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Last Stories and Other Stories

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Supernaturally tinged stories from William T. Vollmann, author of the National Book Award winner Europe Central
In this magnificent new work of fiction, his first in nine years, celebrated author William T. Vollmann offers a collection of ghost stories linked by themes of love, death, and the erotic.
A Bohemian farmer’s dead wife returns to him, and their love endures, but at a gruesome price. A geisha prolongs her life by turning into a cherry tree. A journalist, haunted by the half-forgotten killing of a Bosnian couple, watches their story, and his own wartime tragedy, slip away from him. A dying American romances the ghost of his high school sweetheart while a homeless salaryman in Tokyo animates paper cutouts of ancient heroes.
Are ghosts memories, fantasies, or monsters? Is there life in death? Vollmann has always operated in the shadowy borderland between categories, and these eerie tales, however far-flung their settings, all focus on the attempts of the living to avoid, control, or even seduce death. Vollmann’s stories will transport readers to a fantastical world where love and lust make anything possible.

677 pages, Hardcover

First published July 10, 2014

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About the author

William T. Vollmann

85 books1,097 followers
William Tanner Vollmann is an American novelist, journalist, short story writer and essayist. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 53 reviews
Profile Image for Nathan "N.R." Gaddis.
1,342 reviews1,370 followers
August 3, 2014
This is my final book. Any subsequent productions bearing my name will have been composed by a ghost.
Vollmann’s opening salvo in his To The Reader has gotten his reviewers a bit confused. Will there be any more books by Bill? Is this a threat or a promise? What would a book written by a ghost read like? The difficulty is complexified when we learn that Author Vollmann too is rather confused on the issue. Not at all unlike his own forgetful ghost our Author Vollmann has quite evidently forgotten that he is dead. Last Stories and Other Stories has already been written by a ghost. The living resent it.

What strikes this veteran Vollmanniac early on in this knit=together collection is the free play Vollmann has finally allowed for his fancy. For the past nine years he has published nothing but non-fiction and prior to that he submitted himself largely to the historical novel, densely researched and tightly constrained ; those behemoth Seven Dreams and his Europe Central. Not since Rainbow Stories, it would seem, has Vollmann simply allowed his imagination to run. This some would call self-indulgence. But what is left for the dead except to indulge what little of their self might remain? This indulgence, which should be the desire of every living being, the living resent of the dead.

But in contrast with Rainbow Stories we sense the odor of middle age contentment setting in. Even if Rainbow Stories are not your average titillating tales of shock or schlock or Climax they do wear their youthful fascination with the living rather coarsely on its sleeve. There one reads in a kind of fascinating gape that There are people who live like this, so rather unknown to those of us rich enough and educated enough to read books. In Last Stories the middle age author finds himself gaping that The dead do indeed persist like this! And they do not persist as the living persist. Those who live still face their impending death. The dead have no such worries. And the living resent this freedom of the dead.

Reading Last Stories should be like the reading of the dead. They are in no hurry. There is all the time in the world..... And as the consensus develops, Last Stories should be read slowly, without page-turner lust, for the dead no longer lust. As the widely believed fact that god is dead would indicate, in his eyes a day is but a second, a year but a minute and a century but a fleeting afternoon ; so it is for the dead. They have the luxury to linger, to dwell and to dawdle. The living resent this too.

There is a pickle a Vollmanniac might find herself in. I have read everything Vollmann has written save three. How does Last Stories stand as a lone haunting entity among the rest of his biblio-gravestones? I do not know for sure. What I do know is that here Vollmann has assumed yet another voice (even as he assumed the voice of Cold in The Rifles), but even with another register (yes, the register of the dead) added to his corpse there are many of the classic Vollmannisms. What are those Vollmannisms? In truth, dear reader, I do not know. What I do know is that for every reader of Vollmann there is a first book. And every subsequent book of his will disappoint if that voice, if that experience, is anticipated to repeat. Fortunate for us veterans, Vollmann does often return to the same ground as a ghoul returns to the scene of his first encounter with death (a sister, two friends in ex-Yugo) yet he never repeats himself. Even as the living cannot predict the what-its-like of the dead, neither can I predict for you your first encounter with Bill’s books. There are those among the living that don’t know what to do with this fact.

That said, let me tell you a second hand anecdote regarding a new reader of Bill’s books, one who is still numbered among the living. 150 pages of Europe Central defeated him; he found it inaccessible, apologizing for not knowing enough about that portion of history (I discovered unto him the Back Matter and he was pleased). But he didn’t resent the experience of being kicked out of EC; he fell for it! Paging through Last Stories and reading briefly among the dead stories located in Japan he declared this an excellent potentiality for entry-level experience of the Vollmann literary world, the Vollmann of both the living and of the dead. May the dead, who resent not, be praised!

Self-indulgent? Sure. One wearies of objecting to this kind of objection. For the dead it is much the more pleasant to indulge in the celebration (where dwells Nietzsche’s Ja=Sager?) of feeble attempts at condemnation by a malicious horde of the living, or are they those among the dead who do not yet know? The condemned are already condemned, you see. Self-indulgent! Yes! Indeed! And perhaps more of our resentful living might learn the celebration and indulgence of the dead!

And after this charge of enjoying one’s chocolates one calls for the man with the knife ; an editor he is named ; and the demand is made that this corpse be made to live. We’ve been through that before. Austerity, belt-tightening, right=sizing! These are lies, all lies, propagated by a jealous army of the living. If only we can cut here and cut there and cut some more and then cut again this corpse might turn itself into a corpus. Such magical thinking the living indulge in ; the dead have no need of this. But the dead know, yes, even as our Source Notes provide (you’ll see ; one always reads the endmatter of a Bill book first) ;; for your delectation an editor’s version of When We Were Seventeen. This dead reader knows which version he prefers!

Disclosure ::
Profile Image for Geoff.
444 reviews1,234 followers
August 12, 2014
”The ancient poets teach that veiled beauty is the profoundest type. Much as autumn foliage barely seen through mist outranks the untrammelled scarlet of the leaves themselves…”

(And what is more veiled than death is by life? And therefore what is more profoundly beautiful?)
”I loved life so perfectly, at least in my own estimation, that it seemed I deserved to live forever, or at least until later rather than sooner. But just in case death disregarded my all-important judgements, I decided to seek out a ghost, in order to gain expert advice about being dead.”

(:: or ::)
”What I liked best in life - I like to look back in time… And for all of us, many letters lie waiting new and unopened, with beautifully unfamiliar stamps on them- letters from the dead.”

(When we take to the task of remembering, what more are we accomplishing than seeking out ghosts? Reading letters sent long ago from our precious dead and disappeared?)

