Prominent authors contribute original, mainly horror-tinged tales to ‘McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories’

September 13, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 13, 2014

McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories is a 2004 anthology edited by Michael Chabon with a notable bent toward horror-tinged tales of the supernatural. The book’s stories, all original, are penned by an impressive list of authors, but I found their quality to be a bit uneven.

Margaret Atwood contributes the first story, “Lusus Naturae,” narrated by a deformed young woman whose family fakes her death in order to mitigate their shame in her existence. (The title is a Latin phrase for “freak of nature.”) The tale is short, and its plot relatively unimaginative, but it generates sympathy for the shunned protagonist. Atwood also strikes an enjoyable sardonic note in the final paragraph.

“What You Do Not Know You Want,” by David Mitchell, is a mystery with supernatural elements. The narrator, a memorabilia dealer, is visiting Hawaii in order to locate the dagger his partner had acquired just before killing himself. The protagonist is disaffected — he’s engaged to be married but notably unenthusiastic about his fiancée. The story’s tone is naturalistic, but it ends with a disturbing otherworldly killing.

“Vivian Relf” is a curious short offering by Jonathan Lethem about a man who meets a woman a few times. Nothing happens between them, even though their lives seem to be intertwined in mysterious, indefinable ways.

Ayelet Waldman’s “Minnow” is the subdued tale of a married woman who has aborted what would have been her first child after serious medical complications developed. Edie — left home alone and increasingly isolated from her husband — is haunted by her thwarted pregnancy and by the sound of a wailing child that keeps coming across on the monitor. The story ends with a nasty jolt.

The next tale, “Zeroville” by Steve Erickson, describes the quixotic pursuit of a film editor, who obsessively tracks down images of the same door that appear in single frames of movies across the ages.

Stephen King contributes a longer story, “Lisey and the Madman,” which describes the shooting of the narrator’s husband, a famous writer. The work shows King doing what he does so well, conjuring surprising chills from detailed descriptions of mostly mundane events and observations.

Jason Roberts’s debut published story, “7C,” is about an astronomer whose body develops mysterious wounds. The work quietly builds to a horrifying climax in which the narrator’s personal and professional lives — much like his physical and psychological ones — intertwine.

“The Miniaturist” by Heidi Julavits describes an ill-fated girls’ weekend in a country cabin. Things begin inauspiciously, with a harrowing car ride on a remote, snowy road, and devolve from there. This horror story is perhaps the most traditional of the book’s tales in form and execution.

Roddy Doyle’s “The Child” concerns a man with a guilty conscience who is haunted by the apparition of a young boy.

“Delmonico” by Daniel Handler is one of the collection’s most appealing entries. It’s a mystery featuring a bartender with a sharp intelligence and keen intuition. The narrator listens quietly at his favorite tavern, the Slow Night, as the very rich and influential Callahan Jeffers asks the proprietor, Davis, to explain the disappearance of his wife, whom Jeffers is suspected of killing. The puzzle at the story’s heart is solved, although not everything is resolved to the satisfaction of the characters.

Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Scheme of Things” is an odd tale about a pair of grifters who wash up in a rural Iowa town and wind up staying with a couple whose daughter has been killed. It’s paced rather slowly and sports an ambiguous ending.

“The Devil of Delery Street” by Poppy Z. Brite, another slowly paced story, describes the haunting of a New Orleans girl named Melly. Although her family is spooked by the spirit, relatively little happens.

“Reports of Certain Events in London” by China Miéville, is an inventive story told indirectly through a misdirected package of documents received by the author. The conceit is that there are certain viae ferae — that is, wild or feral streets — that appear in different cities around the world, linger for a time and then disappear. This is a sort of mystery tale, too, albeit one that leaves unanswered questions about what’s going on and just what misfortunes a certain character may have conspired to inflict upon another.

Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Fabled Light-House at Viña del Mar,” according to a note, was inspired by a short manuscript fragment found in the papers of Edgar Allen Poe. The narrative takes the form of a journal written by a stuffy Philadelphia gentleman over the winter of 1848–49, when he served as the lighthouse keeper and sole inhabitant of a remote South Pacific island. The recently widowed scholar soon begins to find his grip on sanity slipping — a process facilitated by his shaky psychological foundation, his extreme isolation and the unusual nature of the animals that frequent the island. The story, though slow to start, is engrossing, and it features a gloriously horrific conclusion.

The collection concludes with “Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle,” a long story by Peter Straub. The four main characters, who are all involved in the publishing business, and who have all interacted professionally in various ways,  are residents of a plushly appointed Manhattan hospital floor. (This location, however, may not be what it appears to be…) The men have a number of things in common, including disturbing memories that revolve around bringing a gun to an isolated house in the woods. It’s not clear to me just what is happening — are the men trapped in purgatory, or hell? — but the cumulative effect is pleasantly unsettling.

All in all, McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories has its high points, but I suspect that its unusual mix means that only a relatively small group of readers will enjoy its varied offerings. If you’re a fan of high-brow horror, you may be one of those readers.

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