Jim Shepard is not kidding around. His writing is so good it's borderline gaudy, but you know the process of creating it was rigorous and unpleasant. The title of his new fiction collection, You Think That's Bad, is an accurate description of the ascending emotional distress inflicted upon the subjects of his stories. The narrators are mostly estranged men, but they inhabit rich and textured worlds that hinge upon their human drama. Shepard also borrows heavily from reality: At least three of the main characters are historical figures, and I say "at least" because I was unaware of two of them until I read the solid three pages of listed references in the back. Imagined biographies? Creative nonfiction? It doesn't really matter. The immersive, visceral mini-movies he creates are the collection's stars.

There is "Gojira, King of the Monsters," an account of the making of Godzilla. The story focuses on the fracturing family of creator/special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya. Shepard fits an entire life around that framework, while also showing how the film grew out of the devastation in Japan's consciousness after World War II. It's 35 pages that feel like an entire novel. When he's not appropriating historical tragedy, Shepard turns to modern science. In "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," an avalanche researcher whose brother was killed in one discovers a torrent of family secrets years after the tragedy. In another, a physicist touts the importance of tackling the difficult questions in life, then leaves his failing marriage for a chance to work with the Hadron Collider. A real standout is "The Netherlands Lives with Water." Set in the near future, a couple working on climate change falls in love and then drifts apart while their country slides under the ocean. Their intimacy and the catastrophic destruction are alive on the page. Shepard writes disaster films. Sometimes I don't think he's having any fun. His book is overwhelming, intense, involving—even frightening, but I'm accepting of his melodramatics because I don't feel like he's getting off on them, like a Lars von Trier. Shepard is genuinely taken with his subjects, and he describes their lives in a rich and exciting style.