It has been an agonizingly long time since the last China Miéville novel was released (that would be 2012’s steampunky Railsea, a dusty, violent dystopian spin on the Moby-Dick mythos). We, the Miéville faithful (hello, my name is Rich) still must bide our time until whenever that as-yet-unannounced book drops, pacing the floor until we see what 2016’s novella This Census Taker will reveal (or catching up with his largely overlooked work on the DC Comics limited series Dial H).
As a welcome placeholder, we have Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories, a collection of new and previously published short works. Any fiction reader who’s been around the block knows that the short story is certainly a tough thing to do well, not to mention consistently. Miéville proves to be oddly well-suited to the format for someone who also writes doorstoppers, though no one who has read his novels will be surprised that he’s an adept at coming up with wonderfully bizarre setups. If they sometimes end too abruptly, it’s really only because I’m always eager to spend more time in his worlds. But that’s not the nature of short stories. They come, they go, and it’s time for the next one. And once you accept that, these fragmented bursts of Miéville begin to really take hold.
Across 28 stories of varying length, Miéville blends fantasy, horror, humor, and his unique brand of subversive surrealism, resulting in a weird and mercurial collection. One moment it is absurdly fantastic—massive icebergs floating in the skies above London (Polynia)—and the next, a dark neo-thriller—a therapist going to extremes to help her patients (The Dreaded Outcome). Occasionally there’s a two-page snippet as maddeningly obtuse as it is brief (Four Final Orpheuses), bumping up against the author’s cinematic sensibilities in Final Draft-friendly movie trailer descriptions (Listen To The Birds and The Crawl) that are as eerie as they are spot-on recreations of the form.
The high points are memorable, unsettling, and unnerving, whether it be the random appearance of unusual suits of cards in a high-stakes poker game (The Dowager of Bees), an archaeological team’s creepy discovery (In The Slopes), or a mythical bag of Lovecraftian bad mojo that demands payment (Säcken). Miéville pulls his readers down one dark rabbit hole after another, and strange creatures inhabit each: haunting kitsch art seems to have an ugly life of its own (The Rabbet), a political uprising is sparked by a mysterious, barely-there stranger (The Dusty Hat), and an isolated island carries its own tragic history (Watching God).
Every short story set has an unofficial big winner, a tale that rises above the rest, and here it is the transformative allure of After the Festival, a Wicker-Man-meets-“The-Lottery” horrorshow about the insatiable evolutionary rush brought on by a strange ritual involving the donning of freshly severed animal heads. It takes a lot to rattle me, the veteran horror fan, but this one poked at my soft spots in ways I have not felt in some time. At just 25 pages, it’s Miéville’s bad dream opus, the rare kind of storytelling that left me sweaty and breathless.
Fans of the author are no doubt eager to dive into this set, but it also makes a great introduction to his work, and an excellent gateway to ambitious novels like Kraken and Perdido Street Station. Whichever path you choose, remember this warning: if you read past dark, you may want to leave the lights burning after. It’s safer in the light.