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McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales

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McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon.

As things associated with McSweeney’s tend to do, this book comes with a manifesto. Or, at least, a manifesto-ish foreword from the editor, in which he decries the current dominance of “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story” in short fiction. This anthology (which grew out of an issue of McSweeney’s that Chabon guest-edited) attempts to provide an alternative to that, namely, a collection of plot-driven short stories in the general vein of the great short stories of the past (Chabon lists “The Monkey’s Paw,” “Rain,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as examples).

I’m sort of torn about the whole thing. As you can easily demonstrate by scanning the archives of this book log, I’m a big fan of plot-driven stories. On the other hand, though, I tend to prefer my thrilling tales without manifestoes attached…

The end result is something of a mixed bag. For the most part, the authors selected for this volume (those I recognize, anyway) pretty much do what they would’ve done anyway. Kelly Link turns in a bizarre little fantasy story, Glen David Gold submits a story about murderous historical entertainers, Elmore Leonard adds a cops-and-robbers tale (with a tip of the hat to High Noon), Steven King cops out by using a chapter of a forthcoming Dark Tower book (a move designed to piss me off), and Dave Eggers contributes a present-tense tale about an introspective thirty-something world traveler. Neil Gaiman and Harlan Ellison aren’t stylistically consistent enough to really be said to have “typical” material, but their contributions aren’t especially surprising in form or content.

Some of these are also practically indistinguishable from “plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory stories”– the Eggers and Gold stories are surprisingly slow for stories in which a fair bit happens (an ascent of Kilamanjaro in the Eggers story, and several murders in Gold’s), and there’s really not much to Michael Crichton’s “Blood Doesn’t Come Out” or Aimee Bender’s “The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers.” I was also disappointed in Gaiman’s ghost story, which didn’t seem to really hang together, and Chabon’s own contribution is the sort of alternate history that really annoys me (cameo appearances by recognizable real-world people several decades after the point of divergence from our own history). Rick Moody’s “The Albertine Notes” is good, but suffers a bit from working the same territory as David Brin’s “A Stage of Memory”– having read and enjoyed Brin’s story years ago, I wasn’t blown away by the concept of a drug that lets you relive old memories. Moody goes in a different direction with his story, but I think it would’ve worked better if I hadn’t seen the central idea before.

There is some good stuff here, though, much of it from authors I haven’t read before, or whose other works bear little similarity to what they offer here. Nick Hornby’s “Otherwise Pandemonium” is a great Twilight Zone sort of story, and the stories by Carol Emshwiller and Laurie King are very effective. Michael Moorcock also contributes an alternate history with real people (a famous British detective is asked to clear Hitler of a murder rap in 1931), but pulls it off with enough panache that it was entertaining rather than annoying.

In the end, it’s a pretty good collection of stories– the ones that work are very good, and the ones that don’t work for me might for someone else– but there weren’t any stories here that really blew me away, the way that, say, “Erase/Record/Play” by John M. Ford and “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang did when I read the first to Starlight anthologies. If you’re a fan of any of the authors included, it’s probably at least worth checking it out from the library, but I wouldn’t expect this collection to overthrow the contemporary literary order and banish plotlessness forevermore.

(Originally posted to The Library of Babel.)

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About Chad Orzel

  • I’m only about halfway through the book, I’ve gotten sidetracked, but what struck me was that with the exception of the Elmore Leonard story, the collection seems like a really fat issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

    I haven’t read Ellery Queen’s or Alfred Hitchcock’s in many years, but crime fiction and SF are the only two pulp genres left standing.

    The title reminded me of Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns”