I finally got around to reading McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories last week. I’d read the first volume, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales. Both books begin with a well-written defense of genre fiction by Michael Chabon (of Kavalier & Clay fame). Chabon argues that the “revelatory short story” and literary fiction as a whole constitute a genre as much as science fiction, fantasy, or horror. The essays are well-argued and both enjoyable and satisfying to read.
Unfortunately, the stories within the books don’t always live up to Chabon’s introductions. There are plenty of “literary” and moment-of-revelation stories in these books, and some have only the most tenuous links to any form of genre fiction. That said, Astounding Stories definitely offers a tastier selection than the previous volume. There definitely seems to be a horror bent to this volume, but what I found interesting was that there seemed to be more nods to H.P. Lovecraft than Edgar Allan Poe.
This isn’t a real review, so I’ll just mention the stories I particularly enjoyed:
Margaret Atwood’s “Lusus Naturae” offers a poignant interpretation of the vampire legend based on modern medical science.
Stephen King gives us yet another story about a writer, but it’s a good tale, told from the perspective of the writer’s wife (a heartfelt tribute, I suspect, to King’s own wife).
“7C” by Jason Roberts is Lovecraftian in mood and philosophy (if not in topic) and uses some of the more unusual theories of astrophysics to horrifying effect.
China Miéville’s “Reports of Certain Events in London,” seems to be Lovecraft parody by way of Terry Pratchett. I suspect the story was suggested to Miéville by receiving a genuine piece of misdirected mail. I’ve had Miéville’s Perdido Street Station on my reading list for ages, but I thought I owed it to Miéville to hold off until I’d read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.
Finally, pathological writer Joyce Carol Oates offers the wonderfully Lovecraftian “The Fabled Light-House of Viña del Mar,” which could serve as a precursor of sorts to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” though Oates’s story was suggested by an unfinished Poe fragment. Oates also wrote the introduction to the recent Tales of H.P. Lovecraft. Between her love of Lovecraft and her intriguing cover blurb on the most recent Hellboy collection (“In the ruins of the American Empire, what more appropriate figure of salvation/damnation than Mike Mignola’s Hellboy?”), Oates seems to have embraced an odd little corner of geekdom.
Of all the stories, I’d say “7C” was the most frightening, “Reports of Certain Events in London” the most fun and “Light-House” my personal favorite.
The only real complaint I have is the illustrator. McSweeney’s apparently blew the budget on the authors, forcing them to hire some cheap hack to draw a few doodles before each story.