Neil Gaiman has said before, of his younger and less blackly clad days, that he was known, more than anything else, as the boy with the book. In the introduction to his and Al Sarrantonio's new anthology of stories called, simply enough, Stories, Gaiman writes again of being a child in constant need of tales—from family and friends and, especially, from books. He found in books something he did not find in movies or television. "It's the magic of fiction," he says, "you take the words and you build them into worlds" (p. 1). Alas, as happens, Mr. Gaiman grew up. He learned to make a living transforming his own dream worlds into words and books for other boys and girls to be seen with. He also began to wear a lot of black. It happened, though, as he writes in Stories, that as he got older, and found himself becoming a more discriminating reader (one aware, presumably, of terms like "good" and "bad" and "genre"), the thing he used to read for as a child, the magic that drove him from page to page, and book to book, seemed to have gone missing. He read still, but he did not care. Not the way he used to.
Generally, most anthologies have, at their heart, some specific criteria to guide the editor's hands in selecting stories. Perhaps it is to be a collection of African folk-tales or Carverian minimalists. Perhaps, it's to be a collection centered on some ancient and vexing debate—such as the forthcoming anthology edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier, Zombies vs. Unicorns. In selecting stories for Stories, though, Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio have set out to cull together those stories which, regardless of their geography or genre or stance on unicorns, contain that missing magic, that "lightning flash" that shows us "something we have already seen a thousand times as if we have never seen it before" and, in so doing, makes us wonder that all-important and childish wonder, "And then what happened?"
As a result, Stories exhibits a wonderfully odd collection of authors and tropes that one would not normally find sharing page space. Here one finds Joyce Carol Oates alongside Michael Moorcock, Diana Wynne Jones following Chuck Palahniuk, and Joe R. Lansdale swapping stories of war and murder with Richard Adams. There are also on display any number of goblin lakes, world wars, murderous fiends, failed marriages, nose cults, and polka dots. It can be a bit dizzying at times, all of this bouncing about from literary romance to pulpy horror to very old, benevolent aliens that live in modest Chicago apartments. But, it can also open new ways of seeing, as in the pairing of Jones and Palahniuk. Jones writes of love and obsession in the 23rd century. Palahniuk writes of the glaring sadness of a contemporary game show. Side by side, though, the reader sees how the two mirror each other, how a certain Palahniukian desperation shades Jones's tale of future romance and something very much like a Jonesian heart pumps a tender melancholy throughout Palahniuk's cynicism.
The way these stories mingle in the imagination of the reader, with their various tropes of lonely, hitchhiker-murdering men and sparkly bird-like aliens, is, of course, part of the point. Mr. Gaiman and Mr. Sarrantonio are ignoring and celebrating genre. They are, with their very title, putting forth the simple and child-like idea, that a story is a story is a story, whether it has trolls or robots or miscarriages. Bookstores, with their various sections highlighting and creating differences between stories, tend to make little boxes in our minds. They help us to discriminate between one kind of story and another. This is quite helpful when one knows that what one wants is giant alien robots, but it is less helpful when what one knows one wants is simply a good story.
The debated, bemoaned, and prophesized acceptance of science fiction, or other genres, into the mainstream has always seemed to me very much like the end of the world in that it is simultaneously always already happening, just on the brink of happening, and probably not worth spending all that much time worrying about. In the introduction to his collection Nightfall and Other Stories, first published in 1969, Isaac Asimov wrote of SF "gaining respectability" after World War II, of Heinlein breaking "the slicks' barrier" with a story in the Saturday Evening Post, and of how one could currently and routinely find SF in "wide circulation markets" such as Playboy. Since then, "wide circulation markets" for fiction such as Playboy have, for the most part, vanished. A multitude of niche markets that cater, more than ever, to specific types of stories have cropped up in their absence, providing more access and more opportunities to both readers and writers, possibly at the cost, though, of re-enforcing the idea that stories, ultimately, are defined more by their content than their quality. Stories, by not bothering to pay attention to genre, makes perhaps the most subtle and persuasive argument that can be made about this business, namely that it is, for the most part, just business, and it might be better if we all just got on with the reading and writing and loving of stories.
For all the variety in Stories, though, one thing that could be held against it is the fairly limited geographic scope on display. Its authors come, for the most part, from one side of the pond or the other. Despite the allusions to Scherezade, there is nigh an Arabian tale to be found. No Murakami, even. The British and American authors do, though, set their tales in a number of disparate locales, both geographical and generic. Joe Hill writes of devils on staircases in Positano, Italy. Jonathan Carroll gives us glimpses of New York and Baku. Gene Wolfe flies off into space with beautifully creepy birds. Walter Mosley spins a sort of politically charged vampire noir that, if you'll pardon the pun, resurrects some of the darkness and lust—as opposed to sparkle and celibacy—that a good vampire yarn needs.
In one of the longest and best stories here, "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon," Elizabeth Hand gives us a more or less realistic tale of madness and obsession, i.e. love, in which there is, at the edges, the glimmer of magic and lightning. It is the story of three men and a woman who worked at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The woman, Maggie, had created in her younger days an exhibit of inexplicable, possibly insane, and definitely hopeless contraptions with which humans had, at one time or another, attempted to defy gravity. One of these contraptions is the Bellerophon, an amalgamation of parasols, ailerons, and pedals which, in action, was a "brilliant whirl of color and motion, a child's dream of flight . . ." (p. 395). It happens in the story that the woman Maggie is dying and one man named Leonard sets out to recreate for her that childhood dream by building a scale model of the Bellerophon which he will launch and video and present to her at the hospice where she lays waiting and forgetting. Leonard is mad, there is little doubt, but it is a wonderful madness that pulls the other characters and the readers along, until, at the climax, on a windy beach, as we watch and wonder if and how such a mad contraption could ever fly, something glowy and mysterious—and, yes, a little bit like lightning—springs forth from the ocean and transforms everything.
Neil Gaiman may have lost something in his reading, but he has not forgotten what it looked like, or stopped believing that some such something exists. In attempting to create an anthology defined not by geography, genre, or style, he and Sarrantonio have built something of their own Bellerophon, something unwieldy and impossible, built from an assortment of vampires, devils, maidens, miscarriages, diaries, and moonbeams. It should, perhaps, collapse under its own generic and stylistic weight. And maybe sometimes it does. There are stories here that may, depending perhaps on how old and discriminating one has become, seem to be missing something. That's to be expected of any collection. And, true, it would've been nice to see a more diverse cultural background on display. But, even with all of that, more often than not, when the wind blows just right and the monster blinks in just the right way, these stories take flight and become something like Mr. Gaiman remembered, something like an undiscriminating boy's dream of story—something dark and borderless and essential. Something very much like magic.
Chris Kammerud is a writer and teacher living in Seoul, South Korea. He enjoys believing in things. Previous work has appeared in The Interstitial Arts Online Annex, Fiction Weekly, and Strange Horizons (see our archive). For more, visit his blog, The Magnelephant Review, or follow him on Twitter.