Smothered by detail, stories give up the ghost
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollman
Viking. 704 pp. $36
Though the collection includes plenty of literal ghouls, Vollman begins in a more interesting vein, conjuring ghosts of war and international politics, then progressing through phantoms of forfeited power, lost love, abandoned dreams, and ordinary memory, reminding the reader that life itself offers plenty of things as frightening as the dead.
Despite these innovations, however, the bulk of these tales are most alarmingly haunted by unrelenting phantoms of archaic detail, a lack of compelling characterization that, when combined, ultimately prevent the reader from experiencing anything amounting to real fear.
Regardless of any criticism, one of the most interesting questions this collection raises is that of how, exactly, we know a ghost story when we see one. In answer, Last Stories uses several techniques familiar to anyone who has ever heard such a story around a campfire.
The book begins by setting an unnerving mood with two short sections - "To the Reader" and "Supernatural Axioms" - that can only be read as claims to the speaker's authority on the subject of madness. The stories are set in a variety of international locales, often in other time periods, guaranteeing at least a few hundred pages of estrangement and fascination for any reader. Vollman also interrupts the third-person point of view in many of his stories with the first-person voice of the storyteller, a technique reminiscent of the storyteller with the flashlight propped under his chin, eager to flicker the light and assert his own role in the tale as he speaks.
Yet to call the bulk of these "ghost stories" seems inaccurate, as the majority are hampered from achieving the ghost story's most common goal: to frighten. Instead, Last Stories seems more invested in itemizing and cataloging details of setting, culture, politics, or even routine observations that don't further the plot. As a result, many of the entries lack the traditional ghost story's sense of expediency or purpose. Ending with more than 30 pages of notes and source information, Last Stories affirms this obsession with history and myth, though the many compelling aspects of these sources become lost when a story - such as "The Treasure of Jojo Cirtovich" - requires 29 endnotes to be fully appreciated.
Condemned to burial under such weight, dozens of characters suffocate well before they reach whatever tomb the story has prepared for them. Though some of these slights might be easily forgiven or even enjoyed over a campfire for the length of a single story, they translate less well to a 700-page book.
Despite its flaws, Last Stories does not necessarily reveal an essential difference between a ghost story and a good story. A handful of these stories succeed by overlaying elements of the supernatural onto entirely natural situations. Vollman is at his best in works such as "The Faithful Wife," in which a man's undying love for his deceased wife is presented in the form of a vampire legend. "The Narrow Passage" successfully blends a family emigration drama with an army of malevolent trolls, and "June Eighteenth" offers a man whose own death approaches as he is comforted by the ghosts of his past.
The voice throughout these stories can be compellingly wry and insightful, and nearly every tale offers at least one moving observation. Vollman also creates a fair amount of continuity throughout the sprawling book. Grouped into nine sections, his stories often satisfyingly spin characters from one off into new tales within the same section.
Though Last Stories and Other Stories explores, as its jacket advertises, "love, death, and erotica," the collection offers mostly love without excitement, death without terror, and erotica with lovers whose most common euphemism for sex is "she opened her legs." Born of the very good idea to summon not only the supernatural, but also the routine ghosts of human lives, the book suffers from an imbalance of attention to detail and characterization. Too many of these characters are unknowable, and therefore impossible to identify with, much less fear for.
Ultimately, I found myself wishing for a more concise, edited collection that would showcase Vollman's strengths rather than bury them. Readers willing to pull out their shovels will undoubtedly dig up a few innovative entries into the ghost story genre, while readers looking for a good, consistent scare might choose to look elsewhere.
Elizabeth Langemak is an assistant professor of English at La Salle University.