Although this will not be a regular feature, I do plan to cover over the next couple of Sundays some of the short fiction that I've been reading lately, whether it be in book form (anthology or single-author short story collection) or magazine (I just began my one year subscription to Weird Tales and time/energy permitting, I'll try to be better about covering some of the better online e-zines out there, but there are no guarantees, as I am trying to cut back on my time in front of a computer). This weekend, I finished reading the following four 2008 short story collections: Kelly Link, Pretty Monsters; Jeremy C. Shipp, Sheep and Wolves; Jeffrey Ford, The Drowned Life; John Langan, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. I will be using more of a capsule format in reviewing each of these books (and for future short fiction reviews), although I may provide a quote or two to underscore certain points I want to make. Now on with the show, I suppose...
In her first two short story collections, Stranger Things Happen (2001) and Magic for Beginners (2005), Kelly Link established a reputation for writing quirky, imaginative stories that combined B-movie staples such as zombies with settings that were simultaneously very banal and haunting in feel. Pretty Monsters is a collection of nine stories, marketed as Young Adult literature, that reprints four stories from these first two collections, along with five newer pieces. In virtually each of these tales, the protagonists are either children or adolescents. Sometimes, as in the case of "The Specialist's Hat," the children are inquisitive, wanting to know what it is like to be Dead, while in others, such as the eponymous "Pretty Monsters," the theme revolves around discovering one's lusts and desires:
The next hour was the best hour of Clementine's life. Two months earlier she'd persuaded tenor David Ledbetter that it would be really, really special if they broke into the elementary school in the middle of the night. One thing had led to another and they'd lost their virginity together in the first-grade reading hut, and even though the whole thing had been kind of a catastrophe, ever since then David Ledbetter seemed to have this idea that in order to keep Clementine happy he had to come up with new and better locations. It was making Clementine crazy.Such scenes serve to illustrate Link's knack of capturing the craziness of growing up. For those of us who are nearing middle age, reading such tales perhaps reminds one of making up stories why so-and-so was horrid, or what really lies beyond the horizon or down below the sewers (alligators? Rat-men? giant cockroaches?). Link's matter-of-fact deadpan delivery serves to ground the Unreal in a very "realistic" setting; it is easy to empathize with the characters, leading to payoffs that almost always are worth the effort put into imagining oneself in such a bizarre situation. Each of Link's nine stories contains these elements and while I would recommend not reading all of them at once (I spread my reading over a month's time, as I began to burn myself out on reading similarly-styled tales too quickly), it certainly is a novel that I would recommend for most any teen and above.
She and Cabell didn't even kiss. Nobody saved anybody's life, and Lucinda Larkin began to scream halfway through Beauty and the Beast because Clementine hadn't remembered to fast-forward through the scene where the singing candlestick did something scary that Lucinda Larkin had never been able to explain. They had to make her promise not to tell Dancy. (p. 366)
If Link's stories contain banal discussions among rather odd situations, then Jeremy C. Shipp's debut collection, Sheep and Wolves, makes for a truly bizarro-type feel. Take for example the opening to the first story, "Watching:"
You don't have to enjoy watching while Gerald masturbates onto his first cousin, or Nadine carefully chokes herself with an antique bonnet, or Carter craps into an urn that he stores under the kitchen sink. You just have to pretend. You have to sit back, sniff the cinnamon stick that you keep hidden in your glove, and give them what they want (p. 7).If the above paragraph didn't drive you away screaming, then good, because many of Shipp's stories operate on such a cacophonous clash of imagery and character/story advancement. In some cases, such as in "American Sheep," this literary technique works well; in others it is sometimes more "miss" than "hit," although taken as a whole, I found Shipp's stories to be provocative, attention-grabbing, and containing quite a few insights into the brutal insensitivity that pervades modern American culture. While I wouldn't recommend this collection to those who prefer more staid storytelling forms, I am glad that I did read this book and will certainly consider more offerings from Shipp in the future.
Jeffrey Ford has won or been nominated for several short fiction awards over the past decade, including a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2007 for his second story collection, Empire of Ice Cream. In his third story collection (and first to be published by HarperColllins, who publishes his novels), The Drowned Life, Ford has collected sixteen recent stories that I believe are the equal to any that appeared in his previous collection.
