Jon Hassler is a deceptively simple writer. One can read his stories as quaint tales of a forgotten time, but just as you settle in he quietly drops in a plot twist or unexpected story. His novel, Staggerford, is an excellent introduction to his uncanny ability to create character driven stories with plot driven diversions.
The book, Keepsakes and Other Stories, shows his range of interests and writing talents. The book itself is interested, being published in 1999 by the Afton Historical Society Press, a non-profit publisher focusing on work centered in Minnesota, where all these stories take place. It was Hassler’s first collection of short stories, and contains works he wrote prior to his breakthrough as a novelist in 1977 (with Staggerford). The book is beautifully laid out with small illustrations in the opening paragraphs, and generous space for the text — not a cheap, trade book with words tucked into the fold.
The seven tales, although early in his career, point to themes developed in his novels. There are the rural Minnesota settings, the realistic, yet positive role of the Catholic Church (Hassler was a devout Catholic), and when you least expect it, some cold-blooded murder. The murder comes from “Yesterday’s Garbage,” the strongest story in the collection. Here we meet a garbage collector, and his wife who likes to read letters left in the garbage, as they find themselves in possession of some unusual knowledge. If you’ve been lulled into complacency by Hassler’s other stories in the collection, his truly horrendous description of a murder in this story will have you rethinking the author’s take on life. He later turned this story into part of his play, The Staggerford Murders.
But Hassler is equally captivating his description of a forgotten rural time. His stories are no “Thomas Kinkade” paintings with words. Instead, Hassler shows the simple rural life of 50 years ago contains people who are like many of us, but also includes those whose simple life offer a generous view of humanity. The title story, “Keepsakes,” along with its companion “Resident Priest,” paint that glow of rural warmth, but goes deeper as the simple veneer of people break away to reveal complex individuals.
Spending time with Hassler in all these stories, you realize he too is far more complex than any single story will show. I would still point a first time reader to Staggerford for an introduction, but fans should definitely find their way to this collection.
I started this book simply to read the Sherlock Holmes meets H.P. Lovecraft story, ” A Study in Emerald,” which was recommended to me by my oldest son. Being a fan of Holmes stories and anything Lovecraft writes, I was looking forward to Gaiman’s interpretation. Suffice it to say that I liked the story enough to work my way through Gaiman’s complete collection, which was a worthwhile endeavor.
For those not familiar with Gaiman, he is a prolific writer who made his name with comic books and graphic novels (The Sandman), but has branched into novels (American Gods, Coraline) short stories, CD texts (for Tori Amos), poetry, and almost anything else which strikes his fancy. In fact, one of the more interesting parts of this collection is his introduction, in which he gives the background on every piece of writing in the book. Many of these works started from invitations, and Gaiman seems open to taking on a variety of challenges. He is not always equally successful, but you have to admire a writer who so clearly likes writing. He is not afraid of stretching and trying something new.
“A Study in Emerald,” which is a play on Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet,” finds a doctor and Holmes meeting and taking lodgings, which eventually leads to the doctor’s discovery of Holmes’ unique skill as a detective. The story steals glances at some of other Doyle’s other stories, most notably “A Scandel in Bohemia,” but with a twist of the fantastic that screams Lovecraft at you. If I’m being vague, it is my attempt not to give too much away.
As noted, I continued on and found several of the works to be outstanding, while others were simply there (e.g. “Instructions” and “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot”). Others are very strong. “Closing Time” incorporates the old man telling a story motif into a terrifying story of childhood. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is a story which takes a mundane rite of passage for many young adults and turns it subtly into a story of horror. Gaiman’s strength in this area is to hint at the possible, at would could have been, but then take it in another direction. Although at times he is clumsy in his “gotcha” endings, at other times he has a subtly which speaks of true horror mastery.
Gaiman also has a sense of humor, displayed in many of the writings, but played out best in “Sunbird,” a story of epicurean club enjoying a last meal. But the highlight of the collection is “The Monarch of the Glen,” which is subtitled, “An American Gods Novella.” American Gods is an excellent novel, and in this story Gaiman builds on the main character, Shadow. The story falters a bit as it hits a graphic section and Gaiman does provide another “gotcha” moment near the end, but overall it quietly builds a scenario with a reluctant protagonist who is as familiar with his weaknesses as his strengths. In fact, his ability to recognize his limits is his greatest strength and allows him to outsmart those who believe they have outsmarted him.
The collection contains 31 stories, poems, and “other wonders,” so one will be hard pressed to like it all or dismiss it all. But is worth keeping nearby when a quick read is all that is available.