To everything there is a season, and the season for short stories is summer — except for tales of ghosts and demons, which should be reserved for late fall. To help you enjoy your time on a beach or in a hammock, here are seven short-story collections worth looking for.
Other Arms Reach Out to Me: Georgia Stories , by Michael Bishop (Fairwood Press). Michael Bishop is well known as a science fiction writer — don’t miss his best-of collection, “The Door-Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy” — but this new book collects his equally fine stories about contemporary Southern life. How can anyone resist “The Road Leads Back,” which pays homage to Flannery O’Connor? From the opening sentence, its tone is pitch-perfect: “Flora Marie did not want to visit the Benedictine monastery in Alabama. Back in April, at the insistence of her aunt Claire, who had paid for the pilgrimage, she’d made a fatiguing round-trip journey by air to Lourdes. Aunt Claire had believed that a reverent dip in the shrine’s waters would enable Flora Marie to throw away her crutches and live again as a ‘normal person.’ ” Other stories recall the trailer-park black humor of Harry Crews or Barry Hannah: In “Doggedly Wooing Madonna,” a misfit teenager repeatedly writes letters proposing to the Material Girl, who eventually pays him a visit while he is working at Finger Lickin’ Fried. Bishop closes his excellent collection with the Nebula Award-nominated “Rattlesnakes and Men.”
Bibliomysteries: Stories of Crime in the World of Books and Bookstores , edited by Otto Penzler (Pegasus). The subtitle says it all — except to note that contributors to this hefty anthology include some of the most admired contemporary writers of mysteries and thrillers: Jeffery Deaver, Laura Lippman, Nelson DeMille, C.J. Box, Anne Perry. Two particular treats are William Link’s “Death Leaves a Bookmark,” in which television’s Lt. Columbo returns, as rumpled as ever, and John Connolly’s Edgar Award-winning fantasy, “The Caxton Lending Library & Book Depository.” In the latter, the lonely Mr. Berger solves the mystery of why a woman dressed like Anna Karenina wants to throw herself under an express train. Connolly has since published an equally delightful story about the Caxton Library: “Holmes on the Range” — about the sleuth of Baker Street — can be found in “Night Music: Nocturnes 2.”
Nightmares and Geezenstacks , by Fredric Brown (Valancourt). Fredric Brown gained immortality with “Knock,” the most famous science fiction short-short of all time: “The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.” This collection gathers 47 mini-fantasies almost as concise, most being only two or three pages long, nearly all of them ending with an O. Henry-like twist. They range from the shocking “Nightmare in White” to the naughtily Rabelaisian “Ring of Hans Carvel” to the biter-bit classic “Hobbyist” to a little series about “Great Lost Discoveries,” these being invisibility, invulnerability and immortality. Brown’s bar tales and whiz-bang anecdotes are models of how to tell a story without using a word too many.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales , edited by Jack Zipes (Princeton). Long before Walt Disney and composer Paul Dukas, there were stories about magicians and their — usually — overreaching pupils. Distinguished fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes opens this new anthology with “Why Magic Matters,” an 80-page essay that explores this subgenre’s “master-slave dialectic,” with particular attention to contemporary pop culture (e.g. Harry Potter). These thought-provoking narratives from around the world aren’t particularly well known, but they repeatedly address one crucial question: Should we obey or resist authority?
Nearly Nero: The Adventures of Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Wolfe , by Loren D. Estleman (Tyrus). If you’re a fan of Rex Stout’s fat, irascible and agoraphobic detective Nero Wolfe, these 11 mystery stories will be a special treat. Loren D. Estleman, as versatile a crime writer as they come, imagines a Nero Wolfe wannabe, who adopts the name Claudius Lyon (get it?), then hires a con artist named Arnie Woodbine to be his Archie Goodwin. Even more than Goodwin, Arnie narrates with sassy, smart-alecky wit: “The APA was an organization devoted to art patronage, specifically for poets who’d missed the memo that the road to starvation begins with the purchase of one’s first rhyming dictionary.”
Gravity Changes , by Zach Powers (BOA Editions). Winner of the BOA Short Fiction Prize, this gathering of fabulist tales will remind many readers of Italo Calvino. In Powers’s title story, children learn to fly like Peter Pan. In “Joan Plays Power Ballads With Slightly Revised Lyrics,” a young woman engages in bizarre behavior as she tries to shrink the universe. “Children in Alaska” recounts a man’s love affair with a lightbulb: “Very few people came to the wedding, and the kiss was awkward.” The narrator of “Single” even confesses what many of us feel: “My favorite part of reading is the period.” As novelist Karen Russell, author of “Swamplandia,” proclaims on the back cover of Powers’s book: This is “a wonderfully vertiginous, through-the-looking-glass story collection.”
Continental Crimes , edited by Martin Edwards (Poisoned Pen). What is more restful than a classic murder mystery, provided it emphasizes charm and wit, puzzle and surprise? It can be even better when the setting is 1920s and ’30s Europe. In his latest anthology, Martin Edwards selects lesser-known stories by well-known grandmasters, including Arthur Conan Doyle (“The New Catacomb”) and Agatha Christie (“Have You Got Everything You Want?”). In G.K. Chesterton’s “The Secret Garden” a corpse has had its head cut off. Will the great detective Valentin discover why? In Stacy Aumonier’s “The Perfect Murder,” two heavily indebted brothers decide that their wealthy aunt has lived long enough. Do they have the nerve to carry through a deadly plan? Not least, if you just can’t make it to the baccarat tables at Monte Carlo this summer, you can still sip some Krug champagne while enjoying H. de Vere Stacpoole’s “The Ten-Franc Counter” and E. Phillips Oppenheim’s “The Secret of the Magnifique.”
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style on Thursdays.