(:: & ::)
”There is no means through which those who have been born can escape dying. Therefore the wise do not grieve, knowing the terms of the world.”

(So then, what are these ghosts whom we seek council with on the terms of death? Lost friends, lost loves, lost family, lost objects, lost worlds… lost feelings… the dust of memories… dancing in the sun-shafts... The dance of the world is Sex and Death in tango; the cackling of greedy skeletons chases our every step; the chewing of worms hounds our hours down; the wind of oblivion lifts our collars and touches our necks ever so gently; we flee toward the light but are always overtaken by night; we etch We have lived! in words on paper and stone - but rain and air make fast compost of those…

So it is best to keep close company with all of our ghosts, as the number of the dead towers over and shadows the relatively few living…

And it’s not as if we are given a choice in the matter. The world has its terms…)
”But then he smiled a trifle; for his recollected joys now came to comfort him, most of them surely for the last time.”


This review is dedicated to the ghost of Hortense. May we maintain long communion across this unbridgeable veil.
Profile Image for Cosimo.
429 reviews
December 11, 2019
Hai dimenticato quante volte sei stato qui

“Aveva trasmesso ai propri marinai un grande sapere nella speranza che un giorno potessero trasportarlo verso la sfera da cui proveniva l’essere del vetro oscuro. Se l’anima è il centro di quel cerchio chiamato coscienza, allora non si potrebbero tracciare altri cerchi per calcolare il centro della malvagità, della catastrofe o dell’assenza? Quello è il luogo cui tutta l’umanità deve muovere guerra.”

Considerando l’insieme delle cose che sono nella mia comprensione emotiva, pur provando rabbia e risentimento nel farlo, devo riconoscere che questo libro sia davvero straordinario, e lo sia espressamente nel dolore e nella meraviglia. L’unica cosa che pone il lettore in allarme è che questa raccolta di racconti sia attiva nel mettere alla prova il sistema neurologico, sempre nella malattia, oppresso da una realtà infeconda e intermittente, accelerata e impetuosa nel voler essere riconosciuta. Per l'aspetto morale, i racconti di Vollmann aggravano il desiderio di un termine, di finire di esistere, in modo lacerante e soffocante; propongono ambivalenze da anfibio più che da essere umano. Dicono gli antichi e con essi l'autore di Santa Monica: beati coloro che sono perseguitati, beati i mansueti. Le parole angoscianti di questo autore rivelano un’essenza composta di disprezzo e disadattamento, in una negatività inestirpabile. Si percepisce che la vocazione è sentita come una maledizione. "Scopri cos'è che mai dorme e mai si sveglia e il cui pallido riflesso è il nostro senso dell'io”. Vollmann è una lettura totale: dico ciò considerando anche che le tematiche del libro non sono esattamente tra le mie preferenze (tanatologia, occultismo, religiosità, magia, esoterismo, escatologia, metafisica, creazione di ultramondi e inframondi, diavoli, demoni, fantasmi, streghe, notti e teschi e vermi e talismani e topi). Con il suo testo si possono esperire differenti trasformazioni, in longitudine e nello spirito. Pratica di sogni è la lettura, fine più soave del principio l’interpretazione, viscera di corvo, il rasoio delle sue parole. Ecco; ci sono tombe, e tutto si perde lentamente; ciò che ti oscura è una grande luce; si ascoltano le granate, la morte imminente, per sopravvivere e sperare nell’oblio. Si fugge da chi uccide, si fugge da chi è morto, ci si vergogna armi in pugno, si sa che l’agonia è priva di senso. Ci sono principi e agguati, il lettore perde gli occhi piangendo il mondo, la tua guida è un mistico cefalopode che spruzza inchiostro, tu stesso per sopravvivere devi mangiare la bestia, guardarti allo specchio e vedere un mostro. Vollmann mette sottosopra la cosmologia, e inventa creature di forme inedite, i suoi personaggi cacciano la morte per poterla studiare, e mercanteggiano in malvagità e immaterialità con la tragedia dei luoghi, il debole che divora le famiglie, l’attenzione delle donne a resuscitare gli angeli. Molto interessato al non umano, questo scrittore. Chirurghi e cucinieri, marinai e giudici, imperatrici e prostitute, tutto nel segno della solitudine, della vestizione, della maledizione, dell’istinto che si prende gioco di tutto. “Prima di allora fiorii e caddi, fiorii e caddi”, tra il Messico della flora indigena e di allucinazione e sangue, la Scandinavia con gli stretti passaggi di ghiaccio, il Giappone nel mescolarsi di vecchio e nuovo, ombra e maschera, erotismo e danza. È pieno di tesori questo libro e ti coglie indifferente al male, a quello che vuoi produrre e quello che ami subire, c’è un assoluto che ti mette in attesa fino alla conclusione, un grumo di difficoltà dentro cui smarrirti ad ogni pagina. Donne-volpe, donne-elfo, donne-sonno, pallide verso le montagne, con le pareti del cuore allagate dallo sputo salato del mare. Vollman descrive la dissoluzione, la mente viene infestata dalla sua erba sciamanica, fino alla follia di credere che la carta voglia avvolgerti, la casa mangiarti, con le sue pareti onnivore. Anguille, serpenti, pesci, ragni; avvicinarsi a lei piangendo, stanco di essere un inutile segreto, cercare l’essere perfetto che ti finisca e indossi le vesti appropriate. Padri e famiglie celesti passeggiano verso gli alberi della sapienza e il signore delle diecimila cose ti invita a rileggere quelle lettere d’amore che conservi nel cassetto. La gioia: questa punizione che a intervalli tutti ci colpisce. Siamo ancora capaci di intimità e memoria? È possibile farle convivere? Sapendo di non contare assolutamente niente, ora che i diciassette anni sono il passato, Vollmann ci chiede se possiamo ancora liberarci da questa entità maligna, da questo gioco che non ci permette di sopravvivere alla vita, deliziandoci con le cose azzurre dell’amore, con la disperata felicità, l’innocua dolcezza, sempre così assediate, violate, minacciate, perseguite. Non è mai stato capace di vivere con gli altri, l’essere di Vollmann, e questo vuole gridare: aiutami! amami! E già nel frattempo sbocciano nuove immagini da raccogliere, sicché non posso mai riposare, mai riposare. Addio alla giovinezza e all’amore. Nella sala di osservazione che abbiamo preparato, la luna si assopisce con le distese di pietra lavica e le imperfette pianure grigie, così le pulsioni non hanno più sistema né ambiente, i sentimenti si rivelano sinceri e allora resta lo spazio solo per la repulsione, per la disaffezione.

