In Celebration of “Being Right”
The Best of Michael Marshall Smith
Michael Marshall Smith
Subterranean Press, December 31, 2020, 568 pages
It happens at least once in every anthology or short story collection.
Or at least, you hope it happens at least once. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. You read every single story in the table of contents and every single one of them slides through you like grease through a goose, emerging from your anterior end without having left an iota of substance behind. Come to think of it, this happens quite a bit. But what you hope for, what you deserve as the purchaser or borrower of a collection of short fiction, is for something to say, “No, you’re not getting away untouched; this is staying with you; you are at least in part a different person than you were before you read this puppy.”
As writer, you want to achieve that. As reader, you want to receive that. It is the target, the ideal.
Michael Marshall Smith, an author who instills considerable awe in this observer, manages this several times in the career retrospective, The Best of Michael Marshall Smith (Subterranean Press, $45.00, with a less gasp-inducing e-book available: release date December). He manages it, in truth, more often than not. But because we are talking about singular short story achievements, your friendly correspondent narrows this quality down to one story, before flinging himself at the gestalt: “Being Right.” In this story, an American tourist in London leaves his jet-lagged wife at the hotel and goes off to browse in a street of bookstores, eventually finding himself in a disorganized establishment with an inventory that appears to be infinite. And here you, the reader of this reader, nod, because you are well familiar with the trope of the odd magical item found in an odd retail establishment that can never be located again; and yes, this story belongs to that tradition, but here the item purchased is not here to arrange an odd twist but to impart wisdom, and it strikes our hapless protagonist between the eyes, and it struck this reader between the eyes, and it will strike you, the potential reader, between the eyes. This story is marital preventative maintenance, and it is lovely, and I put it in a box by itself, before moving on to the rest of the volume’s inventory.
When you read a single-author collection, you tend to note certain recurring themes, and Michael Marshall Smith has quite a few. For instance, a number of his protagonists have drinking problems. A number have regret issues.
There is also more than one treatment of shattering loss. A few stories begin with portraits of loving relationships and then inform us one scene-break in that they have been shattered by death, and your friendly correspondent begs forgiveness for his spoilage as he here addresses two of them. “Later” bereaves its male protagonist and then renders his emotional isolation permanent via the employment of a common horror trope; “Everything You Need” bereaves its female protagonist in much the same way, and then offers a quite different emotional payoff in the form of a jammed drawer in her deceased husband’s filing cabinet. “Different Now” is about the sudden end of a relationship, rendered stunning by the addition of another fantastic element.
There is more than one apocalypse. Zombies show up here twice, once by implication, once in specific; and in both cases they barely appear, because Smith is more interested in exploring the dynamic of human beings in a world afflicted by such terrors. “Hell Hath Enlarged Itself” forever plunges Mankind into a hell that can never be escaped, thanks to a trio of well-meaning nanotech researchers. “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night” is the awful story of a little girl who does just that, cannot find her way in the darkness, and finds that she has delivered her family into a form of perdition.
There is more than one evocation of intense human evil. “The Motel Business” is about a guy who has settled into just that, in an isolated run-down establishment where he is doing well if he has more than one customer a time; and he seems a decent enough fellow as the latest woman to show up and ask for a room is attractive but hapless human wreckage fleeing a life she did not have the personal will to face, and who seems to want nothing but a little refuge to drink in. “Failure” is about a suburban daddy investigating the activities of his son, a serial abuser. “What You Make It,” is about a predator who takes children, who finds that he is nowhere near the top of the food chain. In not all these stories, or those of their like, are the ultimate evils those Smith initially points us at.
There is one story set on a starship, one story involving clones, one story of reflexive fiction in which Michael Marshall Smith appears as a character, all providing testimony that this guy can do pretty much what he wants. But deprived as I am of space to discuss all thirty, I will call special attention to “The Window of Erich Zahn,” about a teenaged girl named Marion who flees to San Francisco during the Summer of Love, and is swiftly disappointed by the drugs-and-free-love scene she finds herself engaged in, one that Smith evokes with a clarity that is downright savage. She also finds herself entangled in phenomena of a more Lovecraftian flavor, that swallow her up in a manner resonant of the manner in which many well-meaning young people were swallowed up by the time. Parts of this story remind this reader, favorably, of the somewhat classic Harlan Ellison story “Shattered Like A Glass Goblin,” except in the rather breath-taking arrival, at the eleventh hour, of hope as a product of human goodness. Take this one as lesson, would-be purveyors of horror—not every story needs to end with the triumph of darkness.
This is a collection you will return to, by one of the field’s current masters of short fiction. It is worth getting in its physical form, but the e-book exists if the price tag prompts wincing.
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