Death-defying magic of stories

Caves of wonder, pages of awe

It can't have been easy. Art supplies were not exactly thick on the ground in those days — we're talking 32,000 years ago, give or take — and there were lots of other things to worry about, such as finding food, water and shelter. Not mention outrunning ravenous beasts.

Still, as we learn in the enthralling documentary created by Werner Herzog, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" (2010), they did it. Our forebears from long, long ago made a series of dazzling drawings on the sides of caves in southern France. Only recently discovered, these pictures constitute a record of a world we'll never know — but now can see and feel.

I watched the film last week, just as I was finishing "Stories" (2011), the new paperback edition of an especially rich and diverse 2010 short-story collection edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, two master storytellers in their own right. Included are tales by road-tested raconteurs such as Joyce Carol Oates, Jodi Picoult, Jeffrey Deaver, Peter Straub and Lawrence Block, along with the equally stellar work of writers who are not as well known, such as Elizabeth Hand and Kat Howard.

Yet the author's name in the table of contents that caught my eye was Diana Wynne Jones, a fantasy writer of massive talent, prodigious energy and the lightest of narrative touches. Her output includes the Chrestomanci series of novels and short stories, as well as novels such as "The Ogre Downstairs" (1974) and "Howl's Moving Castle" (1986), made into the 2004 film of the same name.

Her contribution to "Stories" is a wickedly delightful fable called "Samantha's Diary" that takes a familiar Christmas song to extremes. I will say no more, lest I spoil its startling and diabolical charm.

What struck me with the force of a heavy hardback dropped on my toe were the verb tenses in the "About the Contributors" section at the end of "Stories." On March 26 — after the book was completed — Jones died at 76 of cancer. Publishing lead times, alas, are inflexible. Thus the information that "She lives in Great Britain" should be "lived." The sentence "Diana Wynne Jones has written many fantasy novels for adults and children" ought to be "wrote."

Her stories now occupy the same category as do those cave paintings. They are the sole vestiges of an imagination that once roared, once flared, but now is silent and inert.

The question that nipped at the back of my mind while watching "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" was answered by Jones' story in "Stories."

The question was, "Why did they bother?"

And the answer is, "Tired today and having a lazy time. Got back late from Paris last night from Mother's party," which are among the initial lines in Jones' story. Like the charcoal sketches on the flanks of the cave, the words have a life beyond the person who lifted a hand to create them. To paraphrase a sentiment from the playwright Arthur Miller: They are made, but they are more than what made them.

None of us knows how long we'll be here. So we get our work done while we can.

Don't misunderstand. "Stories" is not some heavy-duty homework assignment that will force you to think hard about life and death and the immortality of art. These tales are breezy and fun, from the cool menace of Block's "Catch and Release" and Deaver's "The Therapist" to the soaring mystery of Hand's "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon." My favorite might well be "Stories" by Michael Moorcock, but I'm torn between that one and Picoult's eerie, moving "Weights and Measures."

The story by Gaiman, past winner of the Tribune's Young Adult Book Prize and author of "Neverwhere" (1996), the Chicago Public Library's One Book, One Chicago spring pick, is titled, "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains."

Caves again. Go figure.

But it is Gaiman's introduction that most resonates, his conviction that we have always wanted "to read stories that used a lightning flash of magic as way of showing us something." That magic is a torch carried aloft in a cave of dreams, leading us deeper and deeper in a descending spiral, so that along the way, we can read what was left for us by those who went before.

Among the intrepid explorers is — was — Jones, who began "The Magicians of Caprona" (1980), Volume II of "The Chronicles of Chrestomanci," this way:

"The World of Chrestomanci is not the same as this one. It is a world parallel to ours, where magic is as normal as mathematics, and things are generally more old-fashioned."

With pictures like these, you won't miss the light of day.

jikeller@tribune.com

Twitter: @litkell
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