“Mentre li aspettava, sentì di poter vedere il tempo tutto intero, come una roccia piena di meravigliose crepe. Ogni solco diventava un disegno o una runa. Gli pareva che il presente, siccome viaggiava continuamente con lui, non potesse mai finire, forse neanche con la morte. Era un momento non sradicabile, e quindi neanche lui lo era. Sembrava che il suo presente non potesse mai estinguersi. Che fosse così o meno, gli importava poco o nulla, anche se non sapeva perché”.
Profile Image for Cody.
531 reviews192 followers
April 24, 2017
Be Bill, my beating heart.

As a card-carrying fellatist of WTV, it’s probably no surprise that I’m not going to shitcan this book. Is it his absolute tippity-toppity best? Nah, but you knew that already. Does it deserve a read from every Vollmannite and, in turn, a recommendo to a non-convert? You bet your silk-clad ass it does. This is our hero running roughshod atop an imaginary world of Death that, frankly, doesn’t sound too bad compared to the one taking place aboveground. Heck, it even takes him 400+ pages to use the word “pubis.” That’s got to be a first.

I’m laying it down, pick it up: “The Faithful Wife” is worth the price of admission alone. It is disarmingly lovely, further proof that WTV is, at day’s end, just a big old shaggy dog. Anyone who has the heart to write that story is guileless and no cynic. That’s someone I want on my team when all is said and done. I still challenge anyone to name another modern author who has portrayed the human condition with a soupçon of Bill’s empathy. Saint William the Empathic—I’m contacting the archdiocese forthwith.

There is another thematic unifier—besides Death—that links these stories: Love (“you know what I’m talking about when I talk about love, L-U-V.”) Even in the most phantasmal, fantastic passages, the subtext invariably hinges upon the heart’s chosen commitments in the face of the ultimate Insurmountable. Call it Bill’s Love Axiom: without love, there can be no life worth living and without death, no life worth loving. Letting a little thing like corporeality or Death stand in the way of Love is simply a matter of not loving enough, as the wall between the dead and undead is permeable against the twin infinities of eternal souls in coupledom.

Or, fuck it: maybe it’s just a bunch of cool ghost stories.
Profile Image for Alees .
47 reviews49 followers
August 14, 2020
La Veglia Fantasma

Quest'uomo scrive sempre toccato dalla grazia, come se fosse appena sceso dal Monte Olimpo.
Però, pur nelle impeccabili sequenze, ora dolorose delle memorie, ora divertite delle favole nere, la veglia onirica delle sue Ultime storie, a tratti, non è la mia.
Confesso di preferire la storia simbolica dei Sette Sogni.
(dimenticavo, traduzione perfetta)
Profile Image for Mala.
158 reviews184 followers
December 14, 2015
4.5 stars

"...the three perturbations of life: fear, grief and desire. All are but vain reachings after life itself, whereas in death there is nothing but peace—if one sets aside the dead’s angry hunger after the living." (523)

This is my final review. Any subsequent review bearing my name will have been composed by a ghost.

Vollmann wrote something similar in the introduction to this book & what wild surmises it led to! Reading the book; I was amused, because the import of that statement was so obvious! — a book dedicated to the memory of a recently-deceased father, on the subject of death & its endless variations, it was so in-keeping with the tonal theme — musing on Death, a writer considers his own mortality. Who is to know what might happen tomorrow? The only certainty in life is death & the one who understands & accepts it; is the one who is truly alive. Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it. (409) Characters here try to ameliorate life's impermanence by choosing death's consoling permanent embrace.

Last Stories could stand as a companion book to The Atlas in that the intrepid traveler in Vollmann finds expression in stories set around the world, giving a broad idea of their folkloric culture. Vollmann grounds the book in reality before taking off for fantastical realms. The book is divided into nine sections & the first begins in the recent past, in a war zone: namely, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia — love & life trying to survive in an extreme situation, & the survivors left to deal with their guilt. A proof that reality can be just as horrific as the horror tales set to follow. Vollmann tries Danilo Kiš' method of detached narration (echoes of Bolano too) but it didn't work for me. For readers of WTV, the importance of the Balkans in his biography is too well-known to be recounted here, but surprisingly; the first section is the weakest of all (perhaps reality is best suited for non-fiction?), & might dissuade new readers to Vollmann from perusing it but please do because even though the book might be highly uneven in terms of style & content, enough variety follows in the subsequent sections: baroque sensibility of an older time expresses itself in highly gilded prose & surreal situations — statues come alive with human desires, the earth opens up to swallow a deathless man, the dead come back to life, a geisha wants to be young forever, a man consorts with supernatural lovers... For lonely people, even ghosts are a welcome company — it's one fantastical tale after another!

The moon emerged suddenly, much as illnesses, realizations and heartbreaks so often do . (555)

