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10-20-14: William T. Vollmann Tells 'Last Stories and Other Stories'

Atlas of the Afterlife

"Near" is exactly as close to death as we can get and still come back with something remotely resembling useful information. Beyond that, we're left to our imagination. This, then, becomes our only means of exploring what it might be like to be dead. The only data points we can bring with us to that imaginary journey are the myths and stories that comprise our folklore of the post-mortal world.

William T. Vollmann has done this, with the result that 'Last Stories and Other Stories' becomes no less than an atlas of the afterlife. Vollmann takes personal experience and memoir, adds folkloric research, then sets off into the uncharted realms of the afterlife with glorious results. 'Last Stories and Other Stories' is alternately dark, fun, disturbing, romantic, erotic, adventurous and thrilling — all the elements of life itself, after life has ceased.

The variety in this book is nothing less than stunning, but comes at a potential price for readers. There are a few stories that some readers will love, some many readers will find distressingly awful (as in "filled with awesome gore and grue"), and quite a few stories that are simply really weird. If you're looking for consistency in death, you'll not find it here. What you will find is a uniformly well-written explorations of the realm from which none have returned.

The book starts out with trio of stories based on Vollmann's time in Serbia, which explore true stories transformed into myths. They're probably the closest in style and content to the work in 'Europe Central.' After that, things get weirder and weirder as Vollmann demonstrates his chops writing classic fantastic fiction in a variety of styles, each informed by his incredible research. The result is a rich, powerful collection of dark, dark fantasy with many standout stories.

"The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich," set in Trieste, is a standout work, pretty much a novel in the vein of Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany or Clark Ashton-Smith. An inherited poiwer, a sea captain with a secret, a squid at the heart of a jewel, and a meditation on just what is valuable in life, this story crafts a world with powerful and slightly archaic prose that is breathtaking. Vollmann manages to imbue his characters with a a deeply felt, gritty presence even as he sets out for realms beyond haven, hell, life and death. Make no mistake, this alone is worth the cover price.

But there's a lot more to be found here. If you can handle the shifts in tone and prose that Vollmann employs to keep his stories inline with their subject, and what to some might seem like an over-the-top immersion in the viscera of the post-mortal life, this collection is a treasure, a gift that keeps on giving and offers stories well worth revisiting. For this reader, highlights included "The Faithful Wife," a unique spin on the vampire folklore, and especially "The Judge's Promise," in which a worthy policeman gives up his life to become a ghoul guardian in the Underworld.

"Two Kings in ZiƱogava" is another work of incredible imagination and wonder. with a world and creatures created like no other. It absolutely begs to be made into a movie by Sam Raimi as an Aztec Lord of the Rings featuring an evil Frodo and a disembodied head. It is truly glorious.

In Norway, readers can take "The Narrow Passage," the prototypical Otherworld Journey through a lens of Norse legends, smart, crisp, cold prose and an imagination to do the old gods justice. Japan gets it's share of neurotic, talking ghosts who just can't quite wrap what's left of their brains around death. These five ghost stories are alternately funny, chilling, and deeply moving.

The new world; America and Toronto are visited in the afterlife as well. "When We Were Seventeen" is as fine an American ghost story as you can hope to read, and as with "The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich," nearly a novel in the midst of a collection of stories.

Beyond the merits of all the individual stories, there is the impact of the collection itself. The book is extensively footnoted, so that readers can check out Vollmann's sources and investigations into folklore. It's a huge book, topping out at over 700 pages, and best read over time rather than in one straight shot. There are many stories that to me seem worthy of many re-readings, perhaps when one is dipping into the past classics of Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Lord Dunsany and David Lindsay. One of the most admirable achievements of this collection is that in it, Vollmann succeeds at echoing past styles in his own unique voice. While we do not now, and may never know death, we can imagine; and Vollmann's map of our own madness when faced with the end is a lovely dark vortex that takes us closer than might wish possible.

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