In the introduction to Stories: All-New Tales, Neil Gaiman, one of the most popular contemporary fantasy writers, articulates his frustrations with the field of commercial fantasy—finding it overrun with Tolkien-esque epics and Robert E. Howard (of Conan the Barbarian fame) imitations. Gaiman’s comments echo an earlier essay, Epic Pooh by Michael Moorcock, who lambasts the works of both Tolkien and Howard, arguing for fantasy that goes beyond the comforting and “infantile" charms of works by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Richard Adams and A.A. Milne. Moorcock’s ideal fantasy would be fresh, well-written and “force" the reader to ask questions. In his short story, part of this anthology, and (appropriately enough) also titled Stories, Moorcock writes about a group of idealistic editors and writers who seek “to write something that has the vitality of good commercial fiction and the subtle ambition of good literary fiction…stuff that would get us high with the sense of enthusiasm and engagement of Proust or Faulkner but with the disciplined vitality of genre fiction pulsing from each and every page."

Stories: Hachette India, 432 pages, Rs 595.

All the tales are page-turners. Some, such as Jonathan Carroll’s Let the PastBegin, possess the germ of an intriguing idea, but go no further, hindered by the demands of plot and the constraints of the short story format. Other stories such as Peter Straub’s Mallon the Guru, about a pair of ingenuous foreigners searching for a guru in India, and Richard Adams’ The Knife, featuring a pre-World War II boarding school, verge on the enigmatic. Chocolat author Joanne Harris’ contribution, Wildfire in Manhattan, about a group of old-world mythological figures running amok in New York, reads like an adult version of the Percy Jackson series.

But Stories also contains some truly imaginative writing. Septuagenarian author Diana Wynne Jones, famous for her much loved young-adult (YA) fantasy works such as the Chrestomanci series, breaks into new territory with her futuristic tale of a young, featherbrained debutante who struggles to cope with an increasingly bizarre succession of Christmas gifts. Samantha’s Diary is a delightful read and a radical departure from Jones’ earlier works. The pièce de résistance is the last story. Joe Hill’s The Devil on the Staircase recalls Italo Calvino’s surrealist fables The Baron in the Trees and The Cloven Viscount. Hill, (incidentally the son of Stephen King), lays out his story across the page like a staircase, a form that is perfectly married to his simple, lyrical sentences.

For Gaiman, the standard is not just good writing; the benchmark of a good story is its ability to provoke a reader to ask that ageless question: “And then what happened?" It’s a simple but demanding standard for a writer to meet. For the most part, Stories satisfies this criterion.

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