Vollmann seems to be having a lot of fun, playing with ghost stories format the way Coover plays with myths & fairy tales. Lautreamont's "beautiful nonsense", & Poe's melancholic poetic sensibility seem to be a big influence here. Tellingly, the Scandinavian & Japan sections are the most affecting ones; the writer's own bias towards these particular cultures getting the best out of him. Fans of magical realism would enjoy the Latin American section too.
Indulgent? Yes, in the way storytelling can be -- 'Did you know about the man whose wife loved him so much she came back from the dead? and while we are on the subject of love and death; how about that man who married the death-goddess? which reminds me of this dancing cherry tree ghost...', stories spinning stories spinning still more stories!
Trust Vollmann to turn the sprint of short stories into a sustained marathon! 32 stories spread across 677 pages [including sources & notes(for most writers, their collected stories take that much space!) ], demanding as much stamina & enthusiasm from his readers as he himself pours into his work.
Trust Vollmann to take the themes of Eros & Death & make them so exhaustive that summing up seems almost impossible. I could describe this erudite, wistful, whimsical, rambling mediation on love, loss, memory & desire, — always within the parameters of death — as bedtime stories for adults, but that won't be the last word on it.
For Last Stories and Other Stories related reviews & interviews, visit Vollmann Central.
Profile Image for Patrizia Galli.
148 reviews24 followers
January 22, 2019
Vollmann è uno scrittore visionario e onirico, o lo si ama o lo si odia.
Il suo stile è talmente ricco, allucinato e vaneggiante che riesce a portarti dove vuole con la sua scrittura, in un misto di incredulità, ammirazione e stupore. Sempre. La stessa cosa accade qui, con Ultime Storie Altre Storie, un tomo di più di 700 pagine di racconti che trattano in particolare di fantasmi, di morte, di vampiri, di sangue, di amore, di ritorni dall’aldilà, di saghe e leggende… a tratti visionario e originale, a tratti grottesco e ironico, Vollman riesce quasi sempre a colpire nel segno. Dico quasi perché molti di questi racconti risultano sottotono rispetto ad altri, ancora di più se paragonati con altri lavori che ho letto di Vollmann.
I racconti di questo ultimo lavoro di Vollman sono divisi in sezioni in base all’ambito geografico: Serbia, Carso, Boemia, Messico, Norvegia, Giappone. Quasi tutti i racconti sono rivisitazioni personali dell’autore di favole o leggende, spesso tramandate oralmente, favole mitiche che richiamano La Camicia di Ghiaccio (mi riferisco, ovviamente, ai racconti ambientati in Norvegia, che, personalmente, ho trovato bellissimi, deliranti e crudi senza mai rinunciare ad una dose di passione, idolatria e amore…), oppure racconti gotici e macabri, spesso anche grotteschi. L’unica eccezione la fanno i tre racconti serbi che troviamo in apertura di libro, che ci ricordano più da vicino il reportage di Afghanistan Picture Show.
Questi primi racconti sono zeppi di riferimenti personali dell’autore, che ci narra prima la tragica situazione di una Sarajevo assediata, coperta di mine, vissuta da un cronista nella casa di un gruppo di amici dissidenti, e poi ci racconta la storia (vera) di Zoran e Zlata, lui serbo, lei bosniaca, una specie di Romeo e Giulietta trucidati sul Vrbanja Most mentre tentavano la fuga e i cui corpi sono rimasti per giorni a marcire sotto il sole, perché le due fazioni non riuscivano a scendere a patti nemmeno per togliere i cadaveri dalla strada e concedergli degna sepoltura. Qui i fantasmi di guerra di cui parla Vollmann sono spaventosamente reali.
Tolta quest’eccezione gli altri racconti si sviluppano sul tema che il confine tra vita e morte è estremamente labile e reversibile, cioè che i morti possono tornare nel regno dei vivi e che vita e morte si somigliano, in un certo senso. Un mondo del genere, dove vita e morte possono essere così intercambiabili, può essere consolatorio da un lato, ma dall’altro è sicuramente malinconico e triste, perché si giunge alla conclusione che la nostra vita non è che un incessante vagare spettrale da un momento al successivo, senza possibilità di pace. Molti dei fantasmi di Vollmann sono esattamente così, inconsolabili e vagabondi, che si aggirano nel mondo dei vivi alla ricerca di tutto quello che hanno perso.
Vollmann ci racconta il Messico, la sua amata, inquietante e violenta Veracruz. Ci racconta Trieste sotto una veste inedita, dal fascino torbido e morboso, surreale come lo sa essere Vollmann, capace di mescolare alla perfezione fiction con dati storici, per indagare la Trieste del primo Novecento attraverso la fortuna costruita dalla famiglia Circovich, la cui figlia si aggira ancora come un fantasma per le vie della città.
Lo stile è sempre il suo, quindi, anche quando capita di perdere un po’ la bussola tra i vari racconti, il piacere della lettura rimane costante. Il punto di maggior debolezza, a mio parere, è che al contrario di molti suoi lavori in cui l’analisi storica è preponderante o comunque presente (anche, ad esempio, in Europe Central, che pur essendo un lavoro di fiction ha profonde radici nella realtà), qui Vollmann va a pescare prevalentemente nel folklore, nella fiabe e nelle leggende, e a lungo andare può risultare pesante o disorientare.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
874 reviews2,263 followers
Want to read
February 1, 2016

This is my final pisstake. Any subsequent productions bearing my name will have been composed by a goat.



Buried Love Book Club
[Apologies to Ray Davies]

It is time for you to
Get inside your coffin,
And it's time for you to
Die instead of laughin'.
Yes, it's time for you
To be exhumorous,
And it's time for you
To be Vollumannous.
There's one thing you gotta know
To make me want you so:
Get in your coffin now,
Yeah, get in, get in...now!

A Chance with a Ghost Haiku

What I would love most
Is to write a book about
How I fucked a ghost.

The Man Who Loved Children (Looking Backwards)

Every ghost story is a love story...

"Little-Sam, holding his belly, rolled backwards and forwards on the grass, yelling with laughter."

Christina's Dead


The Man Who Loved Fresh Young Corpses

“There may well be nothing on earth (or under it) as delectable as a fresh young corpse with a waxy yellow complexion, sunken eyes, conspicuous ribs and the sweet odor of decay. I was intoxicated by that odor! I fell in love with her.”

We are what we love! Ya gotta laugh though, don't you! Don't you?

As the New York Times speculates, "This is Mr. Vollmann playing the trickster."

To which I would add, not for the first time. Or the last. Even if he tries too hard to take it easy.

The School of Icky Thump
[Apologies to Jack White]

Ja, Bill, who'd a thunk
You'd hump a dead immigrunt
Handcuffed to a bunk?

Dig Your Love

Though you might dig deep,
Nubility is wasted
Six feet underneath.

A Joke from Vollmann the Trickster

"Q: How do you explain your obsession with whores?

A: I thought my parents said, when I grew up, I would marry a bonkologist. It turned out they meant an oncologist."

The Mother of All Pearls

I still read in hope
Of finding a noble pearl
In Vollmann's cesspool.

Budapest's Spectral Boudoir

If it's whips you want,
Hungarian ghoul-lashings
Are our specialty.


Profile Image for Alexander Weber.
263 reviews43 followers
March 24, 2017
I'm actually kind of surprised. I didn't think this was going to be this good. I don't know why I had my doubts. Perhaps I am too aware of how much of a fan-boy I am for Vollmann. Knowing this bias, perhaps I thought critically, "This one is going to be a stinker." I have only disliked one of his works before, The Royal Family. But even that book comes back to me over time, making me think "was it so bad?" There are stories in The Atlas, or 13 Stories & 13 Epitaphs that I thought were very bad. And this collection has them too (The Cat Goddess comes to mind, as well as The Camera Ghost). And yes, at times I thought, "Fuck this is a really big collection of what essentially amounts to just ghost and ghoul stories." But, come to think of it, no. I mean, perhaps at times it does feel that way. But looking back now... this book really benefits from an over-arching theme: death, and the many ways of portraying/thinking/fictionalizing it. Vollmann's ability to write SO MANY different kinds of stories, from so many different angles, all centered around death...I mean...*applause*

