Is William T. Vollmann really the name of an author? I’m no conspiracy
theorist, but I’m convinced that more than one person is behind these
books. The Vollmann oeuvre is like the Kennedy assassination—you
can't pin it on a single suspect. There’s too much going on here for such
a simplistic explanation. Somebody sniff around that grassy knolll
behind the Vollmann residence. I’m certain you’ll find a bevvy of
conspirators toiling away on ghostwritten manuscripts.

Do you know what the name
Vollmann means?
It translate roughly as "man of many people."
That a clue, my friends. By the way, I note that
Vollmann claims to have studied at Cornell—the
same place that Thomas Pynchon attended. Then
he went to Berkeley, the same year as the first
Unabomber explosion in that city (the
FBI took
note of that 'coincidence'). Then Vollmann went to
Afghanistan, at the same time that Osama Bin Laden
showed up there. Finally he moved to Sacramento,
and was spotted there when the Terminator took
over the governor’s mansion.

Let those who have eyes, see.

But you don’t need to hire a private investigator to figure out that an
individual named William T. Vollmann didn’t write all those books. You
just need to take a look at them. No single person could serve up so
much verbiage.  Take a look at his 'essay'
Rising Up and Rising Down,
which fills seven volumes and more than three thousand pages. It came
out at the same time that "Vollmann" was publishing his
Seven Dream
series, which is even longer!  And in his spare time, he was serving up
800 page books the way the pimply boy at Baskin Robbins scoops out ice
cream cones on a hot summer day.

If you still hold on to the 'lone gunman' hypothesis, take a look at the
books themselves. Then ask yourself: which author is the real William T.
Vollmann?  Is it the war correspondent who dispassionately reports on
global conflicts? Is it the louche and bohemian author who hangs out in
the San Francisco Tenderloin? Is it the cultivated admirer of Japanese
Noh theater, or the student of Norse culture, or the observer of US
border politics, or the author of travel literature?

Related Essay
William T. Vollmann &  the Bumbling Shostakovich by Ted Gioia

And what about Vollmann’s recent reinvention as a horror writer? Yes,
you heard what I said: a horror writer.  And in typical Vollmann fashion,
he tosses off a 700-page collection of stories almost as an appetizer to his
high-profile novel,
The Dying Grass—almost 1,400 pages!—that was
released a few months later. In the forest-killing world of Mr. Vollmann,
a 700-page book is what they call, in New Orleans, a
lagniappe, a little
something extra for the fans.

But the same multiple personality disorder that permeates Vollmann’s
other books reappears in this collection of terrifying tales. Here we find a
Czech ghost story, a Japanese ghost story, a Mexican ghost story, an
Italian ghost story, and a host of other narratives, each infused with local
color, regional history and colloquial phraseology. Could we perhaps
have purchased a UNESCO anthology of ghost stories? These couldn't
all be written by the same author, could they?  

The ghosts are as changeable as the settings in this volume.  In the
context of a Vollmann story, ghosts rarely get around to haunting. They
have so many other things to do. They offer advice. They give gifts. They
ruminate nostalgically on former times. They even can serve as a trusted
friend or love interest. ("I strode forward to embrace her, hooking my
thumbs most conveniently on her cold ribs while her talons settled on
upon my collarbones…") In Vollmann’s ghosts stories, the spirits might
collect photographs, and lament the replacement of silver nitrate film
with digital images. Or they might ask you to bring them moonflowers,
and wait patiently by their graveside for you to show up with a bouquet.
Or they might ramble on about the afterlife. ("I have good days and bad
days. Being dead isn’t all that great, but it isn’t terrible….")

