In the introduction to this volume of short stories, co-editor Neil Gaiman laments the narrowness of "commercial fantasy", which "tends to drag itself through already existing furrows, furrows dug by J.R.R. Tolkien or Robert E. Howard". So the goal (as I read Gaiman's rather vague introduction) was to gather together a collection of original short stories that explore the possibilities of the fantastic outside these well-plowed furrows.
This is, of course, not a new idea. There are legions of stories and novels that have traveled the realms of fantasy without the help of hobbits or barbarians. And indeed, many of the stories here fit fairly neatly into some existing sub-genre: ghost story, vampire story, etc. A few stories have no element of fantasy, but confine themselves to bad or weird real-world goings on.
The question of whether this volume breaks new ground aside, it's a strong collection, whose hits easily outweigh its misses. The stories are mostly by well-established authors, with awards and best-sellers to their credit. The stories are described as "all-new", so presumably they appear here for the first time.
"Blood" by Roddy Doyle: A sorta-kinda vampire story. Pretty good, but I was annoyed by the pointless affectation of not using quote marks. You ain't Cormac McCarthy, Roddy, and it's a pointless affectation when Cormac McCarthy does it, anyway.
"Fossil-Figures" by Joyce Carol Oates: An evil twin story. A well written, respectable piece of work of the sort Oates is known for.
"Wildfire In Manhattan" by Joanne Harris: A 'the old gods are still among us' story. Nice; had me smiling over the artistic turns of phrase at several points.
"The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman: Good, if fairly typical fantasy story, written in typical fantasy-speak: "In the high lands, people spend words as if they were gold coins."
"Unbelief" by Michael Marshall Smith: A short 'gotcha' story, somewhat less of a cheap shot than that makes it sound.
"The Stars Are Falling" by Joe R. Lansdale: My choice for the best, most powerful story in the book. A brutally dark and Hemingway-esque tale of a WWI veteran's return home.
"Juvenal Nyx" by Walter Mosley: I found this vampire re-mix to be rambling and over-long.
"The Knife" by Richard Adams: A mildly interesting little short-short about a murder.
"Weights And Measures" by Jodi Picoult: A couple dealing with the death of their seven-year-old daughter, mixed with some whimsical magic realism. Ick. Not a good combination.
"Goblin Lake" by Michael Swanwick: Something or other about magically being given a choice between a life of reality and... something or other. I didn't find this one compelling.
"Mallon The Guru" by Peter Straub: An obscure piece -- obscure to the degree that I have no idea what the point of it was.
"Catch And Release" by Lawrence Block: A twist on the unpleasant, over-done genre of let's-spend-some-time-in-the-mind-of-a-serial-killer. Let's not. Not enough of a twist to keep this from being unpleasant.
"Polka Dots And Moonbeams" by Jeffrey Ford: Another opaquely obscure piece, but so delightfully written that I'm willing to forgive the sense of WTF. "and the moon rose slow as a bubble in honey"
"Loser" by Chuck Palahniuk: An LSD-addled college kid gets selected as a contestant on an insipid TV game show. The LSD makes this more interesting for the protagonist, but not for the reader.
"Samantha's Diary" by Dianna Wynne Jones: "The Twelve Days of Christmas" written out as an allegedly humorous story. Tedious as a song, way more so as a short story.
"Land Of The Lost" by Stewart O'Nan: A story of obsession. By definition, obsession is rather pointless, and so was this story.
"Leif In The Wind" by Gene Wolfe: Science fiction blending into fantasy, as Wolfe often does. Beautifully written and delightful. One of the closest approaches to an "upbeat" story in this volume.
"Unwell" by Carolyn Parkhurst: A completely wonderful story about a completely despicable old woman. Black humor at its tastiest. After reading this, I looked up the author and added a novel of hers to my wish list.
"A Life In Fictions" by Kat Howard: In contrast to the heavyweight authors who make up most of this book, this is Howard's first published story, and it's a good one. A nifty fantasy about the unexpected consequences of being "written into" an author-boyfriend's fiction.
"Let The Past Begin" by Jonathan Carroll: I found this one to be rather plodding and self-important.
"The Therapist" by Jeffery Deaver: A clever bid at updating the theme of demonic possession, but I found it tedious and amateurishly written.
"Parallel Lines" by Tim Powers: A solid, effective, well written ghost story.
"The Cult Of The Nose" by Al Sarrantonio: A Maupassant-esque tale of is-it-madness-or-is-it-supernatural-goings-on. I suppose this is meant to be a pastiche of, or homage to, Maupassant, but to me it just felt like a rehash of an old idea.
"Human Intelligence" by Kurt Anderson: The volume's only straight-ahead science fiction story, and a pretty good one. An alien studying human civilization finds his ride home is overdue.
"Stories" by Michael Moorcock: A deeply felt portrait of an author and the world of writing, presumably somewhat autobiographical. Marred by way the heck too much name-dropping, as if we're supposed to be impressed that Moorcock can mention Marcel Proust and Albert Camus and Jean Gabin and Francis Bacon and Alfred Bester and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (etc., etc., etc.) all in the same breath.
"The Maiden Flight Of McCauley's Bellerophon" by Elizabeth Hand: A long, leisurely story about a magical flying machine and honoring past love. Good enough to get me sniffling.
"The Devil On The Staircase" by Joe Hill: An excellent fairly tale about murder and lies ends this collection on an impressive note.