I have managed to rate each story separately...:
Part I: Escape: 4/5; Listening to the Shells: 4/5; The Leader: 4/5
Part II: The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich: 4.5/5; The Madonna's Forehead: 3/5; Cat Goddess: 2/5; The Trench Ghost: 4/5
Part III: The Faithful Wife: 3.5/5; Doroteja: (3?/5); The Judge's Promise: 4/5
Part IV: June Eighteenth: 4/5; The Cemetery of the World: 3/5; Two Kings of Zinogava: 4/5
Part V: The White-Armed Lady: 2.5/5; Where Your Treasure Is: 3/5; The Memory Stone: 4/5; The Narrow Passage: 4/5; The Queen's Grave: 3/5: Star of Norway: 4/5
Part VI: The Forgetful Ghost: 4/5; The Ghost of Rainy Mountain: 3/5; The Camera Ghost: 2/5; The Cherry Tree Ghost: 3/5; Paper Ghosts: 3/5
Part VII: Widow's Weeds: 4/5; The Banquet of Death: 4/5; The Grave-House: 3.5/5; Defiance: 3/5; Too Late: 3/5
Part VIII: When We Were Seventeen: 4.3/5
Part IX: The Answer: 4/5; Goodbye: 4/5; And a Postscript: 4.5/5
Profile Image for David.
55 reviews9 followers
August 6, 2014
I wish I could retreat farther down, deep down under the clay. I could . . .

The one thing death does not prohibit is longing. William T. Vollmann's collection of 32 tales, accentuates and massages this motif into our world-weary minds, coalescing in the novella-length “When We Were Seventeen,” a modern supernatural tale about a man dying of cancer who obsesses over a former lover, but more specifically, the memory of his former lover, much of which having been conducted via many love letters. Isn't it a pity that in the 21st century the dead still long about their lives, the sun, their memories, what could have been, what should’ve, the tree-paper of books and love letters, which must be salvaged and protected before their brothers' roots bore into the coffin; they long for another kind of death; they long for transformation and new blood; they long for lost loves decades later the same way someone would at the precipice of a recent breakup, traumatically or otherwise, it matters not because in the end we all lose to death, and death is the eternal state we will eventually perish in, whether our earthly matters are resolved or not. This Vollmann to-be, the Vollmann that never was (he is the same age as Vollmann, anyway, which does not predate his predilection for close-call journalism and a confluence of strokes beginning in 2004), conjures the pale ghost of but one lover who only occupied a small fraction of his life (to a ghost, time is irrelevant in their moving coffin; what matters most is how that time was spent).

But Last Stories and Other Stories begins in the past, as Vollmann and his character ruminates and longs for an accuracy of a war-torn 1994 Sarajevo. What better place to experience the thin line between life and death than under the abomination of war? We are all future ghosts. We live in an impermanent state of pre-death. The fear of being killed by a Serbian sniper in those far off hills is life itself. There are times when you can stand out in the open and scream and wave your arms and you are spared. Other times, you may be scurrying the night, bringing home groceries for a growing family, and an errant bullet escapes from the darkness and ends you; a car skips a red light maybe tomorrow and eliminates your physical hold on the earth forever; maybe you slip on a patch of ice the wrong way and snap your neck. Life without the possibility of death is impossible. Life without the possibility of death is not a life worth living. Life without death is death. But to know that it’s there, lurking, waiting for you, makes you cherish your life while you have it. In “Escape” and “Listening to the Shells” love blossoms during our manufactured hell-fires. Love flourishes not where life is unappreciated, and those wishing to be spared, attempt to escape violence for good only to meet their ends enraptured in love and hope. A ghost or echo of themselves blossoms like a drop of food color in crystal clear water; their permanent state has been set. After the war, “The Leader” reveals ghosts as very real things, the memories of a journalist warped into harmless rays of moon fog. One stands upon a former death-scene refurbished and blossoming with young flowers, and questions the validity of “the now,” when “the past” so easily slipped into what became “the future.”

From Vollmann’s Supernatural Axioms: 1. To the extent that the dead live on, the living must resemble them. 2. Confessing such resemblance, we should not reject the possibility that we might at this very moment be dead.

We are all, in this moment, wrapped up in decay, and Vollmann tries his hardest to make you aware of it.

Could these not so much be ghost stories, since everything is a ghost story—eventually? “Listening to the Shells” is about the ruminations of a civil war and one man’s prelude to old age and the memories that have stained his psychological wall. These aren't minor bump-in-the-night ghost stories, but heavily researched major pieces on what it means to be alive (and dead) once one has passed beyond the blurry threshold of death (literally or figuratively, as is the case with Vollmann’s very real Sarajevo expeditions of near-death latitudes). Each section is an individually stylized treatise on one country's folklore traditions; some have come to pass, while others, such as the beginning and end pieces (Sarajevo and America), still await the calamity of death.

When Vollmann finally gets to those mythical folkloric spirits during the chunky 500 page middle of the book (traveling from Bohemia to Veracruz, to the rainy mountains of Japan and the mossy mausoleums of terrible Unknowns), the reader travels from one location to the other as if the book itself were a treasure map, and the treasure at the end the understanding that every story is ghost story, whether it be a work of fiction, Last Stories and Other Stories, Vollmann's account of dilapidation in The Royal Family, or your own memories and "ghosts" as chrysalises waiting to be set free.

X may not mark the spot, though. Many of us might be conditioned to think that when a short story climaxes that that climax should immediately be recognized for its courageous traversal. But Vollmann’s ghost stories end in echoes. Like most good stories, they ask more questions than answer, but force the reader to await the echo-like boomerang back to us.

Thankfully, before putting these 32 stories into their coffin-like book state, Vollmann has beautified his prose to keep us craving more.

A story like “The Madonna’s Forehead” stirs ideas of idols that exacerbate your already predetermined flaws and mania, wherein, a statue, such as the lovely Madonna in a Triestine square, recognizes the immobility of ourselves in our own flesh and blood and deluded minds. “The Trench Ghost” works on chiseling into us the rule of forbidden love and the impossibility of the Church’s idea of everlasting marriage. “The Faithful Wife” is vampiric lore meant for diplomats of love. “The Judge’s Promise” quadruples that with a Bohemia rattled with witches, trolls, and werewolves. In the war between the living and the dead, the dead always win. God’s army reacted. In the neighborhood of H___, several beautiful and intelligent women had to be destroyed, just in case they might be witches. Antisocial or intellectual persons of any stripe were burned alive. Strange to say, the monsters grew worse. “The Narrow Passage” is a perilous journey from Norway to America in a metaphorical sense, as husband and wife traverse life ultimately ‘til death do you part. Paris’s “Widow’s Weeds” likens the “I will die for you” between lovers—but not as a willing option. In “Two Kings of Zinogava” an executed brother returns as a head from the other world, setting free the hatred of his younger brother, breaking the prison of his soul, to make real the many Amazons to be raped so their silver tears can be claimed.

