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McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
edited by Michael Chabon
Vintage, 480 pages

McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon's works of fiction include The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, A Model World, Wonder Boys, and Were-Wolves in Their Youth. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, and Playboy and in a number of anthologies, among them Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Ayelet Waldman, also a novelist, and their children.

Michael Chabon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Hank Luttrell

Michael Chabon's introduction, which he calls a rant, suggests that the modern short story is dominated by the "...contemporary quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." In fact, there are few popular or commercial venues for short stories, and many publications that do use short stories, such as little magazines, tend toward these everyday plotless narratives Chabon describes.

Michael Chabon is, of course, the successful author of the novel Kavalier & Clay, which clearly reflects his interest in American popular culture and commercial story telling, as his protagonists are the creators of a popular comic book during the formative years of comic book publishing.

Chabon reminds us that there was once a healthy market for all sorts of short stories, both in popular and sometimes lurid pulp magazines, and the "slicks," magazines like Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Liberty. The plots ranged through all sorts of subjects, such as horror, detective, fantasy & science fiction, adventure, war, historical and romance.

It is sort of a mystery how the short story became so marginalized. Everyone complains about the fast pace of modern life, and MTV-shortened attention spans. Surely in such a time there would be a place for short, focused story telling along side long, bloated novels, not to mention "trilogies" that in the end go on for 6 books?

It seems to be a "Chicken or the Egg" situation. Did the short story loose popularity because most were plotless, or did short stories become formless because they were less popular, and available in few publications?

McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is an attempt to reconstitute plot-driven short story telling as a popular form. Actually, and I'm positive that Chabon knows this very well, the short story isn't as forgotten a form as he pretends in his introductory rant. Most importantly, those pulp-magazine dinosaur descendants, science fiction and mystery magazines, as well as anthologies gleaned from their pages, still exist in our modern world, and it isn't surprising that some of the contributors to this book are frequent practitioners of the short story art form in those genre magazines.

"Tedford and the Megalodon" by Jim Shepard brings to mind several traditions of pulp magazines story telling: an adventure at sea, a scientist-explorer, as well as a Lovecraftian monster. It also seems to have a modern "moment of truth" when the protagonist considers his relationship with his father as he is being swallowed by a behemoth.

Elmore Leonard is well known as a mystery and crime novelist, but started his career writing westerns. "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman" is a 20s crime story with a simple, Western-style direct attitude.

Carol Emshwhiller is a rare treasure for the community of science fiction writers and readers. She was the wife of the artist and film maker Ed Emshwhiller, who created hundreds of covers for SF magazines and paperback during the 50s and 60s. Carol was usually his model when he needed a beautiful female as part of his art. Ed eventually became a renown experimental film maker. One of his last projects was the low-budget yet remarkably successful made-for-PBS Lathe of Heaven.

Carol is a wonderful short story writer. Her association with Ed gave her writing a context within the science fiction field. Many of her short stories have been published in traditional science fiction and fantasy magazines and anthologies, though they tend toward the non-traditional; other stories have been published in literary magazines.

At an appearance in Madison, WI, at the women-focused science fiction convention WisCon, she mentioned that thinking about the recent wars waged by the USA has affected some of her stories. "The General" is one of these stories. It isn't exactly a science fiction story, except that it doesn't seem to take place in any particular, recognizable country or milieu. Perhaps it is a sort of alternative-present or alt-future story, concerned with personal relations within a family during the oppressive colonial occupation of a third world country.

Chabon refers to Stephen King as the "...Last Master of the Plotted Short Story..." This isn't completely true, though perhaps he is the best paid. King is a wonderful story teller, but there are many other fine, traditional short story writers. King's "The Tale of Gray Dick" is part of The Dark Tower story cycle, which will make it a puzzle to readers who aren't familiar with this complex series. But it is a solid alternative history story which includes an intriguing myth, part of the cultural underpinnings of King's characters.

Michael Crichton contributes a brutal story of an unpleasant loser-detective who resolves issues with his mother in "Blood Doesn't Come Out."

I've always wondered about Chris Offutt, who contributes "Chuck's Bucket." I wondered if he was Andy Offutt's son. Andy was a successful writer of commercial fantasy, mainly in the 60s through the 80s. I got to know Andy a bit when I attended science fiction conventions in Cincinnati years ago. Chris seemed about the right age, and his regional writing suggested he was from the right part of the country. This story clears it all up. Partly autobiography, and part wild time-travel fantasy, Offutt reveals lingering bitterness about his father. He writes of his reservations about following in his father's footsteps as a writer; he recalls his father's stories about a feud with Harlan Ellison. I sort of remember that feud, but I have no idea what it was about. He also writes about the difficultly he had coming up with a short story for Michael Chabon's book.

"Goodbye to All That" by Harlan Ellison is pleasant enough, and it would be a shame to put together an anthology like this without Ellison; after the hype Ellison's work gets in Chris Offutt's story, this elaborate joke is a bit disappointing.

"Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly" by Dave Eggers has a plot which is a turn on a traditional short story sub-genre, mountain climbing. But the protagonist isn't exactly an adventurer; just a tourist who signs on with a guided climb. None the less there are dangerous turns, and difficult personal challenges for several of the characters.

"The Case of the Nazi Canary" by Michael Moorcock is partly a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and partly another elaboration of the myths and yarns that Moorcock has been writing about for decades. In this installment, readers familiar with Moorcock's characters will recognize names like Count Von Bek. The Holmes stand-in Sir Seaton Begg and his Watson, John "Taffy" Sinclair, investigate a murder, which causes a falling-out among pre-WWII Nazi leadership.

"Private Grave 9" by Karen Joy Fowler takes place an exotic archeological dig, which is disrupted by the visit of a young writer, a Miss Whitfield, who is looking for background material for a murder mystery. Sort of reminds me of Elizabeth Peters and her Amelia Peabody series, though this short story is darker and more introspective.

"The Albertine Notes" by Rick Moody is a disturbing story of addiction where a reporter is commissioned to write about a drug which cause the re-experience of memories, an understandably popular trip in a future New York where civilization as we know it has been ended by a cataclysmic explosion.

The narrative starts out very straight-forward and traditional, but becomes increasingly William Burroughs channeled by Philip K. Dick, as the reporter becomes involved with pushers and using the drug himself. The nature of reality shifts as agents are able to use hallucinations to change the past and affect the present.

How about when you get a particular song gets stuck in your head? In one irritating sequence, the protagonist complains for a whole page about a Ricky Martin song. I was wondering how any editor could allow such a pointless digression, when it suddenly dawned on me how effectively Moody had illustrated an obsessive affect of the memory drug.

"The Martian Agent, a Planetary Romance" by Michael Chabon is a nod to another pulp magazine tradition, the serialized novel. This story takes place in an alternative past where the American Revolution was not successful. The story focuses on the young sons of a captured American rebel.

Chabon and his publishers should continue Thrilling Tales. For one thing, it will allow him to write and publish more chapters of his serial. For another, it will allow additional deserving writers to become involved in this project. I nominate Edward D. Hoch, allegedly the only writer today making a living writing mystery short stories, and certainly a "Master of the Plotted Short Story."

Copyright © 2003 Hank Luttrell

Hank Luttrell has reviewed science fiction for newspapers, magazines and web sites. He was nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo Award and is currently a bookseller in Madison, Wisconsin.

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