If you have never loved with such luminous fidelity as to await a dead lady at a crossroads at midnight, then the question of why it is that Romania produces fewer vampires now than in old times must seem insoluble to you. Timidity becomes its own excuse; and perhaps you have not dared even to see your own spouse naked, much less encoffined. Many there are nowadays who refrain from kissing a dead forehead. A wife dies alone in a hospital bed, in the small hours when the nurse sits down to sleep, while the janitor rests his chin on the handle of his mop. At mid-morning the husband peeks in to identify her; next comes the undertaker to nail her up, or, as may be, the coroner to slit her open. Ashes to ashes, promises the minister, but should she refrain from decaying in that fashion, who will be apprised of that wondrous miracle except for the true heart who comes to the crossroads at midnight to share a kiss? Satan, they say, can speak even from a rotting skull – a mere assertion seized upon by you who have never loved bravely. Insisting over the sad sighs of your conscience that you would not be able to distinguish her from Satan, you decline to visit your own wife, forgetting that loneliness is the Devil's work – and what could be more lonely than a beautiful dead lady returning to the cemetery without a kind embrace from anyone? ("The Faithful Wife," p. 199)
William T. Vollmann's latest story collection, Last Stories and Other Stories, is not for the faint of heart. The thirty-two short stories in this collection are set in locales such as Bosnia, Trieste, "Bohemia," Mexico, Norway, Japan, Paris, Toronto, and Buenos Aires, yet each possesses certain commonalities with the other stories. In these tales of death and hauntings, of love beyond the grave and putrescent lust, Vollmann explores certain aspects of human desire in a fashion that can leave some readers squeamish. For those who are not warned off by this, Last Stories and Other Stories may be one of the more memorable ghost story collections in recent years.
In several of his stories, especially the early ones set in 1990s Bosnia, Vollmann carefully mixes together fact and fiction (the notes at the back of the book testify to the thoroughness of his research). It is no spoiler to say that death frequently greets lovers in Last Stories and Other Stories. It's how Vollmann presents death as another aspect of desire and lust that makes for some interesting turns of phrase. In the opening story, "Escape," a Bosniak and a Serb are cut down crossing a bridge in Sarajevo during the 1990s siege of that city. There is a Romeo and Juliet sort of quality about this tale, of two lovers defying the nationalists who sought to divide the region into countries divided by a common language. The final paragraph captures well some of the themes that Vollmann explores in later stories:
At least they agreed that Zlata had been shot first. It must have been an abdominal wound, for she kept screaming (for hours, they said, but I hope they exaggerated) in that puddle of light which the enemy had trained on No Man's Land. Zoran, trying hopelessly to drag her back into the besieged city, was shot in the spine with a single rifle bullet, then shot again in the skull, which, considering the distance, might be called fine marksmanship, although on the other hand the snipers had had months to learn the range. Some embellishers claim that Zlata had not yet escaped her agony even at sunrise. Whether or not this is so, everyone agrees that the corpses of the two lovers lay rotting for days, because nobody dared to approach them. Eventually, when the international press made a story out of it, it became an embarrassment, and another truce was arranged. And it turned out just as Zoran had promised his bride, for they were buried in one grave. (p. 10)
This story, based on the real-life tragedy of Bosko Brkić and Admira Ismić, introduces a couple of elements that recur later. First is the tragedy of their love. Several stories in this collection, including "The Faithful Wife" quoted at the beginning of this review, tie love and death, lust and rot together in unholy unions. Vollmann tends to linger over these moments of transformation, when the soul departs the body, creating narrative dissonance. Readers, accustomed perhaps to seeing love with life, may be startled to read detailed, matter of fact descriptions of lovers' bodies rotting together for days, or a narrator pining for the good old days of faithful husbands and vampiric wives. Yet somehow Vollmann manages to make these stories work despite the often questionable content.
There are also direct connections between the stories and sections. Characters whose fates the reader learns in one tale appear as legends or secondary characters in another. Ghosts are peripatetic creatures, gloaming entities whose haunts frighten yet entice us. Vollmann utilizes this seeming contradictory quality to great effect in many of his tales. "The Judge's Promise" in particular illustrates this odd appeal that the ghastly has for many of us:
But often he returned to that black garden where the skulls basked like crocodiles, and the lovely blue undead women loitered in the grove of hand-trees, and there he tried calling on the demon Brulefer, who granted his prayer, so that all those women loved him happily. The deeper down he went, the more he began to believe, if only to console himself, that he must be digging for something, perhaps the water of life or death, although the glowing, coagulating atmosphere he swam into down there addled him so much that he sometimes hardly gathered what he was about; nonetheless, you will be relieved to know that he remained capable of mapping and memorizing everything. Just as Bohemia's crown jewels lie hidden underground near Saint Wenceslas's tomb, so the precious matter of the vampires and their kin entombed themselves right beneath the cemetery of H______, which after all is the center of the world. (p. 265)
As he makes thematic and character connections between his stories, Vollmann explores certain concepts, particularly traditional gender roles, that verges perilously close to misogyny. This is not a casual sexism where women are viewed as lesser than men, but rather a sometimes active exploration of stories where women are the sacrificial victims, the despoiled virgins whose "virtue" has been seized from them by their rapists, the lustful vampires who yet return meekly to their living husbands. This content at times made me uneasy, although I suspect part of that was by intent, as if Vollmann perhaps were exploring the seedy underbelly of traditional ghost stories that revealing in its full rancidness the depravities and sexual inequalities so frequently associated with horror tales. It is not a topic easy to consider dispassionately, but it is one that will certainly affect the reader's enjoyment of this collection. For myself, realizing that discomfiting descriptions and analyses of these elements lie near, if not at, the center of these tales made it easier to read. Vollmann certainly does not shy from exploring the creepy elements inherent in ghost and horror fictions and for the most part he succeeds in crafting intricately woven tales that explore these issues through many angles, with only occasional moments of dull, monotonous prose.
Last Stories and Other Stories is not one of those collections that I would lightly recommend to others. Yet I do not regret reading it, despite the occasional moments where I would read a particularly graphic passage and wonder if I should continue. It is an intense collection, one that explores its themes with a precision that is remarkable considering the content material. It certainly is a memorable one, as some of Vollmann's expounding on his topic material have impressed themselves upon me, with some vivid dreams resulting. It is a gloriously troubling collection, one that has sparked more narrative lightning about me than most other collections combined have managed to do in recent years. Perhaps "haunting" is the best epitaph that I can give it. The question remains, however: do you want to be haunted by it?