garde is fascinating for far more than its thinly disguised gossip. It makes interesting suggestions as to why it is that so many artists and impresarios live rackety, bohemian lives. It is as intriguing for what it implies as for what it says: there is a human cost to the making of art, and sometimes artists can send the bill on to others.
Gaiman himself is often at his best when he is consciously at his least ingratiating and comfortable – charming pseudo-memoirs of alien encounters such as his famous story “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” are all very well, but his contribution here, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”, is altogether bleaker and more challenging. A Jacobite supporter in search of gold asks to be guided to a supernatural cave; both he and his guide have objectives of their own. We expect things not to be as they seem, yet there is a particular grimness to how things work out.
Elizabeth Hand’s “The Maiden Flight of Macauley’s Bellerophon” is possibly the best piece in the collection. Friends who used to work together at an aerospace museum try to forge a lost film of an experimental plane that killed its designer to lighten the deathbed of a woman they each loved, in their way.
Like many of the best stories here, Hand’s keeps us turning pages in anticipation of unexpected resolution, but also makes us reflect on writing itself and the way that creativity is endlessly redirected by contingency and happy inspiration. Stories are about events, but also about process.
Roz Kaveney is the author of ‘Battlestar Galactica: Investigating Flesh, Spirit and Steel’ (IB Tauris)