Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
For all the storytellers and tale spinners who entertained the public and kept themselves alive, for Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens, for Mark Twain and Baroness Orczy and the rest, and most of all, for Scheherazade, who was the storyteller and the story told.
Introduction: Just Four Words Neil Gaiman
Blood: Roddy Doyle
Fossil-Figures: Joyce Carol Oates
Wildfire in Manhattan: Joanne Harris
The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains: Neil Gaiman
Unbelief: Michael Marshall Smith
The Stars Are Falling: Joe R. Lansdale
Juvenal Nyx: Walter Mosley
The Knife: Richard Adams
Weights and Measures: Jodi Picoult
Goblin Lake: Michael Swanwick
Mallon the Guru: Peter Straub
Catch and Release: Lawrence Block
Polka Dots and Moonbeams: Jeffrey Ford
Loser: Chuck Palahniuk
Samantha’s Diary: Diana Wynne Jones
Land of the Lost: Stewart O’Nan
Leif in the Wind: Gene Wolfe
Unwell: Carolyn Parkhurst
A Life in Fictions: Kat Howard
Let the Past Begin: Jonathan Carroll
The Therapist: Jeffery Deaver
Parallel Lines: Tim Powers
The Cult of the Nose: Al Sarrantonio
Human Intelligence: Kurt Andersen
Stories: Michael Moorcock
The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon: Elizabeth Hand
The Devil on the Staircase: Joe Hill
About the Contributors
About the Editors
Other Books by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
About the Publisher
JUST FOUR WORDS
AL SARRANTONIO AND I WERE DISCUSSING anthologies of short stories. He had edited a huge anthology of cutting-edge horror, and another of cutting-edge fantasy, each book, in its way, definitive. And in talking, we realised that we had something in common: that all we cared about, really, were the stories. What we missed, what we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. And yes, we wanted good writing (why be satisfied with less?). But we wanted more than that. We wanted to read stories that used a lightning flash of magic as a way of showing us something we have already seen a thousand times as if we have never seen it before. Truly, we wanted it all.
And slowly, the wish becomes the deed…
When I was a child, I pestered my elders for stories. My family would improvise, or read me stories from books. As soon as I was old enough to read, I was one of those children who needed to have a book within reach. I would read a book a day, or more. I wanted stories, and I wanted them always, and I wanted the experience that only fiction could give me: I wanted to be inside them.
Television and cinema were all very well, but these stories happened to other people. The stories I found in books happened inside my head. I was, in some way, there.
It’s the magic of fiction: you take the words and you build them into worlds.
As time passed, I became a more discriminating reader (I remember the first time I realised I did not have to finish reading a book; the first time I realised that the way a story was told was getting in the way of the story). But even as I became more discriminating as a reader I started to feel that the thing that kept me reading, the place the magic occurred, the driving force of narrative was sometimes being overlooked. I would read beautiful prose, and I would simply not care.
It came down to four words.
There are the kind of readers who read only nonfiction: who read biographies, perhaps, or travel writing. Readers who read nothing but concrete poetry. There are those who read things that will improve them and their lot, who only read books that tell them how to survive the coming financial crisis, or have confidence in themselves, or play poker, or build beehives. I myself can sometimes be found reading books about beekeeping and, because I write fiction, am always happy to read strange factual things. Whatever we read, we are part of the community of the story.
There are nonreaders, of course. I knew a man in his nineties who, when he learned that I was a writer, admitted to me that he had tried to read a book, once, long before I was born, but he had been unable to see the point of it, and had never tried again. I asked him if he remembered the name of the book, and he told me, in the manner of someone who tried to eat a snail once and did not care for it, and who does not need to remember the breed of the snail, that one was much like another, surely.
Still. Four words.
And I didn’t realise it until a couple of days ago, when someone wrote in to my blog:
If you could choose a quote—either by you or another author—to be inscribed on the wall of a public library children’s area, what would it be?
I pondered for a bit. I’d said a lot about books and kids’ reading over the years, and other people had said things pithier and wiser than I ever could. And then it hit me, and this is what I wrote:
I’m not sure I’d put a quote up, if it was me, and I had a library wall to deface. I think I’d just remind people of the power of stories, of why they exist in the first place. I’d put up the four words that anyone telling a story wants to hear. The ones that show that it’s working, and that pages will be turned:
“…and then what happened?”
The four words that children ask, when you pause, telling them a story. The four words you hear at the end of a chapter. The four words, spoken or unspoken, that show you, as a storyteller, that people care.
The joy of fiction, for some of us, is the joy of the imagination, set free from the world and able to imagine.
Talking to Al Sarrantonio I realised that I was not alone in finding myself increasingly frustrated with the boundaries of genre: the idea that categories which existed only to guide people around bookshops now seemed to be dictating the kind of stories that were being written. I love the word fantasy, for example, but I love it for the almost infinite room it gives an author to play: an infinite playroom, of a sort, in which the only boundaries are those of the imagination. I do not love it for the idea of commercial fantasy. Commercial fantasy, for good or for ill, tends to drag itself through already existing furrows, furrows dug by J. R. R. Tolkien or Robert E. Howard, leaving a world of stories behind it, excluding so much. There was so much fine fiction, fiction allowing free reign to the imagination of the author, beyond the shelves of genre. That was what we wanted to read.
