McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales

Author: Michael Chabon (editor)

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 2003

I read it: September 2010

thrilling tales

Good ol’ McSweeney’s. It can be the height of pretension when you’re flipping through the avant-garde hardcovers at the bookstore, although that judgment usually fades when you inspect the quality of the contributions. But Thrilling Tales deliberately takes the short story in another direction: back to the era of the genre story, when they were written for money and devoured for pleasure, and when, most importantly, they actually had plots. Chabon seems thrilled to collect these tales and his story of Eggers agreeing to it just to stop being hectored is a good laugh in the introduction.

The book delivers in spades. Monsters, aliens, private detectives, gunslingers, ghosts, drugs, lawmen, and plenty of murder are what the plots promise. The names read like a who’s-who of modern writers that are the opposite of jaded and burned out, and the enthusiasm to write the kind of story they grew up with seems to shine through. There aren’t any serious duds, and plenty of plainly good stories, but the top five after finishing up would have to be:

  • “The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter.” Glen David Gold delivers a sad and sinister drama about a wronged pachyderm.
  • “Catskin.” Magical realism? Playful allegory? Just plain fantasy? The weirdness doesn’t hinder the forward momentum of Kelly Link’s fable of a boy and the mother he lost and the cat who tries to lead him to a new life.
  • “Otherwise Pandemonium.” Nick Hornby perfectly captures the angst of a youth dealing with his first hook-up, while also dealing with his first future-predicting VCR.
  • “Chuck’s Bucket.” It takes good humor and good humility to mix meta-fiction with a dash of postmodernism in the space of a short story and have it all come out smoothly, which is surprisingly what happens in this fun Chris Offutt offering.
  • “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly.” A woman attempts to trek the slopes of Kilimanjaro in this Dave Eggers selection which illustrates that the natural can be just as foreboding and dangerous as the supernatural, if not more so.

I started the book at summer camp, then read it in cafés and park benches and the breakroom at work, and probably on the bus and by the lake and just sitting in my living room after waking up, and most certainly in bed at night, before drifting to sleep. Which is what the short story is made for: to be taken places, to be consumed without commitment and instead with a carefree ease. Here’s hoping Chabon, Eggers, and their funloving cronies make good on their promise to deliver a second Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales.

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