Let’s face it: If Homer or Virgil were writing today, their work would probably get shelved in the fantasy section of the bookstore rather than in “Classics of Western Literature.” “Oh, c’mon,” I imagine some bookseller saying, “the publisher says this ‘Iliad’ thing is a serious work about gods and war. Really? Been there already!”
Whenever a sorcerer enters the scene, or a demon flits across the page, some kind of literary depreciation effect still sets in (though the tide is changing). If you really want a serious, high-minded lesson from a book, the old prejudice goes, it has to come from somewhere else: usually those stories that cling with white knuckles to realism.
It should come as no surprise that Neil Gaiman has been on a crusade, throughout his career, to break fantasy out of the genre ghetto — to get people to focus on the power of the storytelling, regardless of the gothic atmospherics. And there’s a single rule that he and Al Sarrantonio have used to compile their splendid anthology “Stories: All-New Tales” (William Morrow: 416 pp., $27.99). That rule involves just four words: "….and then what happened?” If a story makes you ask this question, then it deserves a place in their book.
It’s not only a simple strategy: It also works.
Here’s a collection that’s certainly steeped in the fantastic — underwater kingdoms and ghostly incidents in remote Indian villages, vampires and villains of both the human and diabolical varieties — but this collection also caters to another desire of most time-crunched readers: to have a deep experience of storytelling in a short amount of time.
Gaiman’s own story, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” is a perfect example of that — a tale of an unlikely duo on a quest for gold in a place called the Misty Isles. You can’t help but feel the venerable shade of Tolkien hovering over this story of a wee man’s revenge as he and his companion search for a haunted cave on the isle. But the story also has something else: the arc of a novel, that feeling of satisfaction, of getting a full caloric fictional load of incidents and characters in a fraction of the length.
The same is true of Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Stars Are Falling” — an absolute miracle of a story that seems, with its first line, about to embark on an occult tale: “Before Deel Arrowsmith came back from the dead, he was crossing a field by late moonlight in search of his home.”
In fact, Deel is an American soldier, lost in World War I and thought dead, who returns years later to his Texas home. He finds his wife Mary Lou more surprised than elated when he appears. When we learn that Mary Lou has been helped, in Deel’s absence, by an attractive neighboring farmer, Tom, her reaction makes sense. So, too, does the following exchange when Tom suddenly asks Deel to join him on a hunting trip:
“Mary Lou said to Tom, ‘You watch after him, Tom.’
“ ‘I will,’ Tom said.
“ ‘Make sure he’s taken care of,’ she said.
“ ‘I’ll take care of him.’
Yeah, sure he will.
Cormac McCarthy is credited with cornering the contemporary market on stories about people whose worlds are governed by the fierce, unsympathetic laws of nature. But Lansdale deserves his share: He’s got the sharp dialogue, the existential dead-ends, wicked irony and characters like Deel who cast a cold eye on life.
Joe Hill’s “The Devil on the Stairs” gives us both a supernatural encounter and a text that’s typeset to imitate those stairs. Joanne Harris shows a facility—and a lightness—with the lives of the Norse gods that you won’t find in Wagner’s operas (that’s for sure). When the rockstar Lucky (Loki) and his brother Arthur (“Our Thor”) encounter wolves of chaos in Manhattan, I never expected to feel such a thrill at runes being cast like boomerangs and lightning bolts. It’s exciting, and the whole time I was wondering…yes, you guessed it: And then what happens?
On the other matter mentioned earlier – that stories should teach us serious lessons about who we are—there are plenty of insights here. Just push aside the black crepe and the gothic props and you’ll find them. Joyce Carol Oates’ “Fossil Figures,” for instance, is a tale of twins—one an alpha-male, a heroic politician; the other a sickly, malformed, bold visual artist— who try to deny each other’s existence. No matter how hard they try, a bond remains—and it’s the only one that matters at the end of both of their lives.
On the surface, Roddy Doyle’s “Blood” is just an oddball story about a Dublin man obsessed with raw meat: At another level, it reminds you that each of us, however bland or ordinary we look, has a primal side that wants to be fed. Sarrantonio’s “The Cult of the Nose” seems to describe its narrator’s plunge into research on a strange sect—eventually, the reader wonders, how much of what he finds is just a distortion caused by his own traumas (he’s a Vietnam vet whose wife left him)?
Gaiman and Sarrantonio have sampled widely, and you’re going to find names here you may not expect—Jodi Picoult, for instance—and others that you may, like Jeffrey Ford, Michael Moorcock and Peter Straub. But that’s the point, right? These choices are meant to blur —or entirely erase—the lines usually separating genres. “Stories” is the perfect dark counterbalance to the smells of suntan lotion and barbecue smoke waiting for you this summer.
If you prefer summer chills from a much older set of writers, however, Michael Newton provides them in “The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories: From Elizabeth Gaskell to Ambrose Bierce” (Penguin: 416 pp., $15 paper). Since ghosts aren’t really supposed to have physical bodies, what harm can they do to us? Lafcadio Hearn asks this question in “Nightmare-Touch,” which is part-story, part-psychological examination. Hearn says our fear all stems from “an ancestral experience of nightmare” as well as from our own earliest childhood experiences. He includes a dreadful memory of his parents habitually locking him in his room at night, until he screamed: “Screaming regularly brought punishment; but it also brought back the light…"
W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” should be familiar to fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — it might even be an inspiration for the episode “Forever,” in which Buffy’s sister Dawn uses magic to bring their dead mother back to life. When grieving parents, in Jacobs’ tale, use a talisman to wish for their dead son’s return, there’s an eerie rapping at their door in the middle of the night. The husband realizes that their decision was “foolish and wicked” and struggles to reverse the wish before it’s too late.
This collection also includes Fitz-James O’Brien’s evocatively titled “What Was It?,” Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” (considered an influence on “The Turn of the Screw”) as well as that excellent cautionary story by M.R. James, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.”
In the case of this story, here’s a bit of advice: Don’t ever visit Templar ruins while on vacation, and if you must, PLEASE DO NOT take home the slightest relic — not even a harmless-looking, little whistle! You never know what may come looking for it.
Owchar is deputy book editor and writes the Siren’s Call, which appears monthly at https://www.latimes.com/books.