All of William T. Vollmann’s future books will have been written by a ghost. He assures readers of this much in his note at the beginning of his latest short story collection, “Last Stories and Other Stories.”
For the next nearly 700 pages, Mr. Vollmann explains that ghosts and ghouls, vampires and skeletons have plenty of stories to tell — most of the time involving love or sex — despite their altered states.
Though this is his first work of fiction since “Europe Central,” which won the 2005 National Book Award, Mr. Vollmann is a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction. He often immerses himself in his subjects, from his time with the mujahideen in Afghanistan to his visits with San Francisco prostitutes to his stay at an abandoned weather station at the magnetic North Pole. He has traveled extensively and never seems afraid to follow his curiosity or whims.
While Mr. Vollmann probably did not consort with too many witches for “Last Stories and Other Stories,” the book does draw on his adventurous spirit, arranging stories geographically.
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The first few accounts are anchored in Sarajevo during and after the Bosnian War. There are no literal ghosts, but the echoes of death set the scene for the increasingly supernatural findings in Trieste, Bohemia, Mexico, Norway and Japan.
All sorts of incarnations from the afterlife are introduced, from a decaying demonic head helping his brother, to a loyal wife returning as a vampire, to a detective who kills himself in order to take on the underworld. There are also listless statues, terrifying nebulous protectors, witches and characters from global folklore.
Just do not expect to find a woman who is not the righteous sex object or the manipulative sex object. Perhaps this is done strategically and sarcastically, a comment on the role women play in much of folklore, but the representation of women drags the book down.
This comes in the form of seemingly benign descriptions — “Sometimes Zlata needed to torture her sweethearts a trifle to feel alive, to know that she was stronger than they” — as well as more insidious expressions from protagonists’ perspectives — “What an evil example woman sets! Consider for instance the way that a woman casts her smile toward a man, even when she keeps her knees together.”
The only thing to appreciate is that the misogyny in these latter instances is overt. The book’s dependence on stale female stereotypes to further some plot point or male character development quickly becomes tedious.
The book is meticulously arranged, not just geographically, but stylistically and thematically. The stories in each section often mirror each other in tone, which is interesting, though internal variety might be more refreshing. References and characters noticeably seep through from one piece to the next, binding them together. While these connections work well to prove cohesion, they are often overwrought, weighing the volume down with their heavy-handedness.
The stories themselves are presented in part as conclusions of narrators’ research and in part as folk tales. Many are built through layers of tangents, some of which come together, some of which do not. This rambling texture can also start to feel tiring until Mr. Vollmann throws in a delightfully short section or breaks with a funny turn of phrase, for example when a character dies “from complications of his rash, exacerbated by three bullets in the back.”
Then there is a witch, who comes up throughout the Bohemian stories, “One might say that her home was as haunted as an Old Gothic castle, but Doroteja forgot to look at it that way.”
These moments within the tangents and long, complex sentences help to lighten the chaos that can build around the stories. Mr. Vollmann’s notes at the end of the volume can also untangle the stories, clarifying some moments and demonstrating how much consideration and research went into the book.
“Last Stories and Other Stories” is an exercise in perseverance. It is intricately constructed, providing that source of entertainment for people who like to dissect as they read. It would best be read slowly, with longer breaks between stories and sections, rather than all at once. It is dense, sometimes unyielding, but does, through its sheer size, provide enough variety that many people who undertake the challenge will find something to appreciate.
Mona Moraru is a writer and editor living in East Liberty (firstname.lastname@example.org).