McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
Michael Chabon, editor
In his introduction to this truly disappointing collection of short stories, officially the 10th issue of Dave Eggers's literary quarterly McSweeney's, guest editor Michael Chabon explains that the impetus for this project came from his own boredom with the contemporary short story, the archetype of which he accurately describes as the "quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." He contrasts the laconic short fiction published today in The New Yorker and Harper's to the "ripping yarns" that appeared in both the pulps and the "great slick magazines" before 1950. And he notes that major writers from Poe to Hemingway crafted tales that embraced swift-moving narratives, exotic settings, and colorful characters, enjoying a wide readership and critical acclaim. Chabon is right, of course; short stories have become dull. But his effort to make them more fun to write and read by soliciting original stories in "the lost genres of short fiction" (horror, SF, crime, adventure) from both genre writers--Michael Crichton, Harlan Ellison--and leading literary lights--Rick Moody, Glen David Gold--is at best a failed experiment.
To begin with, very few of the tales are as "thrilling" as the collection's title promises. The strongest entries--Elmore Leonard's atmospheric U.S. marshal yarn "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name . . . ," Neil Gaiman's melancholy ghost story "Closing Time," Sherman Alexie's visceral zombie Western "Ghost Dance," Michael Moorcock's alternate-reality noir "The Case of the Nazi Canary," and Nick Hornby's slacker-Twilight Zone hybrid "Otherwise Pandemonium"--effortlessly recall the Golden Age of the pulps, bringing back the page-turning impulse to the form. Another compelling story is Eggers' "Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly," which superbly recounts a tragic ascent up Mount Kilimanjaro but is written in a realist mode that is out of place in a collection of fantastic tales. The remaining 14 stories range from the merely diverting (Carol Emshwiller's allegorical survivalist story "The General") to the annoyingly impenetrable (Stephen King's "The Tale of Gray Dick," set in his Dark Tower universe) to the just plain bad (Harlan Ellison's lifeless satire "Goodbye to All That"). A number of the writers recruited by Chabon seem at a loss as how to write compact stories of action or intrigue, setting up decent premises that fizzle.
Chabon, whose own entry is the first chapter of an intriguing serialized novel of alternate-history espionage, should have exercised more control over the stories submitted, demanding that they conform more rigidly to the boundaries of genre fiction. The incongruous inclusion of fairy tales, straightforward mysteries, and jokey, self-referential follies weakens the collection. More problematic is the point of this exercise. Excellent genre stories are published every year without McSweeney's help, as the numerous annual "best of" volumes devoted to horror, SF, fantasy, and mystery attest. So while encouraging nongenre writers to loosen up a bit may be an excellent tonic for them, for the sake of their readers they had best improve the quality of their genre work or leave such stories to the experts.