collects 22 of Gene Wolfe's fantasy and horror stories. They are consistently excellent to extraordinary. His language is often hypnotic and some stories are elusive or have puzzles that invite a second reading. Others are quite straightforward.
- "The Tree is My Hat" is set on a remote South Pacific Island and reads as a missionary's journal. Initially, everything is idyllic and he is getting on well with the locals. He befriends a dwarf outcast and things start getting strange. "The Tree is My Hat" does a nice job of combining magic realism and horror.
- "The Old Women Whose Rolling Pin Is the Sun" is a bedtime story Wolfe told his granddaughter. It is a lyrical and whimsical story of the stars in the night sky.
- "The Friendship Light" describes an unhappy relationship between two brothers-in-law, Ty and Jack. Ty's sister inherited the family house and was committed to a hospital by Jack, her cheating husband. Jack continues living in the house Ty grew up in without a second thought beyond his own needs. Ty embarks on psychological warfare to get back what he believes is rightfully his. Neither of the characters are "good guys" but there is an entertaining dark, mischievous thread.
- "Slow Children At Play" is a strange story of a man being pulled into the world of two men -- one developmentally delayed and the other mentally ill. He has an adventure but not necessarily the sort one wishes to repeat.
- "Under Hill" is a fairy tale in which Sir Bradwen saves Princess Apple Blossom from a bleak tower. Wolfe takes a predictable tale and adds a silly tweak.
- Wolfe often writes of the recent past including details that are no longer common knowledge. Before clothes driers were household appliances, laundry was typically hung out to dry on Mondays. Petty thieves who stole laundry were called Monday Men. "The Monday Man" concerns a cop's pursuit of such a thief. A simple yarn but one can easily imagine a pair of old gents swapping tales around a kitchen table.
- "The Waif" is about a boy living in a harsh, repressive society that is a product of a catastrophic economic collapse. It is built on shame. Closed-mindedness is elevated to an imperative. It is a particularly scary story.
- "The Legend of Xi Cygnus" illustrates the unhappy blending of giants and dwarves.
- In "The Sailor Who Sailed After the Sun", a whaler lands on a beautiful island owned by a monkey and he envies the life he imagines he could have on the island. The monkey wishes to see the world, so they switch places.
- "How the Bishop Sailed to Inniskeen" is a ghost story set on a remote island off Ireland. Again, Wolfe does a great job of passing along history as the atmospheric glue of his tale.
- One of the strangest stories in this collection of strange stories is "Houston, 1943". In his introduction, Wolfe describes it as "sort of autographical." It involves voodoo and seriously creepy characters. It was not an easy one to read because it is effective in being nightmarish.
- "A Fish Story" combines UFOs and ghosts in a very atypical fashion.
- "Wolfer" is about wolf rescue gone underground and those who are compelled to help.
- "The Eleventh City" is a narrative of magic realism set in Argentina involving a sinister pig, a madwoman and an innocent abroad.
- "The Night Chough" is about a women's murder and the revenge her lover seeks. Assisting the man is a peculiar black bird.
- In "The Wrapper", a man recounts his experience with a candy wrapper. It is a wonderful story in its use of a perfectly ordinary object to evoke something extraordinary.
- "Traveler in Desert Lands" is about a traveler who happens upon a town. It is so inviting but yet, something is not as it should be ...
- My personal favorite was "The Walking Sticks." A man's ex-wife inherits some antique canes from a remote relative. No one has kept in touch, so he cannot tell her to come and pick them up. These are not ordinary canes and spooky events follow.
- In "Queen" strangers travel to a remote village to tell a women that she is to ascend a throne.
- "Pocketsful of Diamonds" is a surreal tale of children and a carnival. It is a coming of age story but in a very different sense than most. The first time I read this one, I didn't care for it but I enjoyed it the second time around.
- An alien artifact falls into the hands of the President in "Copperhead." It does strange things and while he does not understand the technology, he decides to keep the device a secret.
- "The Lost Pilgrim" concludes the anthology. A time traveler gets lost in time and cannot recall all the details of his mission. He ends up living with characters out of Greek mythology. This is a good story and one that will encourage some readers to bone up on classical mythology.
I have been reading anthologies lately and Innocents Aboard
stands out as truly remarkable. While many of the short stories I have read recently are enjoyable, other than some by Neil Gaiman, none can approach Wolfe's mastery of story telling. It is one thing to go back over a section because it is unclear and a very different thing to go back over what Wolfe writes because it is so sly.
Wolfe has a great deal of imagination and range. Some stories work better than others do. "Under Hill" and "The Legend of Xi Cygnus" didn't engage as much as the other stories. "The Walking Sticks" is the type of spooky story I like best because it relies on horror as an active imaginary element and does not spell it out in gory graphic detail. "Wolfer" is another of my favorites because I found the characters and subject appealing. For dark fantasy, "The Tree is My Hat," "The Waif", "The Friendship Light" and "The Night Chough" are all excellent. This book comes highly recommended.