…it can’t be worse than this cover. Yikes. Look at that thing. It’s hideous. What is it? It’s a contortionist bending over backwards while standing in a camp fire in the midst of claustrophobic angles. Does it have anything to do with the short stories? Maybe in some kind of metaphor that’s as tortured as our contortionist friend. OK. Let’s get past the cover. One of my reading goals of 2011 was to read more short stories. I love the stories of Jim Shepard. I’d bought copies of his previous collection, the more tastefully covered Like You’d Understand, Anyway as gifts (my review). There was never any doubt that I’d pick up Shepard’s latest story collection, You Think That’s Bad. I just needed to quit judging the book by its cover.
Underneath the hideous cover, Shepard once again has compiled an amazing collection of stories. The setting of each story, meticulously researched, reflects the turmoil and isolation in the lives of Shepard’s characters. Stories include settings as varied as CERN, a US military “black ops” base, the set of Godzilla, the jungles of New Guinea, and Himilayan mountain peaks. Timelines range from feudal horrors in 15th century France to the near future of the Netherlands battling valiantly against climate change. In each story, Shepard creates worlds so richly detailed that the settings become almost a character in themselves, while firmly anchoring the action to a specific time and place. As tightly anchored in time/space as the stories are, they are almost all universal stories, too – stories of struggling marriages, horrors of war, family entanglements.
There are two standouts in You Think That’s Bad: “The Netherlands Lives with Water” and “Gojira, King of Monsters.” In these two stories, Shepard’s talents are most fully realized. You’ll learn a staggering amount about Dutch flood defenses in “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” and ”Gojira, King of Monsters” is practically a literary documentary of the making of the movie that we know as Godzilla. As deeply researched as these two pieces are, they also tell deeply human stories of men trying to regain their footing in their family lives. This is what Jim Shepard does. And he does it better than just about anyone. I’m hoping that the paperback gets a worthy cover.