Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
The basic steps for anyone wishing to compile a classic collection of short stories are fairly elementary: gather a group of the best authors around, give them a broad enough brief to allow their imaginations to run wild, sit back, wait for the good stuff to come pouring in, weed out the duffers and then arrange them in just the right order. Simple.
Using these guidelines, we can measure how successfully editors Gaiman and Sarrantonio have compiled this new miscellany of tales. First, the list of authors is fairly spectacular, including the likes of Roddy Doyle, Joanne Harris, Richard Adams and Chuck Palahnuik: tick. The brief appears to have been to create new works of fantasy or magical realism that in some way illuminate the real world – a blank enough canvas: tick.
And what of the ‘duffers’? Well, overall the quality is exemplary. While a handful do disappoint – mostly due to snatched-at or unsatisfying endings rather than anything else – the majority of stories are gripping and beautifully written. Their diversity of styles manages to make the book far more than the sum of its parts: tick.
The one major failing comes in the order of the stories: cross. Roddy Doyle’s ‘Blood’ is a poor choice to open the book. It’s a messy, insubstantial and confused reinterpretation of the vampire myth and fails to give any hint of the wonders to follow. However, once past that there is more than enough to keep readers happy.
Stand-out stories include Gaiman’s own gloriously rich folk tale, ‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains’; Joe Hill’s elegant, concrete morality tale, ‘The Devil on the Staircase’, which visually represents his protagonists’ descent into hell; and Jodi Picoult’s stunning examination of grief, ‘Weights and Measures’, which is so powerful it’s hard to breathe while you read it. Overall it’s a sometimes creepy, dark and dreamlike read: two thumbs up.