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McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories Paperback – November 16, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
With this varied collection of enchanting though not always astonishing tales, Chabon (who also edited McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales) aims for an anthology full of "genre bending and stylistic play." There's quite a lineup of writers taking a stab at "genre" fiction here: many expected (Margaret Atwood, Stephen King), but a few surprises as well, and a newcomer or two. Atwood offers a fantastical tale of a human "lusus naturae" (freak of nature) who suffers from a nameless disease that results in yellow eyes, red fingernails and fangs—how does such a creature fit into a family? Jonathan Lethem's charming "Vivian Relf," which concerns two strangers who seem familiar to each other and who continue to cross each others' paths, is a kind of love story, but there are also tales creepy (Jason Roberts's "7C") and strange (China Miéville's "Reports of Certain Events in London"). Stephen King's "Lisey and the Madman" is full of engaging detail and feeling. While a couple of stories fail to reach the high-water mark, this collection will offer readers plenty of pleasure and perhaps even a sense of doing good (an endnote says that "this book benefits 826 Valencia," the San Francisco writing lab founded by Dave Eggers and Co.).
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From the Inside Flap
Michael Chabon is back with a brand-new collection that reinvigorates the stay-up-all-night, edge-of-the seat, fingernail-biting, page-turning tradition of literary short stories, featuring Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, Peter Straub, David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, Heidi Julavits, Roddy Doyle, and more!
Margaret Atwood- Lusus Naturae
David Mitchell- What You Do Not Know You Want
Jonathan Lethem- Vivian Relf
Ayelet Waldman - Minnow
Steve Erickson- Zeroville
Stephen King- Lisey and the Madman
Jason Roberts - 7C
Heidi Julavits- The Miniaturist
Roddy Doyle - The Child
Daniel Handler - Delmonico
Charles DAmbrosio - The Scheme of Things
Poppy Z. Brite - The Devil of Delery Street
China Mieville- Reports of Certain Events in London
Joyce Carol Oates - The Fabled Light-house at Via del Mar
Peter Straub - Mr. Aickmans Air Rifle
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The collection begins with Margaret Atwood's "Lusus Naturae" which immediately captures the spirit of the book with a romantic/gothic/science fiction entry. An ideal first piece, it sets the tone for the subsequent entries. Next is the remarkable David Mitchell with "What You Do Not Know You Want"; a noir-ish mystery with a supernatural twist. Readers of his recent "Cloud Atlas" will particularly enjoy this entry as it definitely echoes the themes and settings of that work. Moreover, like Atwood's entry, this blurring of genres adds to the cohesiveness of the work as a whole.
Jonathan Lethem's "Vivian Relf" carries things forward with an enigmatic romance written in a literary style. It is a classic short story, and a good change of pace which keeps the reader on their toes. Next is "Minnow" by Ayelet Waldman which probably had more of an impact on me than any other stories. It would be difficult to go into detail without spoiling the plot, but the themes surrounding parenthood are somehow both disturbing and reassuring at the same time. "Zeroville" by Steve Erickson just might be my favorite entry. His tale of a door hidden across the breadth of cinema, and just what it means, is fascinating and perfectly executed.
In "Lisey in the Madman", Stephen King proves that he is still the master of scene setting; no one can make you feel the heat of a noonday sun like him. However, this is also an interesting psychological/supernatural thriller, and if he does flesh it out into a novel (as is suggested) it could prove to be a remarkable work. "7C" blends hard science fiction and romance in perhaps the most original entry in the book. It's rare that quantum physics makes for exciting reading, but author Jason Roberts pulls it off nicely.
"The Miniaturist" by Heide Julavits is reminiscent of a "Twilight Zone" episode with all of the macabre scene setting and bizarre conclusion one would expect. "The Child" by Roddy Doyle is an excellent companion piece as it has the same sort of feel, but the motivations are far more vague and the twist at the end definitely leaves open a host of interpretations. "Delmonico" by Daniel Handler offers another nice change of pace in a fun little mystery that reads like a magic trick.
