The Doors of Perception
If you put an effort into it, you could probably come across a new “Death of Fiction” essay every month. The short story—if you believe the claims of such pieces—is probably dying even faster than the novel. If any of these death reports are true, they are even more true for genre short stories. Economics seem to have given genre writers the idea that if something is worth doing as a short story, you might as well stretch it out, pad it up and stitch it together as a novel. Glance around the bookstore and it seems like mere scraps of imagination that might fuel a short story are routinely transformed into an entire series.
All of which makes Paul Di Filippo’s collection of fantasy stories Little Doors refreshing. Many of his story ideas, in the hands of less discriminating writers, would have been pulled into flaccid novels instead of engaging and moving stories. Take “Singing Each to Each.” An older man becomes fascinated and then obsessed with a postcard picture of a mermaid. He tracks down the model in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, following what he hears as a Siren call. A crude, unsavory woman dashes his fantasy before becoming much more than he could have hoped. Fill in a chapter of set-up, a few extra chapters of mystery, additional conflict with the model, perhaps a wacky chase, a meditative ending and a generous page layout and you’ve got a novel. They could even market it as a thinking man’s Splash.
Di Filippo, however, gives each story only what it needs. In the title story, Crawleigh, a professor of children’s literature, discovers ominous parallels between his life and an old, obscure children’s book called Little Doors. We witness his discovery of the book and Di Filippo treats us to a few wonderful excerpts of Wizard of Oz-era fable. Crawleigh’s personal life comes apart during a trip with his exasperated mistress as the expert in children’s literature demonstrates his poor reading skills and weak imagination. The suspense is not belabored and the supernatural mystery is not dragged out and beaten by repetition.
Di Filippo excels at lining the everyday world with slight supernatural elements. Several stories have only an element or two of fantasy. In “Moloch,” one of the best stories here, a struggling father begins to hear a voice in the blast furnace at his factory. It could be argued that the story is straight realism and the fantasy exists only in the character’s head. After all, this is a guy who can look through a windshield and tell his wife, “That sky is the sky of hell. Plain and simple, it’s the sky of the devil’s kingdom. Somehow we took a wrong turn. I been thinking about it for some time now. We’re lost, Dawn.” It’s realism if he’s mistaken, fantasy if he’s correct. Regardless, the story is heartbreaking.
Other characters in Little Doors, like the father in “Moloch,” engage in severe self-deception. Husbands don’t want to learn or admit that their wives have joined cults, slept with a prehistoric man living in the basement or crept out to commit spiritual crimes against humanity. Alternately, in “The Horror Writer,” the main character imagines his completely human ex-wife as a demon. The stories are fun, but love doesn’t frequently seem to conquer all and when it does, in the deathbed fantasy “Slumberland,” there’s still a twist and some uncertainty.
Although thematically linked, the subject matter varies as well as the style. Di Filippo is usually a smooth writer, unintrusively telling the story without dumbing anything down or being too flip. Occasionally, he hits the reader with a phrase or metaphor too poetic or weighty to resist. In “Sleep Is Where You Find It,” an insomnia-addled photographer of murder victims drives all night through a nightmare world in a fearful stupor accompanied by ghosts. “The car slides over the streets like the planchette on a grimy Ouija board, spelling out clues he’s too close to read ...” In “Jack Neck and the Worrybird,” Di Filippo presents the most radically transformed world of this collection with new creatures, new gods and new laws of biology. This story, inspired by the paintings of former Replacements’ drummer Chris Mars, also contains the most chewy and showy writing.
Variety helps enliven a short story collection. Beginning Di Filippo’s stories, you can’t be sure if you’ll be in the present day, an alternative world, the afterlife, or the afterlife of a piece of wood. Even the couple of stories I can’t say I truly “get,” like the comic-book inspired “Return to Cockaigne,” did not annoy with repetition or sameness.
Little Doors has the wild inventiveness and wide ranging subjects of a Twilight Zone marathon, except thoroughly contemporary. How could something like that ever die?