It seemed to us that the fantastic can be, can do, so much more than its detractors assume: it can illuminate the real, it can distort it, it can mask it, it can hide it. It can show you the world you know in a way that makes you realise you’ve never looked at it, not looked at it. G. K. Chesterton compared fantastic fiction to going on holiday—that the importance of your holiday is the moment you return, and you see the place you live through fresh eyes.
And so the call went out from Mr. Sarrantonio and from me, and the stories began to come back to us. Writers rose to the challenge. We learned to expect only the unexpected.
“…and then what happened?”
The real magic of this little invocation is that it has inspired hundreds of millions of words, has made people who never imagined themselves as storytellers into tale-tellers who could have given Scheherazade or Dunsany’s Joseph Jorkens a run for their money or their whiskey or their lives. We turn the
page, and the adventure begins.
There is something waiting for you. So turn the page.
HE GREW UP IN DRACULA’S CITY. He’d walked past Bram Stoker’s house every day on his way to school. But it had meant nothing to him. He’d never felt a thing, not the hand of a ghost or a shiver, not a lick on his neck as he passed. In fact, he was nearly eighteen, in his last year at school, before he’d even noticed the plaque beside the door. He’d never read the book, and probably never would. He’d fallen asleep during Coppola’s Dracula. One minute his wife was screaming, grabbing his knee; the next, she was grabbing the same knee, trying to wake him up. The cinema lights were on and she was furious.
-How can you do that?
-Sleep during a film like that.
-I always fall asleep when the film’s shite.
-We’re supposed to be out on a date.
-That’s a different point, he said.–For that, I apologise. How did it end, anyway?
-Oh, fuck off, she said, affectionately—that was possible in Dublin.
So the whole thing, the whole Dracula business, meant absolutely nothing to him.
Nevertheless, he wanted to drink blood.
The badly was recent, and dreadful. The itch, the urge, the leaking tongue—it was absolutely dreadful.
He wasn’t sure when it had started. He was, though—he knew when he’d become aware.
-How d’you want your steak?
His wife had laughed. But he’d been telling her the truth. He wanted the slab of meat she was holding over the pan, raw and now—fuck the pan, it wasn’t needed. He could feel muscles holding him back, and other muscles fighting for him—neck muscles, jaw muscles.
Then he woke.
But he was awake already, still standing in the kitchen, looking at the steak, and looking forward to it.
-Rare, so, he said.
She smiled at him.
-You’re such a messer, she said.
He hid behind that, the fact that he acted the eejit, that it was him, as he bent down to the charred meat on the plate a few minutes later, and licked it. The kids copied him and they all ended up with brown gravy on their noses. He made himself forget about his aching jaws and the need to bite and growl. They all watched a DVD after dinner, and everything was grand.
And it was; it was fine. Life was normal. For a while. For quite a while. Weeks—he thought. He opened the fridge one day. There were two fillet steaks on a plate, waiting. It must have been weeks later because she—her name was Vera—she wouldn’t have bought steak all that frequently. And it wasn’t the case that Vera did all the shopping, or even most of it; she just went past the butcher’s more often than he did. She bought the food; he bought the wine. She bought the soap and toilet paper—and he bought the wine. You’re such a messer.
He grabbed one of the steaks and took it over to the sink. He looked behind him, to make sure he was alone, and then devoured it as he leaned over the sink. But he didn’t devour it. He licked it first, like an ice-pop; it was cold. He heard the drops of blood hit the aluminum beneath him, and he felt the blood running down his chin, as if it—the blood—was coming from him. And he started to suck it, quickly, to drink it. It should have been warm. He knew that, and it disgusted him, the fact that he was already planting his disappointment, setting himself up to do it again—this—feeding a need, an addiction he suddenly had and accepted. He growled—he fuckin’ growled. He looked behind him—but he didn’t care. You’re such a messer. He chewed till it stopped being meat and spat the pulp into the bin. He rubbed his chin; he washed his hands. He looked at his shirt. It was clean. He ran the hot tap and watched the black drops turn red, pink, then nothing. He took the remaining fillet from the fridge and slid it off the plate, into the bin. He tied the plastic liner and brought it out to the wheelie bin.
-Where’s the dinner? Vera wanted to know, later.
-I bought fillet steaks for us. There.
She stood in front of the fridge’s open door.
-They were off, he said.
-They were not.
-They were, he said.–They were minging. I threw them out.
-They were perfect, she said.–Are they in here?
She was at the bin.
-The wheelie, he said.
He hadn’t expected this; he hadn’t thought ahead.
-I’m bringing them back, she said, as she moved to the back door.–The fucker.
She was talking about the butcher.
-Don’t, he said.
