2018; 213 pages. New Author(s)? : Yes, all 9 of them. Genre : Short Stories; Anthology; Horror; Fantasy; Sci-Fi; Time-Travel. Overall Rating : 8½*/10.
Are you old enough to remember The Twilight Zone? No, not the 1983 movie, although that was great, too. Rather, the black-&-white TV series that ran from 1959 to 1964. Rod Serling was the host, and his opening and closing monologues were always memorable.
I was a devoted viewer of the show, mostly because you never knew what to expect. One week, it might be a Time-Travel episode, such as The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms, where a modern-day tank crew returns to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The next week would bring a Horror story, such as Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, featuring an early William Shatner. (Wiki it.) Or you might get a Fantasy story, such as Jack Klugman beating Jonathan Winters in a billiards game in A Game of Pool. Or some weird Science Fiction story, such as the episode with the unforgettable title of To Serve Man.
The neat thing was, you could never guess what genre you were about to watch, or what the tone would be. Some episodes were dark and scary. Others were whimsical or poignant. In a word, you could call them strange. Or varied. Or eerie. The editor Bruce Bethke has his own word to describe such a diversity in tones and genres.
He calls them Stupefying.
What’s To Like...
Stupefying Stories 21 is comprised of nine tales, each by a different author, all of approximately equal lengths, that being about 20 pages apiece. The titles, Kindle locations, authors, and teasers are:
Table of Contents (spoiler-free)...
01) The Crippled Sucker (01) – L. Joseph Shosty
Poker on the Polar Express.
02) My Disrupted Pony (15) – Jeff Racho
Get in and drive.
03) Cog and Bone (25) – M. Lynette Pedersen
Music and mortality do mix.
04) Dew Line (37) – K.H. Vaughan
Cold War chills in Canada.
05) Tendrils Beneath the Skin (49) – Derrick Boden
Here, have a little vine.
06) The Phoenix of Christ Church (59) – Rebecca Birch
A blitz in Time saves mine.
07) Lenses (66) – Eric Dontigney
Caught on film.
08) The Search For Josephine (75) – James Mapes
So you think your in-laws are different?
09) Wayfaring Stranger (89) – Peter Wood
The soul of ET.
Stupefying Stories 21 is an incredibly fast and easy read, so if you have a book report due tomorrow and you haven’t even started to read anything, this is the one to choose. You can easily finish it in a single sitting.
All of the tales are well-structured and well-written. I was pleasantly surprised that none of the writers were "weak links", nor did any of the stories feel like they were "mailed in". Perhaps that merits a tip-of-the-hat to the editor, either for his selection of the writers or for demanding a certain level of quality in the entries.
Only one of the stories is in the first-person POV (My Disrupted Pony). There is just a smidgen of cussing, and I only recall one roll-in-the-hay. I liked the concept of a reverse camera, and enjoyed being introduced to Lok’tus and Chickenpeckers. Ditto for the music nods to Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Beethoven’s Fur Elise. They all resonated with me; and anytime you mention Jackson Pollock or throw in a bit of French, you’ve got me hooked. Finally, I hadn’t thought about the (now defunct) DEW Line in ages; thanks for reviving that bit of nostalgia.
It had been two years since Reverend Hale had found her huddled on the front steps, cold and shivering in the bleakly gray December of London, 1938. He hadn’t asked questions, which was just as well. Mary had no answers to give. Her last memories were of collapsing into a fitful slumber in 2012, beside the smoldering remains of the blood-stained rug where she’d found her brother, the contents of his skull painting her bedroom in a Pollock-painting spray. (loc. 1281)
He never expected to live an extraordinary life and took great comfort in the knowledge that his modest talents supported his modest aspirations. He lived alone and, although he sometimes thought about marriage, he found women perplexing. When his friends set him up on blind dates, he went and did his best to be charming. He was occasionally rewarded with a second date, but never a third. (loc. 1446)
“It’s like Waiting For Godot but with supply airplanes.” (loc. 986)
I’m a bit leery of mentioning my personal favorites from any anthology book, because everyone’s literary tastes are different. Nevertheless, here are the ones that stuck out in my mind, in no particular order.
The Phoenix of Christ Church. Because I'm partial to time-travel stories.
Tendrils Beneath The Skin and Wayfaring Stranger. Because both stories ask tough, situational-ethics-type questions.
The Crippled Sucker. Because there are very few writers who can make playing poker on a train into a fascinating story, and that was the case here.
Your faves will almost certainly be different from mine. A reviewer at Amazon cited My Disrupted Pony as a stand-out story, and I certainly can’t disagree with that choice, or any other selection.
8½ Stars. I can’t think of anything to quibble about in Stupefying Stories 21, except for: at only 9 stories and 213 total pages, it was over far too quickly. Another half-dozen tales would’ve been nice. Then again, if that means adding a bunch of short stories that don’t measure up to these 9 in quality, I’d probably be griping about that. Readers are a picky lot.