One major purpose of most novels is to paint a world, the world in which its characters move and breathe and follow the actions of the plot. That world may be one of the unnamed moons of Saturn, or a different part of the Earth, or just down the street from the reader's home; wherever its physical location in space or in time, it is nevertheless an alien world to the reader in that it is one formed and moulded by the perceptions of the novel's protagonists. If a novel succeeds in the painting of its world, then it can just about get away with deficiencies in other areas -- plot, for example.
By contrast, short stories tend to be much more plot-focused. Especially in genre fictions, they may neglect altogether the depiction of that alien world, and likewise characterization of the protagonists, to concentrate on the plot. (Whether this is a good or bad thing is not pertinent here.)
These thoughts come to the forefront of the mind while reading this intriguing collection of somewhat noir, somewhat fantasticated short and short-short stories, because many of them, taken singly, hardly function as short stories in the traditional sense at all. Rather, they are vignettes, snapshots taken of a world that is far more fully depicted by the assemblage as a whole than in any one of its constituent items. Not all of the stories in Games Dead People Play are like this: some are excellent and complete stories in their own right, and would stand perfectly well alone. But even they benefit by, as at the same time they give benefit to, the overall affect presented by the assemblage.
In other words, the collection can be read and appreciated almost as if it were a very unusually constructed novel, one in which not everything is explicit -- there are gaps to be filled in by the reader's imagination -- and in which the order of proceedings is not necessarily a reliable guide to the order of events.
Some of the stories share characters. Some overtly share the same setting: Nottamun, which can be either a sort of mini-Chicago or a big town that is seeing its own essence being leached from it by the ruthless force of history, depending upon the viewpoint that seems most germane to the individual tale; this dichotomy is perfectly comprehensible to anyone who has been in somewhere like Nottamun. Others of the tales, while nowhere stated as being set in Nottamun, could as easily be located there as anywhere else. There is a coherence to the depiction of this world.
The tales themselves are generally of small-time gangsters -- big fish in the small pond of Nottamun, but small ones in any other terms -- of murderers, of those who live on or beyond the fringes of the law, or of those whose lives are affected in some strong way by any of the foregoing. Some of the tales draw heavily upon the supernatural, such as the title story, whose protagonist is murdered but does not die; all give the impression that, even if the supernatural is not on stage during this particular segment of Thompson's world-depiction, it is waiting in the wings, its cold breath audible to the players. Perhaps the feel of the book is best expressed by Thompson's dedication: "To all the ghosts in the stones of the city."
As noted, some of the individual stories are gems in their own right. I was particularly taken by "City at Night", a brightly gleaming miniature -- it can't be more than about a thousand words long -- that begins "We live on an uninhabited world" and, within its tiny scope, presents a searing portrait of the alienation of modern urban life; and by "White Noise", again very short, which should be read by every Anne Rice wannabe who thinks a vampire story has to be at least four hundred pages long to create its effect.
The closing story, "Until the Day we Die", powerfully shows the final hours of a gangster boss who knows that the river of time is bearing the coracle that is his own life inexorably towards the moment of death; none of that power is lost by the fact that we already know from one of the book's earlier stories, set later in time, just how and where the gangster will meet his end. That earlier story, "Ghost Town", is another powerful exercise in its own right, depicting the coexistence of romantic and seedy subjective realities, as focused upon the figure of Wendy, who seems to all her male worshippers to be an almost unattainable goddess whom they alone have the good fortune to, as it were, have succeeded in attaining -- all of them.
There are one or two weak and contrived segments in the twenty-part world-depiction that Thompson presents here. "The Valley of Silvio Cezar" is the prime example, having an uncomfortable self-consciousness about it, as if someone had foolishly told Thompson to concentrate on plot at the expense of all else. But these lapses are perfectly excusable in the context of the whole.
This is a very short book -- not only can you read it in an evening but you'll even have some of the evening left over -- yet it is undoubtedly a very good one. Reading it at a sitting is almost certainly the best way to appreciate it, to be most effectively sucked into its world. It is a visit you may have great difficulty in forgetting.
Review by John Grant.
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© John Grant 2 March 2002