In Last Stories and Other Stories‘ opening salvo, ”To the Reader,” William Vollmann asserts: ”This is my final book. Any subsequent productions bearing my name will have been composed by a ghost.” What is the reader to make of the preface to his new heroic, unsettling, and above all capacious and ambitious story collection? Is this the literal truth? What of the anticipated fifth book in his Seven Dreams series, The Dying Grass, projected to appear in 2015? Will the world really be deprived of more fiction and nonfiction from a boundlessly productive writer whose massive oeuvre, since his first book in 1987, You Bright and Risen Angels, is unique among his peers for its breadth, intensity and transgressive obsessions?
Perhaps Vollmann is merely speaking symbolically, indicating he has passed through some personal climacteric (connected with his recent, highly public self-outing as a cross-dresser?), and that the spirit currently inhabiting the body dubbed ”William Vollmann” is now a new soul. Or, given his explicit blurring of the boundaries between life and death in a subsequent page of this book titled ”Supernatural Axioms,” maybe he is merely encouraging us to think of him and ourselves as both alive and dead at all times. ”In the midst of life we are in death” is always a useful proverb to keep in mind.
Whatever the purpose of Vollmann’s cryptic assertion, it sets the tone for this volume, which is preoccupied with mortality, the relations of the living to the dead, and love as the primary engine powering both mortals and the deceased. These stories all hew to a certain gravitas by echoing the older Black Forest eeriness and crepuscular spookiness of the Brothers Grimm, along with E.T.A. Hoffman and the Victorian urban sophistication and decadence of J.-K. Huysmans. A twenty-first-century consciousness steeped in the past, Vollmann even employs old-fashioned interjections by his omniscient narrators. Modern authors who resonate with Vollmann’s antique sprightly morbidity are Anna Maria Ortese, Ludmilla Petruveshkaya, Zoran Živković, and Thomas Ligotti.
Over thirty stories are grouped into nine constellations, based more or less on shared geographical settings. Within each grouping, tidbits recur—names, events—to lend a greater continuity to the pieces. I’ll omit coverage of just a few of the slighter stories, most of them only an effective but sparse page or two in length and resembling prose poems.
At first, we find ourselves in relatively modern times, in Bosnia and Serbia during the civil war that scarred those countries during the 1990s. Vollmann’s experiences as a journalist in this region, and elsewhere in Central Europe, lend a cinematic verisimilitude to all these tellings, abetted by large amounts of research detailed in story notes at the rear of the book. ”Escape” is a Romeo-and-Juliet fable about the fate of two lovers from rival tribes who seek to carve out a bubble of peace amidst the killing. ”Listening to the Shells” follows an American reporter who entrusts himself to local mercenaries and finds himself entangled with their women as well. ”The Leader” depicts the anguish of a man parsing a wartime death and his responsibility for it.
So far, the reader might be expecting a totally mimetic set of tales. But our second section begins to loft into the uncanny.
A long historical adventure during the 1700s arrives with ”The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich,” which follows the entire career of a merchant and his family. Dabblings with magic (reminiscent of John Crowley’s literary treatment of Doctor Dee’s exploits) and a mysterious disappearance begin to hint at Vollmann’s preference for the uncanny. Edgar Allan Poe now seems another likely ancestor for these tales, a suspicion which the next two stories confirm. Exhibiting a giddy style different from the measured solidity of the others, ”The Madonna’s Forehead” gives us a holy statue with bloody stigmata, and its effects on one reprehensible lad. ”Cat Goddess” has a touch of Thorne Smith about it, with statues come to life and various felines, deific and otherwise. Melancholy suffuses the tale of ”The Trench Ghost,” where a spectral protagonist finds mordantly playful diversions among the slaughter.
The three stories in Section III hang together intimately, with the latter two pendant from the large, impressive bulk of ”The Faithful Wife.” Employing a retro setting nicely in tune with the classics of the horror genre, this tale still manages to ring sophisticated changes on the zombie and vampire trends of pop culture, as we follow the sad yet oddly fulfilling marriage of living husband and undead wife, a vrykolkakas. ”Doroteja” concerns the neighbor woman who wished to rescue the husband from his entropic captivity, while ”The Judge’s Promise” charts the meeting of a vampire-hunting Inspector with the King Vrykolakas.