But there are some Vollmann trademarks that persist even as everything
else in the tale is different. The most characteristic ingredient in this
author’s prose is the extravagant simile.  You can find one on almost
every page, and Vollmann seems to amuse himself by reaching for the
most convoluted and forced comparisons he can muster.  A character's
"heart was as tobacco-stained as a Mexicana's hand." Or: "to enter one of
those archways is almost to shelter in a mummy’s armpit." He describes
a woman as "tender as sautéed snowpea shoots in a careful Chinese

Or how about this textbook example of a mixed metaphor married to a
bizarre simile? "Yukiko's dark little mouth was a plum in the newfallen
snow of her face, and her eyelashes were as rich as caterpillars." The
reader senses that Vollmann is very proud of these convoluted
pronouncements—this particular one opens one of the most carefully
researched stories in the book. But such passages can be worse than self-
indulgent; often they are simply clumsy.

In some instances, a simile hasn't even reached the finish line before
another one arises to interrupt it: "The lobby resembled the wide-
waisted skirts of a fifteenth-century German cruet, brass or bronze,
polished almost to gold, like a creek bottom when the sun strikes right."

These defeat the purposes of literary comparisons. When Wordsworth
tells us that he "wandered lonely as a cloud," the simile adds depth to our
appreciation of his loneliness. But the effect is the exact opposite in this
passage from Vollmann’s story “Goodbye”—here the layering on of
bizarre comparisons draws the reader out of the story, and instead of
enhancing its realism reinforces its artificiality:

If you have ever drunk in the humid sunshine of Kamakura in early
spring, which is flavored, as is a fresh bun by its raisins, by pigtailed
girls in white blouses and vermilion kimonos, you will understand me
when I say that moments and instants can remain as distinct as the
studs on a verdigrised bronze bell even in that languid ocean haze,
when life and death resemble the square white sleeves of two shrine
dancers slowly intersecting.

Did you follow the logic there? No, of course not. Vollmann is trying to
describe "humid sunshine" but merely calls attention to his refusal to do
so. If this were an occasional lapse by the "Vollmann committee," we
would forgive it. But these failed similes are the trademark of the
Vollmann style. You can’t escape them. As soon as you have left one
behind, another rises up, looming in the headlights.

These quirks are all the more irritating, because Vollmann’s stories have
moments of greatness. The Vollmann collective has at least one author
of exquisite skill on its staff. "The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich," a novella
included in this volume presents a compelling mixture of horror,
historical fiction and magical realism. A Serbian immigrant living in
Trieste during the early 18th century enjoys an amazing run of luck, but
it’s due to something he keeps hidden in a jar. This is the most perfectly
realized story in the book, and it’s hardly a coincidence that it also the
most successful at conveying a sense of horror.

The reader often senses that Vollmann would rather write historical non-
fiction rather than narrative fiction. In
Last Stories and Other Stories he
follows his typical modus operandi of attaching “scholarly” footnotes to
the tales—and the citations waver between actual scholarship and
postmodern parody of academic documentation.  Most of the stories in
this collection are embroidered with research, which sometimes distracts
the reader, but when Vollmann puts aside the supernatural trappings
and tries his hand at "straight" historical fiction, he shows great skill at it.
His lengthy story "June Eighteenth" is another one of the gems in this
collection, although it adopts a different tone than the ghost stories that
Last Stories and Other Stories. It recounts the final days of
Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, and presents vivid character sketches
of the main protagonists in that historical drama, as well as offer
meditations on colonialism, culture clash and the vagaries of fate. One
senses that Vollmann has approached this subject with more passion
and enthusiasm than he has brought to bear on most of the other tales
in this volume.

With some judicious editing, this book might have been a masterpiece.
There’s a brilliant 500-page volume hidden in this larger book. Alas, at
almost 700 pages,
Last Stories and Other Stories feels bloated and
meandering. I suggest that the Vollmann team consider downsizing. The
co-op has a couple top-notch authors in its collective, but the other half-
dozen writers contributing to this massive out-put ought to find another
place to sell their extended similes. Best of all, I envision a single William
Vollmann, more restrained and less verbose, focused on quality and not
on quantity. If he ever shows up, that fellow could be a very important

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His most recent book,
Love Songs: The Hidden History, is published by Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: April 2, 2016

The Horror Stories of  
William T. Vollmann  

A Look at Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann  
Essay by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
To purchase, click on image
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
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More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
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SF Signal
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