Christopher Golden says in his introduction to Tell My Sorrows to the Stones (a quotation from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, perhaps Shakespeare’s cruelest play), “A collection of short stories is like the strange history of a period in a writer’s life[.]” This crystallized my thinking about short story collections, as I become more and more of a reader of short science fiction, fantasy and horror: a collection gives you a picture of a writer, and that writer’s concerns, at a particular time in his or her life. Not that there is anything autobiographical in the themes and variations; a writer’s imagination is his or her imagination, not his or her life. But the attentive reader will note that in a collection the same situations arise (such as, in this collection, a protagonist’s affair, for which he is now repentant and determined to make it up to his wife, and, in other stories, the death of a child); and the same word choices or metaphors tend to spring up (a wife’s decision to make chicken salad makes more than one appearance, for instance). It’s a window into an author’s brain for a given moment in his or her life, which makes the collection worth more than the sum of its parts.
Here, the parts are finely written and plotted. The collection opens with “All Aboard,” in which the mother of a child she has lost to an early death cannot get over her loss. She is unable to sleep; she cannot manage to get to work on time; and the distance between her and her husband is growing. She cannot comfort her husband, but instead finds herself resenting him, though there is no way in which he is responsible for their child’s death, any more than she is. Their home feels like a “museum of sorrow,” a monument to their lost child, every piece of furniture a reminder of him (the sofa he bounced on, the coffee table he bumped his head on). As Sarah lies awake at night, mourning her child, she hears the lonely sound of a train whistle, a sound that seems to magnify her sorrow. But when she mentions the train whistle to a coworker, he tells her that there is no train through town, no whistle at 3:18 a.m., that’s just a story. But Sarah knows what she heard, and when her coworker tells her the myth that the train carries “the ghosts of the ones folks can’t let go of,” she thinks she can find her son again. What she actually finds, though, is something different. It’s a sad and beautiful story.
“Under Cover of Night” is a big change in mood, from an elegiac story to one that is straight horror. Carl Weston is in the National Guard, where he has been assigned to assist the Border Patrol. When he is on duty one night, a truck full of people makes a run for the United States border, hauling loads of illegal drugs. He finds that he has some help he didn’t expect. It’s a straightforward monster story, competently told.
One of the best stories in the collection is “Put On a Happy Face.” The opening sentence lets you know what you’re in for: “The blood seeping out of the midget car was Benny’s first clue that something had gone awry.” Oh, boy, clowns and blood, a great combination for a good horror story. Benny is a young clown, the new guy who’s learning the ropes, who wants nothing more than to make people laugh. He’d always been able to keep his mother in stitches, but somehow things just aren’t coming together in his performances. So when he sees a book at a mobile book fair called Charade: The Secret to Being a Clown by the famous Giovanni Tovolo, he grabs it. The secrets he learns there lead to an evening of laughs he’ll never forget, no matter how hard he tries. That is, if he survives.
In “Breathe My Name,” Tommy Betts is a coal miner, just like his father. The mine is a version of hell to him, two miles down, dark and claustrophobic. One day, he and his crew are deep in Shaft 39 when they smell something funny, just before an explosion sends black smoke billowing down the tunnel after them. They share the oxygen packs that work (a fair proportion of them haven’t been maintained and are useless), but things are looking grim. Then Tommy remembers the story his father used to tell him of the Lost Miner. Is he their only hope for salvation?
The story that I find the most haunting is “The Art of the Deal.” Craig is about to sell his family business, because that is the only option he has to bankruptcy — the only way to save the jobs of some of his employees, even if he can’t save all or even most of them. He’s already lost his marriage because of his scruples (he won’t take a salary higher than that of his most highly paid employee, a moral position his ex-wife didn’t find amusing or admirable). Now he’s losing everything else. But he is reluctant to close the deal, even as he meets with the acquiring company’s negotiator. The negotiator has brought his wife with him, a stunning woman dressed in red who is as interested in her husband’s success as he is. In fact, she’ll do anything to help her husband succeed, as she informs Craig when she shows up at his office later that evening, slipping out of her dress. Not only is she gorgeous; she’s fabulously tattooed over her entire torso with pictures of the gods and goddesses of every culture. Despite his principles, Craig accepts her offer of sex. And then, he accepts an offer made by one of her tattoos. It makes me shiver just remembering it.
