Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ex Libris: Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio's Stories: All-New Tales

You will know the best stories by heart.

I find that any book and/or anthology that calls itself 'Stories' has a lot of guts. But then again, when you've got the very popular Neil Gaiman as your editor, I suppose you can go all-balls out, which is why we have Stories: All-New Tales as edited by Gaiman (natch) and Al Sarrantonio.

With this anthology, Gaiman gave a bunch of writers the stated goal of coming up with stories that fulfill the storybound promise of getting the reader to ask the Four Important Words: "And then what happened?" Likewise, he asked them not limit themselves to genre or tropes (which is always either a way to raise the bar on good writing or a backhanded compliment, take your pick).

So does it work? Personally, I like writer Ryan Britt's attempt to define what makes a good anthology, which is: "the key to a good SFF anthology is to have a specific enough thesis for why the fiction belongs together, but not too limiting as to make the anthology one-note." Very true. Applying this to the anthology, it's certainly very ambitious-- and ambiguous, which probably works to Gaiman's advantage. It also helps that the editors have managed to attract some top-notch names to submit to this anthology, whether mainstream (like Roddy Doyle, Joyce Carol Oates and Jodi Picoult) or genre (Joe R. Lansdale, Michael Swanwick and Gene Wolfe).

So taking Gaiman's advice, I asked the said question after I finished each story. Some of the stories seemed to be written with the Four Important Words in mind-- like Joanna Harris' "Wildfire in Manhattan" and Lawrence Block's "Catch and Release"-- and did it well enough. Some stories failed to hit the mark, like Doyle's "Blood" and Walter Mosley's "Juvenal Nyx". And some stories-- like Elizabeth Hand's "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerphon", Kurt Anderson's "Human Intelligence" Lansdale's "The Stars are Falling" and Joe Hill's "The Devil on the Staircase"-- were simply great that it didn't matter whether the story answered the question.

(In particular, as the anthology's ender, Hill's almost fairy-tale like story is written in a format that's shaped like a staircase, which makes it doubly enjoyable. On the other hand, Gaiman's own story in the anthology, "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" is undeniably solid Gaimanesque, something that all of his fans would like. But whether his story answers his own question though is not as obvious.)

With all of its hits-and-misses, I can honestly say you won't regret picking up this collection. I suppose you have to hand it to Gaiman and Sarrantonio that they had enough editorial drawing power that they managed to get some good names to write some great stories for their anthology. Go on and pick up a copy. It's definitely recommended. (Rating: Four paws out of four.)

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