We All Hear Stories in the Dark, Robert Shearman (PS Publishing 978-1-786364-46-2, $£90.00, 1,759pp, three volumes, hc) April 2020.
Robert Shearman’s new collection, We All Hear Stories in the Dark, is a remarkable feat of storytelling. Nine years in the making, it comprises over 100 pieces of fiction, spans three volumes (with introductions from Angela Slatter, Michael Marshall Smith, and Lisa Tuttle, and a “peculiar” middleword by Steven Moffat), and features exquisite black-and-white woodcuts, topping and tailing each story, from the supremely talented Reggie Oliver. But what’s truly special about We All Hear Stories in the Dark, what makes it more than just a retrospective of Shearman’s award-winning work (he is the recipient of the World Fantasy Award for his debut Tiny Deaths, and the Shirley Jackson Award for his follow-up Love Songs For the Shy and Cynical) is that the collection has been tailored to reflect each reader. Or, to put it another way, the version of We All Hear Stories in the Dark that I’m reviewing for this column will only bear a vague resemblance to the collection you encounter.
To make the reading experience as unique as possible, Shearman structures We All Hear Stories in the Dark around a literary device made popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s by Edward Packard and Bantam Books: Choose Your Own Adventure. The prologue, which opens the first volume, lays out his conceit in a sad, poignant tale about a man who loses his wife. “He doesn’t mean to lose her. The doctors keep saying she will get better, must get better – and then one day quite suddenly, quite unspectacularly, she doesn’t.” The wife’s adoration for all things literary pushes the husband, out of spite and jealousy, to burn her books, and then out of love and loss, to join the local library. It’s in the library, having spent three weeks reading the entirety of world literature, and yet finding no trace of his wife in those great works, that he encounters an old woman in a dark room at the end of a long corridor. She promises the man that his wife will be returned to him, provided he reads one hundred and one stories in the correct order. The old woman then asks the man – and by extension us the reader – to choose the first story: Should we read something sad, something funny, something bitter, something sweet, or something dark?
As I was in the mood for a laugh, so I chose funny, which took me to “Shaggy Dog Story”. It’s a tale about the day Snoopy from Peanuts died: “They found his body lying on top of his kennel, wearing those World War I fighter pilot goggles he liked, and there must have been a foot of snow on him.” The story is told from the perspective of a peripheral character from the comic strip who, in a bid to increase her profile, dons a Snoopy outfit and takes on the functions of everyone’s favourite beagle. It’s an unsettling and yet genuinely funny tale about change in a changeless world and the awkward shift from childhood to adulthood. At the conclusion of the story, the old lady returns, offering up a selection of five new pieces predicated on key elements of “Shaggy Dog Story”. Because I was still in the mood for something amusing, I went with a piece that promised to explore how jokes are structured. This turns out to be “I Say (I Say, I Say)”, which takes the opening line of the classic joke format – “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman” – and gives those three characters interior lives, an existence of sorts outside the joke. As with “Shaggy Dog Story”, “I Say (I Say, I Say)” deals with repetition, permanence, and change, but from a different angle and through a darker lens. The next tale I selected, “Slow Handicap of the Moronic Horde”, which continues the theme of creativity that’s picked up in “I Say (I Say I Say)”, but replaces society’s gradual disinterest with a well-worn joke with a zombie apocalypse and a writer press-ganged by the undead to portray their ascendancy through the medium of musical theatre. On I went, with stories about the nature of comedy seamlessly feeding into fantastical tales – sometimes hilarious but often sinister and nightmarish – about infidelity, obsession, and the extraordinary quality of love. This intricate web, perfectly engineered so that each story is in conversation with what’s come before, brings to life the collection’s central conceit, spelt out in the prologue, that “books do not exist in isolation… [they] are reactions to other books, they are extensions to and rebuttal of everything else that is already in print before them.” But as much as We All Hear Stories in the Dark is an incredible and unique reading experience, I need you to know that even if you follow the old lady’s directions, you will not read all one hundred and one stories. One of them is hidden (I won’t say where), but if you cheat, and I suggest you do, you will discover it. This secret story not only says a great deal about Shearman as a writer, about his influences, about his love of literature, and, quite emotionally, about his relationship with his parents, but it brilliantly defines short fiction as “an unlicensed taxi driver who will take you into the darkness far from where you wanted to go and beat you up. Short stories are nasty, paranoid little things.”
I can say with a measure of confidence that We All Hear Stories in the Dark is unlike anything you will ever read, an insane, mind-boggling, and astonishing experiment where, in the words of the old lady, “these stories are for you… only for you.”
This review and more like it in the May 2020 issue of Locus.
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