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 being written,” Michael Chabon writes in the introduction to McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, a collection of horror, adventure, fantasy, and science fiction mostly by people who don’t normally indulge in that sort of thing. Lamenting the brutal repression of the ”ripping yarn” by the ”quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story” (a virulent strain of storytelling that he claims ”wipe[d] out all its rivals” circa 1950 like some implacable, Stalinesque microbe), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author sets out to revive contemporary short fiction by inviting some of its best contemporary practitioners, as well as a few best-selling iconoclasts, to defy ”the Ban” and go genre slumming.
Chabon may be chafing from peer pressure to produce what he worries are inert stories ”sparkling with epiphanic dew,” but surely, ”epiphanic dew” is better than the kind that just sits there, dampening lawn chairs at Bread Loaf. Considering that reflection, introspection, and insight have been all but exiled from every other medium, it seems like a strange time to be stumping for less thought, more action in short fiction. Then again, the anthology is copublished by ”McSweeney’s” – that quarterly home of wayward literary gestures founded by author and lit-land boss Dave Eggers – so it’s probably safe to assume that the humble, post-ironic ingenuousness is meant to be part of the charm.
The conceit is never more annoying than when it leads able and self-assured writers into unfamiliar territory so that they might flail around and knock things over. Nick Hornby’s apocalyptic thriller about a boy with a magical VCR that lets him fast-forward live TV all the way up to the televised end of the world only makes you wish somebody had told him about TiVo. Stephen King tries his hand at a kind of inscrutable Ray Bradbury-inspired space Western (it’s hard to tell, though, due to the inscrutability), with uncharacteristically un-thrilling results. Kelly Link, whose stories are usually effortlessly haunting, chokes and delivers a mannered fairy tale about witches. Michael Crichton tries to channel Raymond Chandler with a hard-boiled yarn about an alcoholic Los Angeles detective, but why? It’s not only unflattering, it’s unnecessary – he of all these writers could have just been himself. And in Sherman Alexie’s gross-out penny dreadful about Civil War-era zombie cannibals, the plot quite literally comes out of nowhere and devours the story alive.
Some of the best tales in the collection take smart-alecky gibes at the assignment, as they probably should. Harlan Ellison’s intrepid Himalayan explorer treks up a mountain in Nepal (”or Bhutan. Possibly Tanna Touva”) toward a pair of gleaming arches in search of ”the Core of Unquenchable Perfection” or ”the Abyss of Oracular Aurochs. Possibly the Core of Absolute Discretion,” and winds up getting his satori supersized. Chris Offutt invents a fictional author asked by Michael Chabon to contribute a thriller to ”McSweeney’s.” Finding that he is unable to finish, the writer winds up taking several dips in a time-travel ”bucket.” He discovers that his life, even when lived on several parallel planes, sticks to certain themes. For instance, ”I go back in time and kill my father, which instantly changes me into the illegitimate son of Harlan Ellison, and I am adopted by a very nice couple named Mr. and Mrs. Chabon in California.” Or, ”I receive the Pulitzer Prize for a novel about model railroads and offer support to my fellow writer Michael Chabon who is highly frustrated by the progress of his novel [about] comic books.”
In spite of itself, the collection contains enough revelatory moments to make the overall experience worthwhile. Eggers’ account of the clueless, careless ways in which Western adventure tourists desecrate their own secular meccas is quietly devastating. Rick Moody’s paranoid, postapocalyptic nightmare about a street drug that hooks people on hallucinating their own remembrances – the story is set in a Manhattan reduced to rubble by either terrorists, a drug cartel, the government, or, possibly, the protagonist’s mom – is at once a lugubrious meditation on memories as ghosts and a gripping conspiracy thriller. And in Jim Shepard’s plaintive opening tale, a grieving Arctic explorer wonders in what turns out to be his last moment if the object he has been chasing is not the Megalodon, an ancestor of the great white shark, so much as his own death. Here, the sneaky power of short stories is best illustrated. Whether you are about to be devoured by a gargantuan marine jaw or are just stepping off a curb, epiphanies can strike anywhere. So beware.