One thing that has struck me about Ford's stories in the past (and which certainly holds true here) is how so many of them have this "everyday, everyman" sort of feel about them. Take for example this scene from "The Drowned Life:"
The place was enormous, row upon row of shelved dead fish, their snouts sticking into the aisle, silver and pink and brown. Here and there a gill still quivered, a fin twitched. "A lot of fish," thought Hatch. Along the way, he saw a special glass case that held frozen food that had sunk from the world above. The hot dog tempted him, even though a good quarter of it had gone green. There was a piece of a cupcake with melted sprinkles, three French fries, a black Twizzler, and a red-and-white Chinese take-out bag with two gnarled rib ends sticking out. He hadn't had any lunch, and his stomach growled in the presence of the delicacies, but he was thinking of Rose and wanted to talk to her (pp. 11-12).Although this story features a third-person limited point-of-view, one of the things I've noted about Ford's stories is the tendency to create vivid characters whose thoughts and emotions are on display for the reader to read and to process. Combined with evocative scenes such as the one above, there often is a nostalgic feel to many of the character interactions, even though in many cases this sense of comfort and familarity is overturned by what transpires during the stories. For these reasons, Ford's stories tend to stick in my head longer than most others do and I was pleased to discover that The Drowned Life contains excellent stories such as "The Manticore Spell" and "Night Whiskey," among others. In fact, if I weren't so greedy, I would have entertained the thought of shipping this collection to a female friend of mine living overseas, as this is one of those rare quality tales that I would want everyone in my inner circle of friends to read.
Speaking of Ford, I remember him praising John Lanagan on his LiveJournal a little over a month ago. After finishing reading his debut story collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters tonight, I have to share with Ford's assessment of Langan's comparison with a Glen Hirshberg (even though I think Langan's collection is stronger than Hirshberg's 2007 WFA-nominated American Morons). Dude can write some evocative, often creepy tales.
Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters contains four stories and a novella. Each of them contains elements of traditional tales such as the ghost tale or a study in the flawed protagonist and his/her downfall. Every scene in his stories moves the plot forward, develops the characters just a bit further. Take for example this scene in "Laocöon, or the Singularity:"
In a way, those last two sentences summarize the fates of many of Langan's protagnonists. Like bulls being dragged off to the slaughter, these characters struggle mightily against fates that are sometimes ambiguous, othertimes horrorible in their inevitability and inexorableness. But Langan's approach to arrive at these tales' denouements is a good one. The reader is engaged in his protagonists' lives, their struggles, and eventually in their ends. And unlike a great many other story collections, this one was uniformly good; if I had to pick a favorite, the final tale, the one quoted above, would be it, but it is a very short distance between it and the other tales. Highly recommended collection.
Of course, no one did. He watched the class's eyes dip down to escape catching on his as they swept the room. No point in dragging things out. "Virgil describes Laocöon as crying out. He says the cries were 'appalling,' awful, which makes sense. The guy's getting crushed to death by a pair of snakes. Who wouldn't cry out? Look at the statue, though." He lowered the lights again. "The son to Laocöon's right is already succumbing to the snakes. The son to his left is trying to step out of the coils, shake them off. Look at the expression on that son's face. Is he angry with his father for what he's brought down on them, for his inability to save them? Laocöon's struggling mightily, and he appears to be reasonably muscular, but the look on his face tells the whole story, doesn't it? Pain, failure - he knows what's coming, and if he doesn't understand the reason for it - which maybe he does: if he was shrewd enough to recognize the Trojan Horse for what it was, maybe he understood what was happening to him and his sons - anyway, he knows that he doesn't have a chance. When the gods have it in for you, you're done..." (p. 199).
Kelly Link: October 2, 2008 (US), Hardcover. Publisher: Viking Press.
Jeremy C. Shipp: November 15, 2008 (US), Hardcover, Tradeback. Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press.
Jeffrey Ford: November 4, 2008 (US), Tradeback. Publisher: Harper Perennial.
John Langan: November 30, 2008 (US), Hardcover. Publisher: Prime.