If you’ve ever complained about rising book prices, this book (like (Jack McDevitt’s Cryptic) is a value for money response. At over 400 pages of short stories, this is a lot of Jonathan Carroll. If you’re a fan of Carroll’s unembellished prose and slightly off kilter happenings, there’s a lot here for you. If you’re only an occasional visitor to Carroll’s realities, this may not be the place to start.
Most of the stories in this collection are Carroll doing what he normally does – establishing a sympathetic character, and having something unusual happen to them that they accept, but that has strange consequences. Unfortunately, that’s sometimes all that happens – as if Carroll is saying “Wouldn’t it be weird if this happened?” Too often, my response was “Yes it would. But so what?”
To be fair, Carroll here pursues very much the same path he does in his novels. For true fans, this collection is a treasure trove of new and interesting ideas, and some new takes on old ones. There are a few selections lifted from (or seeds for) novels, and some familiar characters (Finky Linky turns up). I’ve learned that I’m not such a fan. I find Carroll’s dialogue often stiff, and his stories often not subtle, but unsatisfying. That was true for many of these stories; not many resonated or left a lasting mark. Some are just fragments, though not noted as such.
Some stories of note:
- The Sadness of Detail – a woman is disturbed by a stranger’s fascination with her drawings. I give credit to Carroll for interesting ideas, including the one in this story.
- A Flash in the Pants – a lonely man is visited by the former occupants of his house.
- Fish in a Barrel – two obscure bureaucrats run the office of memories. As with many Carroll stories, an interesting story that I wish had been polished more.
- The Stolen Church – a married couple visit his parents. A couple of interesting ideas strangely mashed together (and probably more effective apart).
- The Heidelberg Cylinder – two proselytizers disrupt a furniture delivery. Another story that works well, if you manage to ignore the gewgaws stuck on in random locations
- Home on the Rain – a lawyer becomes fascinated with the secret life of scaffolds. A long, interesting buildup that leads to …?
- Elizabeth Thug – a woman with a mysterious tattoo. One of Carroll’s best stories, and I wish there were far more in this vein.
The strength of Carroll’s stories is in their ideas. He suggests new and intriguing ways to look at the world. Unfortunately, his execution is often not up to the job. The stories give the impression of being early drafts, over-decorated and overly blunt, as if he’s taken his concept notes and added some frills around them. If only they were polished and allowed a little subtlety, they’d be great. Instead, Carroll’s simple prose comes across as more clunky than elegant. It’s a shame, because the bones of these stories are good, if only they’d had the right presentation.