Most people stop reading horror stories after outgrowing the Goosebumps and Fear Street series in fifth grade. Instead, many Yalies prefer reading Joyce — or at least, Woolf — preferably in the fishbowl window at Koffee Too? for all passersby to see. The horror genre is largely viewed as fluff, the literary equivalent of “Freddy vs. Jason.”
But “McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories” is here to liberate us from all that. This unpretentious compilation of short stories, which boasts authors ranging from Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King to Margaret Atwood, indulges any R.L. Stine nostalgia, but with a more sophisticated literary bent. In the capable hands of editor Michael Chabon — a Pulitzer-Prize winner for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” — the collection sometimes disappoints, but is largely successful in exploring, celebrating and, sometimes, rewriting the typical campfire scary story.
Despite a tedious and unnecessary introduction in which he belabors the point that genre literature is still deserving of merit, Chabon picks a selection which speaks for itself. The scope of “Astonishing Stories” is wide-reaching enough to avoid the “cheesecake factor” so many collections fall prey to: sure, each story is scrumptious looking individually, but just try downing a whole cheesecake in one sitting.
The first story of the collection, Atwood’s fantastical tale “Lusus Naturae” meaning (freak of nature), tells of a girl who suffers from a nameless disease that results in yellow eyes, red fingernails and fangs. Atwood, in her chronicling of contemporary sexuality, is adept at blending low-brow mediums like comic books, gothic tales, detective novels, and science fiction with more literary bidding. Eerie and at the oddest times beautiful, the story follows the girl from her diagnosis to her first death. Atwood’s matter-of-fact address in describing the girl’s funeral exemplifies the ironic tone with which the author approaches her sad and disturbing subject. The unnamed protagonist “was put on display in a very deep coffin in a very dark room, in a white dress with a lot of white veiling over [her], fitting for a virgin and useful in concealing [her] whiskers.”
Yet Atwood expertly avoids the cliche despite employing a seemingly contrite ending. In a touching, though tragic, twist on the usual monster story, this “monster” is killed for her innocently mistaking two furtive lovers as fellow victims of the disease that afflicts her. (“Mewing noises came from them, growls, little screams.”) So while this monster story still ends with the usual scene of townspeople marching through a forest, torches ablaze, Atwood manages to instill new emotion into a formerly stale formula.
No other author represented in the collection approaches the parameters of the bizarre and tragic like Atwood, but Jonathan Lethem — the latest literary darling in the publishing world for his novel “Motherless Brooklyn” — comes close with “Vivian Relf,” a story in which two strangers wonder if they have met previously. Self-described as being in the business of “taboo-breaking and blabbing,” Lethem writes a short story which brings to mind “Lost in Translation’s” off-color ambience and translucent human interaction.
With the inclusion of authors like Atwood, Lethem and Roddy Doyle (better known as Lemony Snicket), Chabon lends much credibility to his collection. For the most part his selections are not of the possessed-child/chainsaw-murder variety. But he isn’t entirely successful in avoiding the trappings of genre writing — “Amazing Stories” is still bloated by the gore and guts fare typical of the horror writing.
Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Fabled Lighthouse at Vina del Mar” falls short of her usual heights. Oates, who has garnered much critical acclaim for her own short story collections and also much criticism for the violence in her works, seems to be a perfect fit for Chabon’s collection. Her fictional world is violent and tragic; her characters, disturbed and unhappy, are often victims of their social milieu and emotional weakness. Yet “Vina del Mar,” which takes inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Lighthouse,” goes beyond Oates’ purposeful mimicking of the gothic writer’s characteristically hackneyed style. While the style alone is irritating, the plot itself suffers for the attempt at imitation, ending with an even more hackneyed conclusion.
Since the “Astonishing Stories” are all of the same genre, there is the greater threat of a been there, read that feel. Several entries are borderline generic, and some fall into the horror-story trap of relying on trick of surprise endings, ultimately making the reader feel manipulated into a false emotional climax.
For the most part, still, Chabon is too talented a writer and too conscientious an editor to take on a collection like this just for the sake of publishing some scary stories. As he says in his introduction, he is “looking to stir things up, to write serious, prizewinning, best-selling detective novels narrated by a sleuth with Tourrette’s syndrome.” This may make Chabon guilty of over-intellectualizing, but it makes for a fine collection.