Some short story anthologies begin with an introduction, others with a manifesto, usually having to do with this being an astounding feat of genre bending in a marketplace where everyone else hews to genre. Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, is the latter kind of collection, accompanied by a manifesto and a mission statement.
Stories draws from a list of writers that leans more to the lit crowd, and like most genre defying collections that draw together authors, many of whom have little experience with the genres, let alone bending them, the outcome is messy and amateurish.
There are quite a few stories about men going mad, in two of them they might either be mad or confronting an evil that no one else believes in. There are multiple stories of sibling rivalry between a dominating and mild-mannered pair, two of them are even twins. There are several Christmas stories, which must either have something to do with the timing or maybe the authors were at some point told this would be a Christmas anthology. How otherwise to explain several stories about Santa Claus.
The actual quality varies wildly. The worst of the stories, “Fossil Figures” from Joyce Carol Oates, is from a lit figure, and written in the usual clunky mannered style she’s known for, complete with a childish plot and political rants, reminding you of something a college freshman would hand in to class. The best may be Neil Gaiman’s “The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains”, which despite his genre bending manifesto, is solidly genre, or Michael Moorcock’s “Stories”, whose opening pages are a knowing or unknowing critique of this collection, complete with mentions of posh agents dumping off genre slumming stories.
A lot of the stories are so bad they could only have been dumped here. Richard Ford’s “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” is completely gibberish. Gene Wolfe’s “Leif In The Wind” is yet another “astronauts going mad on a long distance voyage” story. “Mallon The Guru” from Peter Straub is pointless and “Goblin Lake” from Michael Swanwick has the usual problems with his work.
But on the other hand there’s Roddy Doyle’s entertaining “Blood”, Stewart O’Nan’s “Land of the Lost”, Kat Howard’s “A Life In Fictions” and Jonathan Carroll’s :”Let the Past Begin” that make up for them. Not enough maybe, but it’s a start. And most of the rest are somewhere in between.
Do the stories in “Stories” fulfill Gaiman’s manifesto of making you want to turn the page to see what happens next? Mostly they don’t. Even the better stories aren’t pageturners, mostly they fall into the category of, “And things get worse from there.” There are occasional eye-opening surprises, like the ending of “Blood”, which shifts your perspective. Mostly though they do the expected thing and if you don’t know what’s coming next, then you haven’t read many stories before.
The worst material comes from the authors with the least experience writing the supernatural, horror, fantasy or science fiction, and that repudiates the genre bending manifestos, because to know how bend a genre, you first have to know it. Without that, attempts by Kurt Andersen or Joyce Carol Oates are not just poor, they read as if they were written by amateurs, because they are.