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Plotter's Field

  McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
Michael Chabon (editor)
McSweeney's/Vintage, 2003
Rating: 3.7

Posted: November 30, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It's not hard to join Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Wonder Boys) in lamenting the dominance of what he calls "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." Where short fiction is concerned, these moment-of-truth tales have indeed, as Chabon claims in his introduction to this collection, edged a large number of other types of stories -- what he might loosely define as "stories with actual plots" -- out of the mainstream.

So the concept behind Thrilling Tales is laudable: a collection of pieces of short fiction from a multitude of writers, in such diverse genres as horror, the Western, men's adventure, time travel and what have you. But its diversity ultimately works as much against Thrilling Tales as for it: Such a scattershot approach, devoid of any kind of unifying concept or theme other than "stories with plots" (and despite its very title and Howard Chaykin's pulpy illustrations), is bound to produce its share of clunkers. Effective and affecting tales like Dan Chaon's "The Bees" and Neil Gaiman's "Closing Time" rub elbows with affected, self-congratulatory works by professional blowhard Harlan Ellison (the florid "Goodbye To All That") and McSweeney's figurehead Dave Eggers, whose talent rests more in the wordy directness of his style than in anything he has to say with it.

Some writers play to their strengths: Elmore Leonard dips back into the Western pool in which he started his career, and though he retreads ground familiar to anyone who's read, say, Out of Sight or Pronto, he does so with an agreeable swagger. But other writers head in the opposite direction, notably Stephen King, whose "The Tale of Gray Dick," a tie-in to his Dark Tower series, requires too much work from readers not already familiar with that world. Would it have been too much to ask "The Last Master of the Plotted Short Story," as Chabon calls him, for a nice, juicy short-fiction scare, of the kind he's ably served up in his own short story anthologies?

Thrilling Tales ends with a couple of longer pieces -- Rick Moody's "The Albertine Notes" and Chabon's own "The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance," the latter of which is the first part of a serialized tale "to be continued" in the next Thrilling Tales (assuming there is one). This would seem to contradict the contents page boast that all stories are "original and complete!" But no matter. For the most, the stories collected here deliver quick, amiable jolts. Aimee Bender's "The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers" and Michael Crichton's "Blood Doesn't Come Out," to name two, prove sharp and inventive (although the latter ultimately feels a bit slight).

There are some stutter-steps, of course. Chris Offutt's easygoing narrative voice just barely saves "Chuck's Bucket" from its metafictional, metaphysical jumble. And despite its promising setting at an Egyptian archaeological dig, Karen Joy Fowler's "Private Grave 9" doesn't offer up anything meaty in the way of mummy curses or expeditionary intrigue; in fact, the story veers dangerously close to Chabon's "quotidian" moment-of-truth territory. But if the occasional misfire (Kelly Link's thorny "Catskin") is the cost one pays for such a collection, Nick Hornby's pleasant surprise "Otherwise Pandemonium" is by itself well worth the price of admission. A marvelous, Twilight Zone-esque tale about a VCR that plays the future, it bubbles with exactly the kind of inventiveness for which Chabon pines, and gives one sufficient reason to warmly anticipate a second Thrilling Tales.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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