Steven Millhauser’s We Others is one of my favorite books, so I was excited to read his latest short story collection. Most of the stories in Voices in the Night fall into the category of magical realism, with a tendency to focus on the way the strange and inexplicable can disrupt the day-to-day rhythm of a person’s life.
Many of us have felt the disappointment of seeing a favorite restaurant or shop go out of business and be replaced by something else. Sometimes, a longtime resident of a neighborhood will be dismayed to see its character changing over time. These feelings are taken to an extreme in “Coming Soon,” in which the main character gets lost in his own neighborhood as buildings are remodeled and replaced at an ever-increasing pace.
“Coming Soon” isn’t the only story in this collection to focus on the relationship between a person and the community in which he or she lives: the theme resurfaces in different guises in one story after another. In “Phantoms,” ghostlike apparitions are a fact of life in a particular town. They come to define the town to such a degree that its residents feel set apart from people living everywhere else. In “Elsewhere,” a phenomenon brought on by the citizens’ boredom with their comfortable suburban lives reawakens them to the wonder of ordinary things. A similar ennui due to the (comparatively) easy lives experienced by 21st-century suburbanites takes a much darker turn in “A Report on Our Recent Troubles.” In “Mermaid Fever,” the discovery of a mermaid corpse on a beach transforms a town, becoming first a curiosity and then a collective obsession bordering on mass hysteria.
Several of the stories draw their inspirations from myth, folklore, or religion. “Rapunzel” is a retelling of the titular fairy tale. “A Voice in the Night” features a man recalling how he laid awake at night as a child after learning the Biblical story of Samuel. “American Tall Tale” gives us an untold story of Paul Bunyan.
My favorite of the pieces in this collection was “Elsewhere.” It’s a truly beautiful story, evoking the sense of awe that’s the hallmark of great speculative fiction. I also enjoyed “The Place,” in which the titular location exercises an influence over those who visit it that’s both wondrous and unsettling. Millhauser’s previous collections gave me high expectations for his short fiction, and Voices in the Night did not disappoint me.