MORE SHAPES THAN ONE, by Fred Chappell (St. Martin’s Press: $17.95; 197 pp.) Stephen King says he still has his childhood fear that something malign lurks in the dark under his bed. It’s safe to say that Fred Chappell doesn’t. Several of these 13 stories feature ghosts, visions, evil books, post-apocalyptic worlds and the rest of the horror-tale apparatus, but in Chappell these seem to be the products of a cheerful exuberance rather than of the true horror writer’s conviction that life is rotten at the core.
Besides, this collection, like the elusive truths sought by Chappell’s protagonists, does indeed have “more shapes than one.” Some of these stories are whimsical meditations on figures from history, such as botanist Carl Linnaeus, composer Jacques Offenbach and four hapless, love-besotted women from Lapland who followed an 18th-Century French explorer back to Paris. Others are eerie but funny, such as one about rural sheriff’s deputies who have to deal with a dream “two stories tall and 500 yards wide . . . in consistency something like cotton candy” that blocks a North Carolina highway.
Chappell (“Brighten the Corner Where You Are”) is a skilled role-player who can imitate a variety of voices, from mock academic to down-home. Now and then, though, he shows us a flash of genuine emotion. Sometimes it’s anger: at the Frenchman who toys with the Lapp women and ruins their lives; at the police in 19th-Century Germany who drive a brilliant mathematician insane; at male chauvinism carried to such an extreme that, in one of his future worlds, “drovers” herd women like livestock and sell them like slaves.
Elsewhere, it’s a warmth that thaws the ice from many of the genres Chappell works in. One of the best stories here is straight realism, about a country singer whose sincere grief over his best friend’s death is what, ironically, propels him into the tawdry world of Nashville stardom. And another, about a lonely Carolina man who writes fantasy stories during the Depression and is harassed by federal agents who think he’s sending messages to a Red spy ring, is equally good as realism before Chappell turns it into something else--mainly, it seems, for the sheer fun of it.