The next two entries are the only two that I have mixed feelings about. Both "The Scheme of Things" by Charles D'Ambrosio and "The Devil of Delery Street" by Poppy Z. Brite are well written, but neither really got of the ground. The first features superb scene setting and some fascinating characters, but the payoff was never really there, while the latter seemed to be building to a great conclusion, but ultimately fell flat in the end. I should emphasize that neither contribution is "bad" by any stretch, but compared to the other entries they just don't measure up.
Fortunately, the next two entries are superb, and along with "Zeroville" make up my top three for the collection. The first is what motivated me to buy the book in the first place, China Mieville's "Reports of Certain Events in London". As usual, he doesn't disappoint; while he maintains his thus far ubiquitous fascination with urban landscapes, he has once again gone in a totally unexpected direction that is reminiscent of Mark Danielewski's "House of Leaves", but entirely original. Next is Joyce Carol Oates' amazing "The Fabled Lighthouse of Vina Del Mar". The entire time I was reading it, I felt like I was reading a lost Edgar Alan Poe story, and sure enough on the last page the reader finds that the story is based upon the only surviving page of a lost Poe work. I should emphasize that this should in no way detract from Oates' writing, as she pays tribute even as she writes a wildly original piece that has some echoes of Lovecraft as well.
Finally, Peter Straub's enigmatic "Mr. Aickman's Air Rifle" provides the perfect conclusion to this collection. A nice touch is that following this entry is a brief biography/bibliography of each author for those who would like to further explore the contributors' work.
Generally speaking, one expects an ensemble collection to be a mixed bag, and one crossing numerous genres, even more so. Gladly, Michael Chabon has produced in "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories" that is informally excellent even as it accomplishes in breathtaking fashion its goal of breaking down the barriers between genres. This collection is a real treat for fans of short stories, and is definitely not to be missed.
The best of the rest of the stories are Jonathan Lethem's "Vivian Relf," Peter Straub's "Mr. Aickman's Air Rifle," and Poppy Z. Brite's "The Devil of Delery Street." But there isn't a bad story in the entire book, making this one well worth a read.
What's wrong with these stories? They're well written (mostly--Roddy Doyle's story was excruciating, like taking a bath in battery acid) but, with few exceptions, lackluster. A run-down is as follows:
Atwood "Lusus Naturae" - funny voice, good little story
Mitchell "What You Do Not Know You Want" - decent noir feel, deus ex ending
Lethem "Vivian Relf" - boring, boring, boring, no plot
Waldman "Minnow" - boring, predictable psychological horror bleh
Erickson "Zeroville" - I couldn't even remember what this story was about and I read it two days ago
King "Lisey and the Madman" - great voice, amazing how King can take a moment of time and stretch it
Roberts "7C" - excellent, horrifying, weird
Julavits "The Miniaturist" - predictable, and when it's not, it's just dumb
Doyle "The Child" - I hate his repetitive, dull style; might have been good in a different writer's hands
Handler "Delmonico" - noirish, not bad, but predictable
D'Ambrosio "The Scheme of Things" - forgettable
Brite "The Devil of Delery Street" - boring, plotless, no wonder she stopped writing horror
Mieville "Reports of Certain Events in London" - weird but lacking tension
Oates "The Fabled Lighthouse at Vina del Mar" - chilling, fascinating, well done
Straub "Mr. Aickerman's Air Rifle" - okay, but sort of pointless
So there you have it. Not sure I would recommend this book. I would try The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror instead.
Incredibly well written stories by a series of also incredible authors, from stalwarts like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates.
They're all weird. They're all genre of some kind.
Some fall flat. Some take awhile to get up and go. Some are too easy to see coming.
Of especial note, is 7C by Jason Roberts.
Great collection. Go read it. Some stories are not great to read before bed. You could get all freaked out. If you like getting freaked out, well, good.