Shelf Life, Ed. Greg Ketter

Dreamhaven Press, 2002 (2005 reprint), 285 pages, US$25.00 hc, ISBN 1-892058-09-X

Addicted readers consider libraries to be akin to churches: safe havens from the world outside; instantly-comfortable areas where bookworms are always welcome. Bookstores aren’t quite as nice: they’re places of commerce first and book repositories second. Libraries tell you that it’s all right to sit down, relax and read. Bookstores suggest that a transaction will be required at one point or another.

But libraries don’t have the money to pay for an original fiction anthology like Dreamhaven and Greg Ketter’s Shelf Life, a collection of fantasy stories by superstars and lesser-known writers who all have something to say about, yes, bookstores. The result may not break anyone’s award shelves, but it will surely find a place in book-lovers’ libraries.

As Ketter writes in the introduction, Shelf Life was born out of the desire to celebrate Dreamhaven’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Contrarily to his expectations, “word got out” about his anthology project and he received over 400 submissions. Only sixteen stories and one memoir were ultimately selected in the final book. Fifteen of the sixteen stories are original (the other one is a reprint of Harlan Ellison’s “The Cheese Stands Alone”) and the non-fiction piece is Neil Gaiman’s recollection of the “Four Bookshops” that marked his childhood and teenage years. Everything is wrapped up in a stunning cover montage that highlights John Picacio’s fabulous design skills.

Aside from Ellison and Gaiman, several of the names will be familiar: Gene Wolfe opens the anthology with a genre-bending story that even I could enjoy after years bouncing off Wolfe’s fiction. After this promising start, P.D. Cacek delivers a story of Holocaust and Golems, while later on Charles de Lint talks about helpful bookstore elves. Jack Williamson contributes one of the only two Science Fiction stories of the collection with a war tale that owes much to fifties-style SF fables. But as far as big name authors are concerned, the most interesting story of the bunch is Ramsay Campbell’s “One Copy Only”, featuring a bookstore with a very special “unique editions” reading room.

Still, as is often the case with original anthologies, it’s the unfamiliar names that manage to surprise and impress. Going through the book in order, I’m tempted to single out A.R. Morlan’s “The Hemingway Kitten” for being the other SF story of the volume, though the SF elements are so cute as to be fantastic. John J. Miller’s “Lost Books” isn’t so cute when revealing the mystery at its core, but it’s just as heartwarming in its execution. Lisa Morton’s “Blind Stamped” is similar, mixing a ghost story with extreme bibliophilia. Melanie Tem’s “The Glutton” goes a bit deeper than most stories in exploring the twisted relationship between authors and bookstores.

Most of Shelf Life feels like those stories: a mixture of comfort and menace, of pleasant words on skin-cutting paper. So it’s no surprise if forbidden bookstores make numerous appearances in the anthology. Ellison and Campbell’s stories touch upon the subject, of course, but even they can’t deliver the delicious thrill of Gerard Houarner’s “Ballard’s Book”, a riff on a very specific section of Borges’ Library of Babel. Almost as good, in a devilishly underhanded fashion, is David Bischoff’s “Books”: what if one couldn’t appreciate a book-lover’s idea of heaven?

They can’t all be hits, of course. Four stories classify as disappointments, more for what they miss than what they accomplish: All contain an intriguing kernel of an idea, but fail to deliver on the execution. Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Escapes” ends up being a bit too on-the-nose about its protagonist’s generic problem: the cute ending and sure-footed narration can’t make up for its ultimate triteness. Patrick Weekes’ “I Am Looking For a Book…” manages to deliver the only comic story in the anthology, but the one-note premise is drawn out by an execution than feels forced. I expected more. Finally, Marianne de Pierres (“In the Bookshadow”) and Rick Hautala (“Non-Returnable”) both saddle exceptional imagery with limp endings that resort to the easiest solutions: the effect of both stories is so similar that my mind had fused them together mere days after a first read.

But even with those misfires, Shelf Life is exactly what it wants to be: an enjoyable original anthology of fantastic stories about bookstores and everything that can be found in them. Fantasy readers will love it, and so will most bibliophiles despite their preference for libraries over bookstores.

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