“McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Tales,” edited by Michael Chabon; Vintage; paperback, $13.95

With a kitschy pulp paperback cover and an eclectic lineup of authors, editor Michael Chabon is hoping to throw readers off their game. Readers tend chose a genre, to label themselves as mystery, science fiction or literary fiction readers. Chabon, the editor of “McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Tales,” believes that the best works of fiction result when writers take the rules of a given genre and invert them, mock them or simply play with them.

He’s asking readers to follow some of their cherished writers as they step slightly out of their usual form.

Fifteen authors – ranging from Margaret Atwood to Stephen King – were asked to write an astonishing tale. Maine legend Stephen King writes several astonishing tales before breakfast, and it is no surprise that his short story in the collection. His “Lisey and the Madman” is an incredibly satisfying collision between normal activity and dark forces.

But when King’s short story sits alongside literary fiction writer Margaret Atwood’s story of the maturation of a female werewolf, you know you’re dipping into an unusual collection.

Mischief and lies

Chabon’s introduction celebrates the Trickster character of myth and legend. He invites the anthologized authors to play the trickster role and be a “maker of mischief, a teller of lies, bringer of trouble and, above all, random change.”

Stephen King is a master trickster and his short story pays homage to his genre by detailing the day of a celebrated writer and his wife. The wife, Lisey, stands quietly at her husband’s side through endless award ceremonies and dedications. She must also stand at his side during his sleeping and waking nightmares.

On a hot August day, Lisey is forced to act against both a nightmare seen and one she does not dare look at in order to save her husband. King astonishes by placing the writer himself, rather than his character, in the path of a madman.

Heidi Julavits, also a Maine writer, took up Chabon’s charge. Julavits chose to play the Trickster by tinkering with the form of traditional ghost stories. Our two protagonists, both reluctant bridesmaids, drive into the Cascades for a weekend of bonding with the bride. With the proper foreboding, the winter weather turns severe, their car becomes stuck and the women must take refuge with a reclusive woman in a remote cabin. Clues, newspaper clippings and strange coincidences are revealed. And in a final chilling scene, the loyalty of the bridesmaids will be tested and the bride exposed as a monster. The reader may suspect a send-up of the popular chick lit genre and its reliance on female treachery in Julavits’ rewarding thriller.


Readers may recognize other writers in the collection. Daniel Handler, a legend amongst children for his Lemony Snicket series, weaves a wonderful piece reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett. Irish writer Roddy Doyle, best known for his novel “The Commitments” and the subsequent film, will surprise readers with his chilling tale of a man pursued by the ghost of a lone child. Maine writer Jonathan Lethem, long a trickster in switching genres, also makes an appearance. His contribution is the subtlest of the group. His story plays on the haunting notion of déjà vu, and a man’s inability to act on the passion it awakes.

As the snow comes down and night closes in, pick up “McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Tales.” The collection is full of surprises by those authors you know and may lead you to pursue further work by writers you don’t. If during your winter nights, no ghostly bridesmaid scratches at your windowpane, Chabon promises there will be other tricksters ready to astonish you.

Kirsten Cappy is a bookseller in Portland.

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