Tales Told in Oz by Gregory Maguire, Stone Animals by Kelly Link, The Man Who Danced with Dolls by Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams, and The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device by Kevin Brockmeier
The stories stand alone. Five inches by five inches, they're the size of a tile, slightly smaller than an insert in a CD jewel case, but jewel's a good word for these little books. Madras Press, based just outside of Boston, puts out stories, four at a time, each individually bound, beautifully designed, and the author of each chooses a charity where the proceeds go. The third series, just out, features a quartet of tales by Gregory Maguire, Kelly Link, Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams, and Kevin Brockmeier. There are pumpkinheads, inventive trolls, haunted toothbrushes, an army of rabbits, hexed handshakes, massive rubberband balls, the Welsh word for the sound a grandfather clock makes the moment before it chimes, as well as collapsing marriages, trips to McDonalds, inscrutable adults, and kids playing soccer in the street. Taken together, they're a mighty, misfit batch, sharp and strange, sometimes surprising, often sad.
In Tales Told in Oz, Gregory Maguire, who granted the Wicked Witch of the West her own story in Wicked, makes the reader feel as though he or she is sitting on the tale-teller's lap, or is tucked chin-deep under the covers, one more story before sleep. "If you will just sit down and stay still, and stop picking your nose, I'll tell you the story of Jack Pumpkinhead," the storyteller advises. There's a fairy-tale feel to these short pieces, something magical and transportive. A "troubled maiden" is pursued "on bare blooded feet through paddocks and stiles and down the lanes into safely husbanding forests," her pursuants "on horseback a-thundering, thundering." She's escaping her grandfather, a skeevy old bishop who wants to make her his wife, "trembling in his eagerness and appetite" with an "unholy gleam in his holy eye." Maguire recreates that feeling in kidhood when you hear a story, are taken with it, but maybe don't quite understand, some mystery there, something untold that your brain has to fill in for itself. We don't quite know what the hunters did to Alephaba behind the waterfall before it froze, and we don't quite know where she vanished to, but there's something good in the not knowing. It leaves us guessing.
Little nuggets of truth flash in the river of the rest of the story. "Great treasure, like manure, attracts all manner of pests and vermin." And "One makes a world, as one makes a marriage, only by practice." Maguire has practiced. His world is fleshed and strange, and a welcome antidote against TV reality and the idea that bedtime stories are just for kids.
Kelly Link knows something of creating worlds, ones so fully grounded in the familiar that we believe in zombies and hauntings and realms inside of handbags and visits to the underworld. Her acclaimed short story collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters all conjure myths and fairy-tales, and show us a time and place we know from right now. Her story "Stone Animals," my favorite of hers, and one of my favorite short stories period, was originally from Magic, and is well-deserving of a front and back cover all its own. Plus, Stone Animals has illustrations, by writers, artists, and weirdos including Arthur Phillips, Daniel Handler, Lane Smith, Laura Miller, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Audrey Niffenegger, among others.
Henry and pregnant Catherine move with their two kids from the city to the country, to a house that haunts the everyday objects -- toothbrush, television, toaster -- and with a yard infested with watchful rabbits. Catherine paints over the walls, over and over so that "when Henry puts his hand against the wall in the living room, it gives a little, as if the wall is pregnant." She paints with her big belly and a gas mask, hoping that changing the walls will make the hauntings stop, make the house and everything in it feel less sinister. Meanwhile, Henry, who was supposed to work from home, spends days in his office in the city, with his boss, the Crocodile, who has beautiful teary eyes and collects rubber bands. Amidst the front-yard rabbit infestation and a house that haunts everything, "even the fucking shoes," Henry and Catherine's marriage disintegrates in a real way indeed, quietly devastating.
When Carleton was three months old, Henry had realized something. Babies weren't babies -- they were land mines; bear traps; wasp nests. They were a noise, which was sometimes even not a noise, but merely a listening for a noise; they were a damp, chalky smell; they were the heaving, jerky, sticky manifestations of not-sleep. Once Henry had stood and watched Carleton in his crib, sleeping peacefully. He had not done what he wanted to do. He had not bent over and yelled in Carleton's ear.
The story is sinister and specific and makes you wonder about the things that seem normal.
The Man Who Danced with Dolls by Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams doesn't feature the overtly fantastical, but her novella is marked by a hazed melancholy, like long-gone childhood memories re-remembered, like just waking from a dream fuzzed around the edges that haunts your day. Atmospheric and wintry, the story captures so well what it is to be a person on the cusp of adulthood, watching the grownups around you. A young narrator is given a sip of cognac by his father at a party, a secret from his mom. It's not the only one, and that initiation ushers another one, a skirted understanding of the secrets adults keep from each other, that husbands and wives keep from each other, that we keep from even our own selves. "Sometimes feeling like you're on the outside is powerful. To be the observer, the witness."
Abrams proves a good observer: "A city feels more like a city in winter. Everything in grayscale. A low, ossified sky." And "The order of cold that makes sounds sharper." And surprising, too. On a detour to buy a puppy the narrator encounters "a heavyset women with thinning hair and a sweatband around her head... wearing a T-shirt that read 'I've had it up to here with MIDGETS.'" There are moments of heartbreak on small and large scale.
Kevin Brockmeier's The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device has heartbreak in a more literal sense. Told Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style, the story doesn't involve caves or rescues or falling into pits of ogres or getting swallowed by a seabeast. "If you decide to do a little grocery shopping, turn to page 93. If you decide to clean the bathroom, turn to page 121." "Do you call Susannah on the phone? If so, turn to page 9. Do you send her an email instead? If so, turn to page 77." Such are the small decisions that make up a day, make up our lives, the chores and coincidences, routines and chance meetings, the small joys: "At one point, you are so touched and delighted by something you read that you actually laugh and kiss the page." Those moments are rare, mostly it's a feeling of approaching it, but not quite getting there. "Sometimes, watching people through the flat silence of a window, you feel that you are on the verge of understanding a human mystery that has managed to evade you your whole life, but that is where you always remain: on the verge."
And there are bigger, harder questions than whether to have a snack or go for a walk, and these appear like smacks, stomach-tighteners, discomforting in what they ask of us, just the innocent reader. "If you have ever really been happy, turn to page 97. If you haven't, turn to page 129." "Is your adult life anything like you thought it would be? If so, turn to page 17," and so on. Regardless of what combinations of adventures you choose, you will come to the inevitable "Go on to page 73." No more choices. No more questions. And no avoiding it. "It is a sad, beautiful, ordinary day." Each time you will weave your way through to page seventy-three, with dread, regret, and surrender.
Tales Told in Oz by Gregory Maguire
Stone Animals by Kelly Link
The Man Who Danced with Dolls by Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams
The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device by Kevin Brockmeier