In Robert Shearman’s three-tome short story collection We All Hear Stories in the Dark, an idea is proposed: you can read every work of literature ever published in three weeks — but you have to read them in the right order. An absurdist idea, for sure, but it builds the foundation of an interesting premise.
The prologue begins with a man who has lost his wife and, in his grief, burns his wife’s vast book collection. Regretful, he takes himself to the library. But the library he finds is an unusual one, where the librarian asks him a long series of seemingly unconnected questions before he can check out anything. Once the interrogation has concluded, he is presented with an e-reader, which contains the entire collected works of literature curated in the exact order he needs to read them.
Sure enough, he reads every book ever published within three weeks. And naturally, it ruins reading forever because any new book published now can’t be read at the right time.
Fortunately, at the back of this special library is an old woman. This old woman has the last 101 stories in the world. And if he makes it through all 101 stories, he can have his wife back. But there’s a catch: he must hear them in the right order. Or rather YOU must read them in the right order.
This is the unique premise of Shearman’s latest collection of short stories. With a word count outdoing Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, you must make your way through the 101 stories contained within these three volumes to get the man’s wife back.
But this is more than just a book of stories. It’s akin to a Choose Your Own Adventure game with so many possible routes that the likelihood you’ll have the same reading experience as anybody else is astronomical. At the end of every story, the old woman will ask you five questions, and your answer will determine which story you should read next.
In Shearman’s own words: “It’s like a modern day Arabian Nights, mixed up with playing a game.”
Perhaps you’ll find your path a depressing and mournful struggle to the finish, whilst somebody else found the book a hilarious ride from beginning to end. The stories you pick might lead you through a grotesquerie of nightmarish tales, whilst someone else found their journey a sweet if blackly comic experience.
My first journey through this collection was a pitiful one. I only read 22 out of 101 tales. It ended far too soon. But the beauty of the book is that it was exactly the journey I needed to take at that time. And every story felt like it was speaking to me at the moment I most needed to hear it.
Much to my own surprise, the very first story I picked to read was something sweet. Going into the book, I felt sure I’d take the darkest path — especially as I started reading the day after Halloween. But by the time I was asked to make my first choice, I was feeling down and wanted something uplifting. And what I got was an initially twisted but the in the end wholesome story about a cat that could recite Homer’s The Iliad.
And if you think that’s a funny idea, it’s nothing compared to the many other wacky corners of Robert Shearman’s imagination.
My journey continued, and I found myself reading several stories that spoke to the experiences and insecurities of being a writer. In “Petty Vengeance” a Creative Writing lecturer gets the chance to enact vengeance on a critic he’s hated his whole career. In “Master of the Macabre” a horror writer is literally haunted by the stories he’s compelled to tell. And in one story a novelist is forced to lick his own book out of existence, only to rewrite it again before a second book can be written — a much creepier and sadder story than my summary suggests.
Some tales struck at something deeply personal within me, too. Such as “Oink”, a story where a man comes face-to-face with his old best friend from when he was a kid: his once favourite toy pig. It’s another absurd premise that is in many ways funny, but I also found it heartbreaking. I also felt it was really about the pain of needing to let go of your childhood.
Shearman has an incredible ability to inject humour into stories that also tug hard at the heartstrings. And sometimes his brand of humour pairs well with chilling horror. “The Touch of Baby Stalin’s Skin” is a silly story in one sense but darkly chilling in another. And I say “chilling” in a literal context for that story, which is best discovered by knowing little of the plot.
The absurdist concepts make every story unique, which guarantees whatever path you take will be full of surprises. I adored most of the stories I read, but there were several highlights. One such story that really took me with its premise was “Unusual Facts About Laurel Hardy You May Enjoy.” This story is about divorce and grieving the lost relationship, but it’s told through one of Laurel & Hardy’s farces and what happened when their partnership disintegrated, which I thought was a clever and fresh take on the subject.
If you picked up these volumes, I could not begin to tell you what to expect. The ability to choose your route makes the book personal in ways most works of fiction can’t. As Shearman also said: “you are building your own book based upon the stories you embrace or reject.”
The book I built had me weeping by the end. Whether this year or next, I’ll take another journey through We All Hear Stories in the Dark. Perhaps my next adventure will have more laughs. Or maybe I’ll get the horror experience I first anticipated.
Maybe next time I’ll even save the man’s wife.