McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories

Author: Michael Chabon

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 2004

I read it: April 2013

astonishing stories

I was delighted to learn there was another collection to go alongside McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, and this one is just as good. While perfect for a Halloween mood, they also fit into this wet, nasty spring.

The collection starts off with a near-perfect story by Margaret Atwood of a girl turning into a were-something. The story really helps set a high bar for these experiments in “genre fiction.” I felt I had read Ayelet Waldman’s “Minnow” before, about a woman’s mysterious connection with a dead baby, but I do not know where I may have come across it. I had definitely encountered Jonatham Lethem‘s “Vivian Relf” in his unique collection Men and Cartoons, and while it is a good story, I thought it odd that he did not offer one verging more on the supernaturally strange, as he does have those skills. Since we are on the topic of revisiting, it was a joy to read Stephen King‘s “Lisey and the Madman” as a story separate from the novel of which it is a part. The selection moves at a breathtaking pace for having a lot of internal monologue, and hints at the strange underworld at the core of Lisey’s Story.

The real pleasures came from those entirely new to me: “7C” by Jason Roberts is a curious and unsettling existential study, Daniel Handler’s “Demonico” frames a nice little mystery, and Heidi Julavits’ “The Miniaturist,” although having a somewhat predictable ending, is a classic ghost story that had me on edge and looking over my shoulder even while I read it at noon at Chipotle. Some of the most original stories were tucked near the end: “Reports of Certain Events in London” by China Miéville is akin to a compact version of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. In fact, with its dread-inducing tale of streets that lurk and shift across the world, I would suggest it as a stand-in for someone who is interested in Danielewski’s premise but will not realistically tackle that book. Finally, Joyce Carol Oates delivers in spades with “The Fabled Light-House at Viña Del Mar,” which centers around a man and a dog left to run a lighthouse in a socio-scientific experiment of sorts, an experiment which slices and dices loneliness and beastly existence.

If the Astonishing Stories and Thrilling Tales are simply challenges for authors to have fun (and prove a point in the process), then I hope McSweeney’s will continue to come up with other genre challenges and pose them to these talented minds.

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