We leap in a single bound from Old World to New with the stories of Section IV. ”June Eighteenth” finds Maximillian, Emperor of Mexico, sitting in his cell and awaiting the firing squad. He recalls his life in poignant detail, then experiences two odd dreams that go some way toward providing solace for his execution. The story forms a parable of power and glory versus mundane delights. The city of Veracruz was once nicknamed ”The Cemetery of the World,” and under that rubric we follow the amatory exploits of one Ricardo Ramírez, who has the misfortune (or is it a mixed blessing?) to fall in love with La Llorona, the fabled Weeping Woman. The opening sentence to ”Two Kings in Ziñogava,” which is a mixture of Arabian Nights fantastika and Latin American magic realism concerning an orphan and convict who becomes ruler of a fabulous realm, shows the magisterial and enticingly exotic tone affected by Vollmann in these tales:
When the mulatto gravedigger Salvador González Rodriguez rebelled against our Mother Church, and martyred a priest by means of a shovel-edge, he was, of course, brought to trial with punctilious regard for the formalities, then gibbeted in chains, following which his head was exposed as a warning to evildoers.
The Scandinavian milieus in Section V remind me that unconsciously I’ve always associated Vollmann with film director Lars von Trier. Both men exhibit similar relentless angles of attack and a species of unrepentant brutality at times. Indeed, one can easily envision von Trier filming many of these stories. A man who is prey to a supernatural spider named Hungry finds a rescuer in the form of ”The White-Armed Lady,” a kind of Robert Graves-style goddess of demanding attributes. There’s a hint of Robert Aickman’s lucid enigmas in the telling. ”Where Your Treasure Is” chronicles domestic abuse and its afterlife consequences. A dead wife both haunts and guides her traveling husband in ”The Memory Stone.” Perhaps the tour de force of the collection is to be found in ”The Narrow Passage,” where a married couple set out on a queer ship ostensibly bound for America. Their phantasmagorical migration proves to be through many other planes of existence, ending in a most unsavory place. And ”The Queen’s Grave” deals with a classic fairy-tale trope—the magic swan shirt that renders the wearer into a bird—with a surprisingly gentle elegance.
Section VI brings us to Asia, in the manner, somewhat, of Lafcadio Hearn’s renditions of Oriental myths for Western ears. Curiously, all these stories boast first-person narrators centrally involved in the plot, whereas such figures were a rarity in the earlier tales.
”The Forgetful Ghost” is very humorous, but with a sting at the end, much like Dylan Thomas’s great ghost story, ”The Followers.” A man seeking a supernatural lover finds that he himself becomes spectral in ”The Ghost of Rainy Mountain.” ”Everything ought to be remembered forever,” says the teller of ”The Camera Ghost,” and he solicits a spirit adept in photography to aid him in his quest. A special geisha finds her afterlife incarnation coinciding with the annual blossoming of Japan’s favorite tree in ”The Cherry Tree Ghost.” And a man who can command living paper dolls finds the talent leading him ever downward in ”The Paper Ghosts.”
The stories in the last three sections range all over the globe, from the USA to Paris to Buenos Aires to ”Unknown.” A Lothario who specializes in taking on supernatural lovers eventually meets his downfall in the arms of a vegetal succubus in ”Widow’s Weeds.” Fans of the classic French film La Grande Bouffe will certainly enjoy ”The Banquet of Death,” where a quartet of seekers (think Aleister Crowley and company) raise numerous entities in their search for enlightenment, both carnal and psychic.
Barring a couple of short pendants, the collection effectively ends with the longest piece, ”When We Were Seventeen.” An elderly man dying of cancer uses his last four months to nostalgically yet painfully revisit via evocative talismans all the women he has loved. The mental journey turns quite real when one of them, Victoria, interacts with him as a shade. The protagonist’s entire troubled life is limned, in a manner that recalls to me, in intensity and tone, a fusion of two stories by another superb fantasist, Harlan Ellison: ”All the Birds Come Home to Roost” and ”All the Lies That Are My Life.”
William Vollmann’s powers of ghastly invention; his meticulous, deft, and vivid prose; and his fascination with the many ways in which humans maneuver through the pitfalls of living—in a kind of modern The Pilgrim’s Progress (whose full title coincides with Vollmann’s remit: from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream)—all conduce toward a very entertaining and shivery suite of lessons whose ultimate import might very well be crystallized in a once common gravestone inscription:
Remember Man as you go by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so shall you be,
Prepare yourself to follow me.