This is all in good fun, especially if you like the loquacious tradition of our vast folkloric histories. For others, a vast majority of the book takes place in a time when a god can be prayed to and instantaneously heard and received by their voice or image. Ghosts then of course must be common sense in the face of many very real gods. That Vollmann deters mostly from our current geographic understanding of the supernatural made me apprehensive at times. Nothing is frightening if everything is frightening. Obviously, Vollmann exists in the here and now. He was even recently quoted as saying on an NPR interview that he doesn’t believe in ghosts. And I think it shows in a manner that these ghost stories are for literate and "learned" adults to read around a campfire. While these are stylistically great ghost stories written by a nonbeliever (dare I call Vollmann sane?!), I want to read the tales of the dispossessed and mentally ill on this matter. Or at the very least, someone who can conjure the rattled brain-space of a Virginia Woolf a la To the Lighthouse or the stringent modernity (at least at the time) of a Dostoevsky or Herman Hesse who is compelled by radical things; Vollmann seems to be ever too playful with the reader, and as I am not yet a ghost, I’d almost prefer someone deadly serious on the subject. Although, I don’t deny that no time of day is as profitless to ghost-lovers as high noon, particularly in summer.

Page 4 states, If we live long enough, it may well be that our virtues turn into agonies; but the memory of first love sweetens with age. So when the cancer of death takes apart our dying friend in “When We Were Seventeen,” we long to go deeper still, we lose our ability to see the daylight, we lose the power of quotations, even of authorship as those love letters perish and become as brittle as autumn leaves too. The universe is a living breathing creature that blossoms death every second, sucking in our soldiers and diseased, our dimwits and unlucky. Death may be able to stop life, but it can’t stop a reunion of the will. Not even all the pestilence and horror Vollmann has dutifully recorded and documented for us over the years can stop his creative mind; in fact, it only strengthens it.

So, eventually, loveless, Vollmannless, there may exist in 75 years time, when Vollmann himself is but the ghost his preface so expertly states, a used book store turned into an antique shop (sadly, the books are the antiques) will present an old and musty copy of this book and a young voracious mind will stumble upon it. And the flesh and blood of the Trieste that is already stuck in a bygone time, the Bohemias and Stavanger seas, will finally be able to make room in the book’s open casket for the war-ravaged Sarajevos and the fettered existence of our man dying of cancer in a modern age, and this young reader will think, where has he gone to?

Luckily for Vollmann, he abides by the Writer’s Axiom: we all diminish in time, and may even sacrifice a few appendages; the main thing is to get on with our projects and not complain overmuch. And even when the Cherry Tree Ghost dances for you and says, Even the dream-road is now erased, we will buzz with new energy, for he has gone inside us to live for the rest of time.

Certain know-it-alls insist: Death is nothingness.— Lucretius pointed out that if this be so, there is literally nothing to fear.
Profile Image for Stephen.
661 reviews17 followers
November 24, 2014
I could not finish this book, cannot notch up a "read" on which to base a fair rating. Having read about 300 of the 650 pages (the first nine stories and the last, longest, one) I have pushed beyond "abandoned" and will claim a "read," explaining my action.
There is just too much on death, on rottenness, putrescence, revulsion, stench. Too medieval a danse macabre. These are ghost stories, some say, but for me too much zombie/vampire/revenant detail, too much piling on of words, all very literary to be sure.

Some mordant observations stand out. Here's one from "The Faithful Wife:" "Among the reasons we ought to be grateful to death is that not until we lose the one whom we love can we feel how much we've loved her." This calls up Hardy's remarkable poem "The Going."

This book is not for me; perhaps I'm obtuse or fastidous or not hard-boiled enough (or all three) or maybe it's a matter of chacun a son gout. I'm glad I read what I did this far. The time exploring was not wasted.
Profile Image for Captain Sir Roddy, R.N. (Ret.).
491 reviews303 followers
August 14, 2014
You simply must read this collection of short stories by William T. Vollmann, as this stuff is 'off-the-hook'! These are ghost stories, but not your standard fare. Oh no, these gems delve into the relationship that we humans have with the notion of Death. And while some of the tales are macabre or even a little over the top, they cause the reader to stop and consider our own unique perspectives on what it means to be alive and what it may mean to be dead.

One of the fascinating things that Vollmann has done with this collection is give us a 'busman's tour', if you will, of how Life and Death are viewed in different regions and cultures around the world. We have stories about the living and the dead in Italy, in the Balkans, in Mexico, in Scandanavia, in Japan, and even in the U.S.

Most of the stories, for me at the age of nearly fifty-nine, became deeply personal and emotional. I have lost family and friends to Death, and there are threads in each of these stories that strummed a very personal heart-string...sometimes quite profoundly. Some of the stories have a historical basis that I was aware of like the modern-day retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" in Vollmann's Escape; or in his story, The Trench Ghost that addresses the horrors of World War I. A true stand-out story--The Faithful Wife--revolves around the deep love, fidelity and commitment that exists within a marriage, and what happens when one spouse is taken by Death. This theme is continued in a Norwegian-based story, The Narrow Passage that is both riveting and breathtakingly horrifying.

My favorite tale of the entire collection has to be When We Were Seventeen. In this tale Vollmann taps what is inside each and every one of us. What happens if you are dying, and maybe only have a few months left to live. What would you do if you could visit with someone important to you that has already died. You are already in a place where you are re-running the film reel that has been your life; you are re-reading the letters that you have received and saved over much of your adult life; you're thinking back to those halcyon days of your youth, the vibrancy of your life, your own sexuality, your own intellectualism, and so on and so forth. First, if you could, would you reach out and summon a dead soul to talk with; and if you could, who would it be; and then what would you talk about? The title of this story--When We Were Seventeen says it all. This story is a masterpiece. In fact, this whole collection of stories is a masterpiece.

I have to say that I came to this book via a review I found on National Public Radio by Julia Keller on July 17, 2014. In this review Ms. Keller went on to say that "...except for two of the stories these tales are pretentious and flabby and self indulgent...the language is ordinary and cliche-infested." Ms. Keller, you could not be more wrong. I can't speak to what didn't 'click' for you, but for this man, nearing his sixth decade of life, this collection of short stories 'ticked a lot of boxes' and I now feel as though I have a much firmer grasp of what it means to experience my own Life and at some point in time, my own Death.

