Multiple Hugo and Nebula winner Michael Swanwick writes both novels and shorter works, but it is in short stories that he truly shines. He’s one of those writers that is at home in the shorter length; others that I can think of right off include Harlan Ellison, James Tiptree, Jr., Jorge Luis Borges, and R.A. Lafferty. Some of the stories in this collection, in fact, remind me of Lafferty’s stories: spare, precise, poetic, and with just a few subtle tweaks of reality to spin the reader off into an alternate dimension or situation. Like Lafferty’s too, not all of these stories make any sense or have any internal logic, but they are not meant to have these qualities. Instead, the author puts you into a situation that may be only slightly different from so-called reality, gives you a shove, and propels you farther and farther into an abyss or a labyrinth or a rabbit hole until you end up at some surreal, strange, and absurdly other sort of location and wonder how you got there.
As Swanwick states in the introduction, many writers give up short stories for pecuniary reasons – there just isn’t enough money in it. However, he has persevered out of a deep love for the form, and the results show. Sure, I like some stories in this collection more than others, but they are all entertaining. Few if any aspire to deep meaning or relevance to current situations, but they are all damned fine tales that can keep you company on a quiet evening or a long journey.
Among my personal favorites are “Passage of Earth,” about a grotesquely alien life form that possesses a coroner during an autopsy, “The Woman Who Shook the World Tree,” about a homely-looking scientist who follows her true love into another dimension, and “Tawny Petticoats,” about a fascinating scheme in an alternate New Orleans by the recurrent con artist characters Darger and Surplus. I also enjoyed the deep appreciation for the Irish countryside and culture manifested in the moody romantic tale “For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again.”
My only criticism of the collection has nothing to do with the stories. In my opinion, the fascinating introduction was too short. Swanwick briefly summarizes his genesis and early years as a writer, and I hungered for more details. I would have appreciated not only a much longer introduction, but also introductions or afterwards about each of the stories detailing what he was going through in his mind and his life when he wrote the tales. I understand that some writers like the stories to stand on their own and are reluctant to say more about them, but the sparse introduction is so good it makes you long for more.
All in all, this is a solid, entertaining collection by one of the masters of the short story form. Swanwick is someone you can count on to deliver quality goods, and these stories do not disappoint.