FICTION

THE RETURN OF COUNT ELECTRIC & Other Stories by William Browning Spencer (The Permanent Press: $21.95; 224 pp.) Here's a novelty: Short stories that actually are stories; beginnings and endings, that sort of thing. You remember. None of those "extended metaphors" the author deplores. These are stories with instant insights, with humor, with just enough malice to keep the reader honest. Wonderful, most of them; weird, all of them.

In the title piece a mother, deceased, leaves her son a letter about an inventive serial killer. " 'Mark,' it began like a shout from the back door. 'Dear God help me, I think your father is Count Electric.' " A way-out Florida Christmas parable features a ragged but resourceful family who decorate their tree with mousetraps on "Omen Day"; the one whose snare bags the the best critter gets to be the Chosen. . . . In what is possibly the world's only short story starring entomologists, a wasp man and a spider man battle it out in Brazil over territorial rights--not theirs, their bugs. "Pep Talk" treats of a jilted boyfriend who learns to love his own voice. ("I'm not, after all, deranged. It's more like I would pass myself in the hall and exchange a few words.")

Spencer borrows, outrageously and unabashedly, and then twists. "Snow's" protagonist is indeed Sadie Thompson. No apology to Maugham: "We live on a small planet and it's time we stopped the profligate creation of new characters and used the perfectly viable ones that already exist."

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