I don't know, but it almost seems that the Shade of Edgar Allen Poe must have leaned over the shoulder of William T. Vollmann as he put pen to paper and crafted this wonderful and somehow important collection of ghost stories. Read them, think about them, feel them...they mean something, something important to each of us. This I do know though, they are not "ordinary", nor are they "pretentious". They are though quite "self-indulgent". But then they are meant to be, I think. These stories--each and every one--speak to the Self in each and every one of us.
Profile Image for Joe.
169 reviews3 followers
August 1, 2014
I review William T. Vollmann’s “Last Stories and Other Stories”

With this big collection of ghost stories, Vollmann haunts the literary territory Henry James explored in The Turn of the Screw, Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol and, more recently, the prolific Joyce Carol Oates in “More Tales Than I Care to Count.” Don’t let my mention of James, Dickens or Oates fool you – Vollmann is Franz Kafka. He’s William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon skinny-dipping in a post-postmodern Vollmannesque ectoplasm.

Go to my blog:

Have Words Will Write 'Em

and then to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Profile Image for Adam.
105 reviews13 followers
August 3, 2014
In his forward to Last Stories and Other Stories, William Vollmann announces that this will be his last book: "Any subsequent productions bearing my name," he writes, "will have been composed by a ghost." Taken literally, this is patently and laughably false. Vollmann is, after all, one of the most prolific writers working today, and the one or two books he publishes every year--novels, nonfiction, travelogues, short fiction, histories, photography, reportage--are always voluminous in breadth and depth. For example, his "thoughts" on violence were published in 2003 as a seven-volume treatise entitled Rising Up and Rising Down, which ran for more than 3,300 pages and contained more than 8,000 footnotes. (The 2005 "abridged" version, which Vollmann readily admits doing "for the money," is over 700 pages long.) His novel Europe Central, which won Vollmann the National Book Award, is more than 800 pages, and his book about Imperial County in California is around 1,200 pages. And all three of these works were published within six years of one another, along with three other books. And that is why the idea that Vollmann would have a "last" book--that he would, at age 55, retire from writing--is humorous.

Taken figuratively, we see that Vollmann is committing an act of recognition. Each story in his collection concerns itself with ghosts, though they are far from the demonic, Amityville-style ones with which we are familiar. Instead, Vollmann's ghosts are Dickensian in nature: they exist in the human world with ease rather than as objects of fascination and fear; they speak to the living, hold them, touch them, have sex with them and even cry with them; they can rise from the grave, only to die again, this time more permanently; and we are haunted by them in the same way we are haunted by a painful memory or regret. The either-or background of ghosts stories--either you are one of the living or one of the deceased--is ignored here for its simplistic accommodation of our own discomfort with death, and many of Vollmann's ghosts take on a third state of being that is neither alive or dead. For instance, in "The Two Kings of Zinogava," one of the collection's better stories, we follow an innocent man as he is trapped in a Dumasian nightmare: imprisoned on an island surrounded by sharks, and with a half-dozen men who rape him nightly, he slowly loses his innocence and compassion--personified here by a mute Indian who is also a fellow cellmate--until his soullessness enables him to achieve retribution against all those he despises, a campaign that is led by Satan himself. (These events also read like the extended delusions of someone whose sanity has become compromised and exists now solely in a fantasy world, which would also make him a ghost.) In another, the 70-page "Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich," a rounded piece of glass gives the titular character unending fortune, including the ability to know if something--or someone--is about to harm him, but costs him the trust and love of his family, who grow more envious of his heirloom, as well as the independence of his intelligent and worthy daughter, who passes the rest of her life as yet another repressed old woman. In both, the isolation--of prison and abuse, of wealth and invincibility--leads the protagonists to become ghosts in their own lifetimes, until they disappear into themselves and become something less than human. They become, for lack of a better term, the walking dead--a paradox redefined.

In each instance, to be a part of this third state of being--this limbo between life and death, between being and not being--is to live in a purgatory spun from the hands of men rather than the will of gods. It is an existence spawned from misery, unfulfilled dreams, regrets, war, revenge, compromise, mourning, and a slew of other causes that are inherently human and, by their very nature, unnatural. The ghosts of two lovers exist as such because they were shot and killed on a bridge that offered them an escape from the ethnic cleansing of Sarajevo. The ghost of a man's high-school sweetheart wants him to keep visiting her grave because the night is lonely and he holds the key to who she once was; in return, she offers him the comfort he will soon need when the tumor creeping towards his brain finally kills him. An immigrant couple is willingly escorted to Hell because they're blinded by the empty promises of "hope," a gem that their guide unceremoniously turns into a dark and cold stone. The ghosts of Vollmann's stories, much like the ghosts of Victorian literature--those of Dickens' Christmas Carol or Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights--exist with one foot in the human world they have yet to depart, their reasons connected to the frail and complicated nature of people. And by saying that he himself has become a ghost, Vollmann is far from being morbid or provocative; instead, he is confessing to a revelation about what it means to be human--that he is a damaged person, prone to missteps and transgressions, and as such he is like the characters of his stories, forever unworthy of salvation while also burdened by the skin in which he lives and the mind that defines him.

After all, it Vollmann's his mind--referred to in one profile as "dangerously uncorrupted"--that has defined him for decades. Known as much for this prodigious output as his eccentric (by our standards) lifestyle, Vollmann is one of the most difficult writers--and people--to characterize in words, an almost comical irony for someone who finds it so seemingly easy to characterize the people around him. He does not own a television, use the Internet, have credit cards or a checking account, utilize a cell phone, or drive. He travels to warzones as if they are amusement parks and was suspected of being the Unabomber by the FBI. (His FBI file is over 700 pages long, three-fourths of which he isn't allowed to see.) He has admitted to smoking crack and professes a love of the Second Amendment; in fact, one of his first dust-jacket photographs was of him holding a gun to his head, his face devoid of emotion. In an author-talk posted on YouTube, he invited all those assembled to join him afterwards at a nearby bar for drinks, and he enjoys painting the anatomy of naked women--artwork he relishes but rarely sells. His studio, an abandoned Mexican restaurant in Sacramento, is protected with razor wire, and he inexplicably owns a parking lot. In this way he seems to be a man from another era, much like the characters in his stories. (The only modern convenience throughout his newest book's 680-page entirety is a "mobile phone," which appears just as quickly as it disappears. Otherwise, the pages are populated by old ships and horse-drawn wagons.) He is one of the most unpolluted writers we have, and his mind is able to understand our place in the world as no one else can, and it's this truth that Vollmann's stories hope to convey: that we are not perfect, that we live for objects and grand ideas rather than one another, and that death is not as final or as definite as we believe--or fear, or want--it to be.