The next story takes us to a different extreme, offering a tale that is sentimental and sweet. In “Quiet Bullets,” Teddy is a 10-year-old boy in 1950’s Tucson, Arizona, who sees the ghost of a cowboy one day when he is walking home from school. The cowboy leads him to his father’s gun, tucked away in a closet with the flag that had covered his coffin when his body was shipped home from Korea. Teddy can get into the closet, which is normally locked, because his mother is asleep, exhausted, on the sofa; and it seems like something more than exhaustion is physically ailing her. The cowboy silently teaches Teddy how to aim and fire the gun, and then leads him home, where his mother is still sleeping even though it’s well into the evening. What happens that night isn’t unexpected, but the story is told well, lulling the reader into a comfort zone that few of the tales in this book offer.
But Golden yanks the reader into horror again with “Thin Walls.” Tim Graham is on a trip to all of the places he had enjoyed with his wife. This night, in a hotel on the ocean, he is awakened by the noises of raucous sex on the other side of the wall, sex that goes on and on and on, not just keeping Tim awake but causing him to become painfully aroused. The next morning, he encounters the woman in the room, who tells him that the man she’d been with has taken off. She offers to let him into her bed that night. Tim refuses, but she won’t take no for an answer. Where does this hunger of hers come from? The story plays with the male fear of the insatiable female.
Golden wrote “Mechanisms” with Mike Mignola. In this tale, the authors take the reader to Oxford in the autumn in what seems to be the early twentieth century, painting a lovely picture of a small English city dedicated to learning. Colin Radford loves Oxford, and is therefore dismayed when one of his professors tells him that he must return to his home in Norwich because his father has gone missing. When Colin arrives at his family’s homestead, he finds that his father had been experimenting with a machine of some sort, the purpose of which is entirely mysterious but somehow related to his father’s experiments with mysticism, begun after the loss of his wife, Colin’s mother. Colin persuades his prickly grandmother to tell him what she knows of the odd-looking machine, including her fear that if Colin figures it out, he will be lost as well. If only Colin had listened to her!
In “The Secret Backs of Things,” James Pickthall is blackmailed by a man fired by the railway company he owns. The man wants his job back, that’s all, and if Pickthall won’t give it to him, he’ll have his revenge. Pickthall demands how the man has come into his knowledge, and the man tells him a long story about paying attention to “the secret backs of things,” the back yards the train passes by, the faces of passengers, “the places people want to hide or forget.” It is a torment, this seeing, and the only thing that soothes it is riding the trains. There’s a nice twist in the ending of this black story about a man who has reason to fear blackmailers.
“Nesting” is about Mike and Cori, who live in a tony suburb of Boston in a restored Victorian that used to belong to an artist. They’re expecting their first child, a child they hope will save their marriage from Mike’s infidelity and Cori’s reaction to it, a child who will resolve all questions of forgiveness. Their property includes a large patch of wilderness space in which Mike stumbles upon a burned-down cottage and a number of standing stones with crude runes drawn upon them. His experiences in the remnants of the cottage make him strongly regret that he has had one such stone dug up to install a swimming pool. This tale did not work for me, well-written though it is; Golden does not quite have the touch for what is essentially a Lovecraftian sort of tale of ancient evil. Golden is better at exploring evil that is entirely human.
“The Mournful Cry of Owls” once again deals with ancient myths, though here those myths stand not for evil, but for change. Donika Ristani and her mother live on Blackberry Lane in some small town in America in the 1970s. As the story opens, Donika’s 16th birthday is tomorrow, and her mother, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, both fears and welcomes the day. We see Donika and her boyfriend, and Donika’s affinity to the woods; we hear her singing, and join her in listening to some good rock, the sort we’d call “classic rock” these days; and we watch her and her mother prepare and eat traditional dishes for her birthday dinner. That evening, Donika’s mother tells her the story of how she was born. The story doesn’t have anything to do with frantic drives to the hospital, births in elevators or taxis, or any of the typical dramatic tales that have become clichés. No, the circumstances of Donika’s birth were different from anything I’ve ever read, seen or imagined. And the consequences are different as well.
“The Hiss of Escaping Air” is an especially fine story. Courtney Davis is a movie star as well as a Hollywood wife, married to an independent producer. Now she’s divorcing the man after a painful five years in which, she says, he broke her. And she wants to hurt him as badly as he hurt her. So she arranges to have a red balloon stolen from him — a part of his collection of Hollywood memorabilia, from a movie named for the balloon. In all the years Davis was married to him, the balloon had never lost a bit of air, never sagged, never become soft; and her husband has never suffered so much as a cold or a bruise, a state that he attributes to the balloon. Davis succeeds in getting the balloon, but what happens after that is where the story really gets you.
This collection is nicely arranged, with one story contrasting with and complementing the next. It gives the reader a glimpse into a wide imagination that is sometimes tender and sometimes vicious, but always entertaining. If this is in any way a strange history of a period of Golden’s life, as he suggests in dedicating the book to his wife, he has a fascinating one! I look forward to more of Golden’s stories.