"For the last year or so I have been boring my friends, and not a few strangers, with a semi-coherent, ill-reasoned, and doubtless mistaken rant on the subject of the American short story as it is currently written. As late as about 1950, if I referred to 'short fiction, ' I might have been talking about any of the following kinds of stories: the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war or historical story; the romance story. Stories, in other words, with plots. A glance at any dusty paperback anthology of classic tales proves the truth of this assertion, but more startling will be the names of the authors of these ripping yarns: Poe, Balzac, Wharton, James, Conrad, Graves, Maugham, Faulkner, Twain, Cheever, Coppard.... Very often these stories contained enough plot and color to support an entire feature-length Hollywood adaptation; adapted for film and radio some of them, like 'The Monkey's Paw, ' 'Rain, ' 'The Most Dangerous Game, ' 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' have been imitated and parodied and had their atoms scattered in the general stream of the national imagination and the public domain. About six months ago, I was going on in this vein to Mr. Eggers, saying things like, 'horror stories are all psychology, ' and 'All short stories, in other words, are ghost stories, accounts of visitations and reckonings with the traces of the past.... 'I went on to say that it was my greatest dream someday to publis a magazine of my own, one that would revive lost genres of short fiction, a tradition I saw as one of great writers writing great short stories. I would publish works by both'non-genre' writers, who, like me, found themselves chafing under the strictures of the Ban, and by recognized masters of the genre novel who, fifty years ago, would have regularly worked and published in the short story form but who now have no wide or ready market for shorter work. 'If I let you guest-edit an issue of McSweeney's, ' said Mr. Eggers, 'can we please stop talking about this?' The McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is the result of this noble gesture. While they were working on their stories, a number of the writers found within these covers reported to me, via giddy e-mails, that they had forgotten how much fun writing a short story could be. I think that we have forgotten how much fun reading a short story can be, and I hope that, if nothing else, this treasury goes some small distance toward reminding us of that lost but fundamental truth."
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
edited by Michael Chabon
512pp, Hamish Hamilton, £14.99
In September 1998, McSweeney's Quarterly made its debut as a sort of literary salon des refusés. Edited by Dave Eggers, the magazine specialised in printing weird and offbeat articles by Eggers's buddies and others whose work had been rejected, spiked, killed or just ignored. Then Eggers published his own non-fiction novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and became a literary celebrity; and McSweeney's morphed into a cult forum for innovative and audacious writing. In this hardcover version of its 10th issue, guest-edited by Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, McSweeney's is aiming for a bigger hunk of the market by reviving and reinventing the short-story thriller.
In his "Editor's Notebook" Chabon calls for a return to the short story with a big plot, which, he claims, has fallen from fashion while the New Yorker conquered the literary world with its "contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story" - including, he confesses, his own early stories, "sparkling with epiphanic dew". Chabon argues that we need more of the great "lost genres" of fiction: "the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war, or historical story; the romance story". That is, the romance in the mode of Hawthorne, a fantastic tale or ripping yarn, not a love story. Indeed, these tales might be called the "guy genres" of short fiction. Thus, while four of the 20 thrilling tales are by women, they are all implicitly addressed to male readers, as are most of the reprinted 40s ads, and the cover, showing a masked man wielding a whip against a wild intergalactic beast, not a sexy dame with a smoking gun, as in the famous book covers of the era.
None the less, Chabon has persuaded a remarkable list of guys to contribute to the volume, including Elmore Leonard, Nick Hornby, Michael Crichton, Rick Moody, Eggers, Chabon himself, and even the "Last Master of the Plotted Short Story", Stephen King. Among the themes that recur in the tales are apocalyptic visions of a bombed-out America; time-travel; the walking dead; irresponsible fathers and sadistic mothers; American ethnic and racial minorities; and Custer's last stand. Among the literary conventions are long, long titles, and titles with literary allusions ("How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman"; "The Tears of Squonk and What Happened Thereafter"; "Goodbye to All That"; and "The Albertine Notes"). There are some framed narratives in the style of Henry James, as well as some animal stories inspired by Kipling, and some knowingly self-referential stuff about trying to write a story. The results are extremely uneven, but overall the genre stories give pulp fiction a bad name, while the most haunting and impressive stories could easily be imagined in the New Yorker.
Eggers, for example, contributes a first-rate story called "Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly", about Rita, an American woman who joins an expedition of hikers to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. The plot could come from Hemingway, but there are many signs of a contemporary sensibility, while the story is packed full of details about climbers and their pain and determination, risking aneurism and hypothermia. Rita has signed up through a website, EcoHeaven Tours, for adventure travel; she is unmarried, childless and mourning for two foster-children she was unable to adopt; and the subtext of the story is about the exploitation of the starving African porters by the rich thrill-tourists. The story's conclusion is as understated and moment-of-truthy as the most sophisticated work of Alice Munro, but perhaps more politically declarative, and more arranged in terms of beginning, middle and end.
Sherman Alexie's "Ghost Dance" is by far the scariest of the stories. It begins with two cops driving their patrol car towards Custer Memorial Battlefield in Montana. It's 3am and still over 100 degrees. In the trunk they have two terrified and beaten Indian hitchhikers they proceed to kill. "If it wasn't for these damn Indians," one cop declares, "Custer would've been the president of the United States."
Alexie writes brilliantly about the mythology of the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, and the massacre of Custer's Seventh Cavalry by the Cheyenne. But then he shifts, in horror-story mode, to the zombie-like return of the Seventh Cavalry, cannibal marauders who suddenly leave their graves and go around gnawing on whatever flesh they encounter. Instead of the crisp plotting of the old yarn, we get a clumsy conclusion, and a lot of confusing symbolism. Maybe the classic thriller isn't as easy to write or as much fun to read as it used to be; it's hard work trudging through all this history, sci-fi and blood. Not classic pulp fiction, then, but a book for boys of all ages.
Elaine Showalter's books include Inventing Herself (Picador).