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The prolific Matthews, author of six novels (most recently, Sassafras) and two previous story collections (Dubious Persuasions; Crazy Women), writes such consistently thoughtful and stylish prose it's about time for him to be ""discovered"" by admirers of serious fiction. This latest volume of 17 stories displays, yet again, his ability to assume a wide range of voices and to imagine, with great sympathy, many distinct worlds. These seemingly disparate tales all testify to the persistence of memory--a theme that occupies narrators as different as a gravestone salesman (""The Story Mac Told""), a tour guide on a glass-bottom boat (""The Tour of the Sleeping Steamboat""), and the skeptical author of a book on haunted houses (the title story). In ""Taking Stock,"" a businessman who's just lost a bundle in a lawsuit finds little consolation in his wife or his mistress, and begins a wistful search for a long-lost love. Other stories concern moments that their narrators prefer to forget, either because the facts become disturbing through retelling (""Dark, Dark""), or were truly horrible to begin with (""The Ghost of First Crow""). ""If Not Us, Then Who?"" recalls a sensitive student at a fundamentalist college in West Virginia, soon after the Civil War, and how a casual remark leads to his dramatic suicide. With a shift in style, though not meaning, Matthews includes a trio of modernist fictions that further his old-fashioned point of view: the Pynchon-like ""Betrayal of the Fives,"" with its strange fraternal organization; the surreal ""Amnesia Ballet,"" in which a retired bus-driver loses his identity; and ""Amos Bond, the Gunsmith,"" a fable of the greed engendered by greed. When a character here pleads, ""I can't help it: I live in a world where things have to have a point,"" he could be speaking for Matthews himself. How refreshing.

Pub Date: Jan. 9th, 1986
Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press