The best of the stories stick close to Chabon's goal of collecting plot-driven genre stories. Chris Offutt writes a brilliantly postmodern time travel account of how he submitted his piece for Thrilling Tales, Rick Moody offers a sprawling sci-fi story that's worthy of Philip K. Dick, Sherman Alexie contributes a gruesome ghost story, and Jim Shepard's "Tedford and the Megalodon" manages to adeptly straddle the line between adventure story kitsch and resonant short fiction. McSweeney's usuals Dave Eggers and Nick Hornby turn in solid works as well; indeed, Hornby's--about a teenager who finds a VCR that plays television from the future--may be the most brilliantly conceived and written of the lot.
But when authors diverge from Chabon's welcome genre-based hook, they stumble. Kelly Link's pretentious "Catskin" and Laurie King's meandering "Weaving the Dark" are both excellent examples of the self-indulgent tripe that keeps most people away from literary magazines in the first place, and mega-authors Michael Crichton and Elmore Leonard shit out some surprisingly lackluster pieces. Somewhere in between are Stephen King's "The Tale of Gray Dick" (which just feels like a deleted chapter from one of his Gunslinger novels) and Neil Gaiman's creepy but ultimately underwhelming "Closing Time."
When Thrilling Tales gets it right--from its retro-cool Boys Life layout to its clever one-sentence taglines for each story--it really does thrill. Usually literary magazines are only good for feeling all smart and muttering professor-y things like "Hmmm" and "Interesting," but contained herein are intelligent stories that'll actually hook you. The fact that McSweeney's is the collection that managed to do it is no great surprise, and will no doubt keep the magazine's geek chic momentum rolling. ERIK HENRIKSEN