Turning away from the spooky and toward the psychologically fraught, the latest edition of this venerable series offers variations on themes that may well be uppermost in Americans’ minds.
Pursuit looms large in this year’s collection. Tiny apparitions challenge the mental balance of a savvy Hollywood makeup artist in Megan Abbott’s “The Little Men.” Hardworking Loomis is dogged by stalkers who have a novel way of getting him to be kinder to his wife in Steve Almond’s “Okay, Now Do You Surrender?” In “Lafferty’s Ghost,” Dennis McFadden’s layabout hero is trying to mend his marriage as well, but his efforts are derailed as much by his own poor judgment as by big men with big guns. And it isn’t always clear who’s the hunter and who’s the prey, as Elmore Leonard shows in “For Something to Do.” Escape is another favorite theme this year. In “Toward the Company of Others,” Matt Bell gives a scavenger the agonizing choice of saving an imprisoned child or getting away with his ill-gotten gains. The heroine of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Christmas Eve at the Exit” struggles to make the holiday meaningful for her 10-year-old daughter while the pair are on the run. Escaping from prison isn’t as easy as it sounds in Bruce Robert Coffin’s “Fool Proof.” And Robert Lopresti’s “Street of the Dead House” shows that even for the supposedly lower species, the ultimate escape isn’t from imprisonment but from the mystery of one’s own mind. Perhaps Lydia Fitzpatrick sums up best the insecurity that marks so many of this year’s sharpest stories in “Safety,” a tale that will chill the spine of anyone who lived through the Sandy Hook massacre: no one is ever truly safe.
There isn’t enough Xanax in anyone’s medicine cabinet to calm the jitters these 20 skillful stories will unleash on a worried world.