4 out of 4 stars
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"A short story is a different thing altogether: a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger." Stephen King said that, probably in his essay on horror fiction Danse Macabre, to explain how novels are more like a full-blown relationship, in which we get to "live" with the characters for a long time and, therefore, we get to know them well. A short story, however, just gives us a glimpse, a fleeting moment in someone's life. We never really get to know the characters too well, just have a brief moment. Like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.
The short story is a genre I personally enjoy a lot, precisely because of what Mr. King says: the joy of a moment of magic, a small vignette in someone's life, a strange, interesting or important anecdote about an event. And, because of the format itself, short stories are usually more concerned with either anecdote or mood than with character, and that suits me just fine.
Strangely enough, I found myself thinking about that quote above a lot while reading William H. Coles's Illustrated Short Fiction, precisely because they seem to work in the opposite way: the anecdotes themselves are always less important than the characters we are presented with.
My initial reaction, upon reading the first story, called "The Gift", was of slight rejection, to be honest. It's a peculiar story because it covers a very long period in the life of the protagonists and, when I reached the end, there was no real sense of closure. It felt as if the story could have ended at any other moment. But then I closed the book, went to do a few things and, hours later, I found myself thinking about those wonderful characters. Somehow, they had stayed with me. And that was a strange and delightful feeling, as if the author had sneaked up on me and while I thought I was reading about some events, I ended up knowing and caring about some people.
The wonderful thing about this book is that this did not just happen with one story, or just a few of them. It's a constant throughout the collection. Some of the stories are more fleshed out, some are actually very good and would stand on their own even with less interesting characters. Some actually feel too short and a bit incomplete. But what we always have here is superb character development. The Stephen King quote is not only adequate but opportune here: he is one of my favorite writers mostly because of how brilliantly he creates and presents characters to us. But King takes his time (and words) to flesh them out. Mr. Coles manages to create complex, deep and unforgettable characters in remarkable short time, and he does it in such a crafty way, with such elegant prose that, even when, after reading a few stories, you get a feel for how he does it, it is still effective and an utter pleasure to experience it.
Characters never exist in a vacuum, though, and the reason they are so memorable is that the relationships among them are drawn with a lot of honesty, insight and an unflinching look, even at awkward and strange moments. So is the author's take on the subject matters he deals with, which are varied and encompass different historical periods, places and socioeconomic groups. It doesn't matter if the story is, ultimately, uplifting and joyful, or if it's sad, gruesome or bleak: Coles will stay with the characters and follow them along, showing us what they do, feel and think. We may not always like what we see, and we may find ourselves mentally arguing with them. But, after all, what better feeling is there than that?
The book is "illustrated" for two reasons, I presume. On the one hand, there are always one or two illustrations accompanying the stories. I found some of them beautiful and a few a perfect image for what the stories represented. There are also two stories that are also narrated in comic form. I did not enjoy the format at all, and I thought it took away from both stories or characters.
Still, I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars. It is a superb collection of stories and I would recommend it, not only to anyone who likes short stories, but to anyone who likes spending a bit of time with interesting, realistic and unforgettable characters.
Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles: 2000-2016
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