He didn’t stand up, he didn’t charge to block her. He stayed sitting at the table. He could feel his heart—his own meat—hopping, thumping.
-He’s always been grand, he said.–If we complain, it’ll—I don’t know—change the relationship. The customer-client thing.
He enjoyed listening to himself. He was winning.
-We can have the mince, he said.
-It was for the kids, she said.–Burgers.
-I like burgers, he said.–You like burgers.
The back door was open. It was a hot day, after a week of hot days. He knew: she didn’t want to open the wheelie and shove her face into a gang of flies.
They had small burgers. The kids didn’t complain.
That was that.
Out of his system. He remembered—he saw himself—attacking the meat, hanging over the sink. He closed his eyes, snapped them shut—the idea, the thought, of being caught like that. By a child, by his wife. The end of his life.
He’d killed it—the urge. But it came back, days later. And he killed it again. The fridge again—lamb chops this time. He sent his hand in over the chops, and grabbed a packet of chicken breasts, one of those polystyrene trays, wrapped in cling-—lm. He put a finger through the film, pulled it away. He slid the breasts onto a plate—and drank the pink, the near-white blood. He downed it, off the tray. And vomited.
Cured. Sickened—revolted. Never again. He stayed home from work the next day. Vera felt his forehead.
-Maybe it’s the swine flu.
-Chicken pox, he said. You’re such a messer.
-You must have had the chicken pox when you were a boy, she said.–Did you?
-I think so, he said.
She looked worried.
-It can make adult males sterile, she said.
-I had a vasectomy, he told her.–Three years ago.
-I forgot, she said.
But he was cured; he’d sorted himself out. The thought, the memory—the taste of the chicken blood, the polystyrene tray—it had him retching all day. He wouldn’t let it go. He tortured himself until he knew he was fixed.
It was iron he was after. He decided that after he’d done a bit of Googling when he went back to work. It made sense; it was fresh air across his face. Something about the taste, even the look, of the cow’s deep red blood—it was metal, rusty. That was what he’d craved, the iron, the metal. He’d been looking pale; he’d been falling asleep in front of the telly, like an old man. Anaemia. Iron was all he needed. So he bought himself a carton of grapefruit juice—he knew the kids would never touch it—and he went into a chemist on his way home from work, for iron tablets. He regretted it when the woman behind the counter looked at him over her specs and asked him if they were for his wife.
-We share them, he said.
She wasn’t moving.
-I’d need to see a letter from your GP, she said.
He bought condoms and throat lozenges, and left. By the time he got home he knew his iron theory was shite and he’d pushed the grapefruit juice into a hedge, with the condoms. The kids were right; grapefruit juice was disgusting. There was nothing wrong with him, except he wanted to drink blood.
He had kids. That was the point.
A boy and a girl. He had a family, a wife he loved, a job he tolerated. He worked in one of the banks, not high enough up to qualify for one of the mad bonuses they’d been handing out in the boom days, but high enough to have his family held hostage while he went to the bank with one of the bad guys and opened the safe—although that event had never occurred. The point was, he was normal. He was a forty-one-year-old heterosexual man who lived in Dublin and enjoyed the occasional pint with his friends—Guinness, loads of iron—played a game of indoor football once a week in a leaking school hall, had sex with his wife often enough to qualify as regularly, just about, and would like to have had sex with other women, many other women, but it was just a thought, never a real ambition or anything urgent or mad. He was normal.
He took a fillet steak into the gents’ toilet at work, demolished it, and tried to flush the plastic bag down the toilet. But it stayed there like a parachute, on top of the water. He fished it out and put it in his pocket. He checked his shirt and tie in the mirror, even though he’d been careful not to let himself get carried away as he went at the meat in the cubicle. He was clean, spotless, his normal self. He checked his teeth for strings of flesh, put his face right up to the mirror. He was grand. He went back to his desk and ate his lunch with his colleagues, a sandwich he’d made himself that morning, avocado and tomato—no recession in his fridge. He felt good, he felt great.
He was controlling it, feeding it. He was his own doctor, in very good hands. He’d soon be ironed up and back to his even more normal self.
So he was quite surprised when he went over the wall, even as he went over. What the fuck am I doing? He knew exactly what he was doing. He was going after the next-door neighbours’ recession hens. At three in the morning. He was going to bite the head off one of them. He’d seen the hens—he wasn’t sure if you called them hens or chickens—from one of the upstairs windows. He saw them every night when he was closing his daughter’s curtains, after he’d read to her. (See? He’s normal.) There were three of them, scrabbling around in the garden. He hated them, the whole idea of them. The world economy wobbled and the middle classes immediately started growing their own spuds and carrots, buying their own chickens, and denying they had property portfolios in Eastern Europe. And they stopped talking to him because he’d become the enemy, and evil, because he worked in a bank. The shiftless bitch next door could pretend she was busy all day looking after the hens. Well, she’d have one less to look after, because he was over the wall. He’d landed neatly and quietly—he was fit; he played football—and he was homing in on the hens.