As many of you know, each week we post on whatever story (or dreaded excerpt) The New Yorker has just published. Some of the comments recently have exhibited disappointment in stories featuring the supernatural. The question came up: are we just getting too old to appreciate it?
I’ll go along with the disappointment with the particular stories at issue, but I think it’s just them, not us. I think the supernatural still has a place and that there are wonderful writers utilizing it to explore humanity. If I may present as Exhibit A the wonderful Steven Millhauser, who recently strengthened my argument with a new collection of short stories, Voices in the Night (2015).
Millhauser has been a favorite here at The Mookse and the Gripes ever since I gave his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, a second chance back in 2009 (see my post here). That led me to explore his short fiction. And, though everyone should give Dressler and his earlier novel Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943 – 1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright a shot (see my post here), I believe Millhauser’s short stories are some of the best we’ve got going these days. While he often applies strange and surreal elements to his stories, they often serve to explore how the irrational — of our inner lives, of our fears, hopes, obsessions — exhibits itself in the mundane, the “normal” world we live in day in and day out.
Throughout its sixteen stories, Voices in the Night is not as consistently dazzling as 2011’s We Others, the last Millhauser collection (see my review here). Indeed, we’ve posted about four of the new stories already by virtue of their being published in The New Yorker — “Miracle Polish” (here), “A Voice in the Night” (here), “Thirteen Wives” (here), and “Coming Soon” (here) — and they didn’t tend to hit me as many Millhauser stories do, making me wonder as I watched this collection being built if Millhauser and I were going to have to continue our relationship based on deep affection for the past rather than anticipation about the future. Of course, I enjoyed even these stories, a couple of them quite a bit, and I’m happy to say that many others in the new collection are just as dazzling as my favorites from the past. Millhauser is going into his seventies strong!
The first assuring story is called “Phantoms,” and it may be Millhauser’s best exploration of the mysteries within a small suburban community. Written wryly in the first person plural (much like “The Slap,” another brilliant exploration of this community contained in We Others), “Phantoms” is a kind of report — it presents case studies and theories beneath numbered subtitles — on a phenomenon unique to this small town: besides the conventional, living human residents, it is inhabited by phantoms, and no one knows why. Significantly, the story begins this way:
The phantoms of our town do not, as some think, appear only in the dark. Often we come upon them in full sunlight, when shadows lie sharp on the lawns and streets.
These are real phantoms, not figments of the imagination, though where this story earns its place in my heart is how it uses these phantoms and the various reactions to them to examine the human heart, a heart whose most extreme duress often creeps up at night but is certainly not restricted to the dark. Despite the attempts at objective analysis, “Phantoms” gets rather creepy at times. I read this story out loud to my wife, and passages like this, under “Case Study #4,” heightened our wariness:
One afternoon in late spring, Evelyn Wells, nine years old, is playing alone in her backyard. It’s a sunny day; school is out, dinner’s a long way off, and the warm afternoon has the feel of summer.
It’s also wonderful that in “Phantoms” Millhauser intrigues while never showing any evidence of malice. Indeed, these phantoms appear to care little about the human world; if anything, they are annoyed and often saunter off immediately when seen. Nevertheless, the feeling of uneasiness, the threat of the unknown, all in the comfortable setting of, say, a backyard, keeps this story in my mind though I first read it months ago.
Many of the stories here are born out of the same desire to explore a communal response to the strange, whether the supernatural kind or the human kind. “Mermaid Fever,” funny but not a favorite, looks at the fervor that erupts when a mermaid washes up on shore — no, not because there are mermaids but because the tail is so incredible it starts a fashion trend that everyone must partake in. In “Elsewhere,” a town responds to a collective restlessness:
You could feel it on Main Street, you could feel it at the beach. In the mornings we’d step from our front doors and head for the paper wrapped in its rubber band at the end of the walk — and in that warm, inviting air we’d stop suddenly, as if in confusion. At work we stared out of windows. At home we sat down, stood up, walked into other rooms. We planned long weekend excursions that never materialized, flung ourselves into complex diets that we forgot the next day, spoke eagerly of changing our habits, our jobs, our lives.
Then come the “incidents.”
If you enjoy Millhauser’s approach to fairy tale (such as you might find in The King in the Tree, which I posted on here), you’ll find some of that in here as well. Millhauser visits a story that used to frighten him as a child in “Rapunzel,” saying, in an interview with NPR here, that now he’s interested in “the fact that someone is taken away to a safe place.”
Millhauser’s work is beautiful, there’s no question in my mind. He not only has the ability to tease out the strangest things but he does so with exquisite art. I love his writing. He’s a natural story-teller, and he can get the blood pumping whether he’s writing about voices in the night or picking up the newspaper from the driveway. As he moves into his seventies, I truly hope he finds the will to keep going, to give us even more.