That's not to say that these stories are an easy read. In fact, as is the case with almost all of his work, much of what is contained herein is so allusive that if often becomes impenetrable. Vollmann's fiction exists in a Borgesian library where books grow into one another like forrest roots and the most obscure works of philosophy and poetry--not to mention mythology, artwork, folk literature, history, and psychology--can be accessed and referenced with the same ease as a worn-down idiom or cliched metaphor. In reading Vollmann, you marvel not only at the scope of his interests but his ability to retain what he has studied and apply it to otherwise ill-fitting mediums. (His twenty pages of notes and footnotes at the end provide little assistance. In one, he ends a notation on the sex-based killing of fox spirits by stating, "As for me, I am a virgin"; in another, he completely rewrites the opening paragraph of his longest story so that we can understand it from a more modern perspective.) He is a curator of human history, one written not about grand events or important figures but of the faults and failings of our predecessors, laid as they are in graves beneath our feet, left to rot in the dirt while simultaneously standing among us as we toil away at the same problems they faced, only centuries later and no closer to a resolution.

*I am indebted to Tom Bissell's profile of William Vollmann for much of the biographical information presented here. As a side-note, Bissell is himself a phenomenal writer, and his essay collection Magic Hours--about those who create and subvert art--was my favorite book of 2012.

This review was originally published at There Will Be Books Galore.
Profile Image for Marc.
33 reviews21 followers
June 20, 2016
I bought this when it came out, but for some reason never got around to actually reading it before now - and what a absolutely wonderful book it turned out to be! I think it actually might be one of the best and most enjoyable of his books I've read yet (my other favorites being You Bright and Risen Angels, Europe Central and Fathers and Crows.)

I strongly believe Vollmann to be one of the greatest living american writers, and one thing I really love about his writing, is his ability to take a metaphor and sort of keep on extending it until it permeates everything from formal structure to story lines to characters. For Last Stories he is dealing with Death in this fashion, and so throughout the books ghosts and other kinds of dead and undead flicker between being straight metaphors for loss and some horrifying kind of real existing otherness - just the same way as a given story here without warning can switch between muted poetic realism and wild magical leaps of imagination.

This way the book, though wildly varied in style - from historical family drama and semi-autobiographical journalistic writing to body horror and re-imagined folk tales - is hanging surprisingly well together as a whole, being something quite different than just a story collection and more like a prolonged meditation on death viewed through a great variety of styles and approaches with characters and geographical locations (real and imagined) also sometimes crossing over from one story to the next.

Another thing I love about Vollmann is his amazing capability for compassion. Whether we're talking a condemned dictator, a lonely man dying of cancer or a rotten corpse coming back for her husband there's always a tenderness in his attitude toward his characters. Not that it's all soft and poetic - there's a great deal of dark humor in the book too (especially in the insane groups of Eastern European and South American stories) and quite often the tone of narration he uses reminded me of the similar often darkly funny narrators found in Europe Central though like that one, this couldn't really be called a funny book - it's main tone are still melancholic, focusing mainly on loss.

Well, and I know I am not putting this very well, but my main point is just: This is an incredible book - varied but coherent, sometimes oppressively dark, sometimes surprisingly funny (or erotic), sometimes bordering on the abstract, sometimes very very entertaining. A pure masterpiece and my new to-go book (replacing Whores for Gloria) for giving fellow readers a first hit of Vollmann. In other words: Greatly recommended!

And then, just after finishing, I stumbled across this little gem while browsing the archives of my favorite mind-bogglingly-NSFW internet comic Oglaf. Vollmann would definitely approve!
Profile Image for Francesco.
24 reviews
February 16, 2018
Il quasi conclusivo “Quando avevamo diciassette anni”, lungo racconto di un malato terminale che richiama al cimitero il fantasma della sua prima fidanzata per ricercare con lei il senso della sua vita e della sua imminente morte, racconto intriso di una immensa sensualità malinconica e desolante, vale già da solo il prezzo del biglietto. Capolavoro.
Profile Image for  Askeladd  .
6 reviews3 followers
August 2, 2016
“To never again suffer the failing of the light I thought to give anything” or Vollmann's raging against the dying of the light.

Mr. Vollmann’s eccentricities and guises have been well documented and enumerated: a 19th century romanticist, a worldwide gallivanter, a journalist gifted with a fortuitous range of research-ammunition, a mysteriously detached lover in many of his stories, a concentric personae, even an egoistic hypocrite for some. Eventually those mosaic pieces of his portrait will serve in correlation to his novel, for unearthing the unsaid depth below the surface.

“Why am I this way? Some creatures are shadow-born, yes, but why, and who are they?” or how I quacked this way, by W.T. Vollmann.

The word “concentric” sounds apt for me to describe what I perceive as Vollmann’s stylized approach, both in this novel as well as The Atlas: it describes things rotates around a shared central axis, or imagining water’s ripple: circles or spheres of different sizes with the same middle point. The whole world is here, all for Vollmann the man.

What we have here in Last Stories and Other Stories is a Vollmanniac danse macabre with his trademarked “terrorization,” now of folklore, fantasies and morbid fairy tales, conjuring spirits of Poe, Lovecraft, Melville. As it happened, nobody escaped: underworld residents, apparitions, and real figures alike were resurrected, ventriloquized, “corporealized” through a range of locations like Balkan Sarajevo, Italia's Trieste, Mexico's Veracruz, Norway's Stavanger, Japan's Kamakura, America, even some hallucinating sojourns of dead lover and friends over moon-craters. It gotta take a Vollmann with one postmortem aspiration to shed some arcane light into death's nothingness and "bizarrifize" the heck out of it, I reckon so.

However; one inexcusable detriment, size-wise, is that Last Stories and Other Stories is an overwrought shamble: too many lacklustered chunks clogged it up, choked it dead over its own junkyard of an erudite. It’s a crying shame for mr. Vollmann to settle contentedly over mere craftsmanship, extensive as it may be, rather than aim for the latent potential of a meticulous artist.

“… what had they (protagonist’s women) signified – for what did anything, when no life could be seen whole and coherently except by something which outlived it?” or "Love Stories and Other Stories" as a female: unendurable.

It might be the failures on my part, being unable to commiserate to Vollmanniac mortality, ghosts’ fetish, necrophilia, but comparing to the briefer, more luminous The Atlas, evidently Last Stories and Other Stories is story-oriented. With that being said, never underestimate how insidious his capability is in boring the hell out of you. Every so often when his prose fails to hypnotize the mind by effusing heart-felt descriptive radiance, you are in for a treat of egregious redundancy, taunting the readerly nerves not so much with its badness as its insufferable “baldness,” which I blame on the author’s delivery, execution, and his notorious allergy against editing. The writing is stuffy with insignificant details, excellent in droning you into the flavorless sea. I recall somebody pointing out that mr. Vollmann’s stuff is not highly quotable, which is spot-on. There’s a scarcity of brilliant moments capable of soothing or shocking the intellect, which would dishearten certain types of moral spelunkers and those read for the thrill. His detached narrative drill, not unlike an unseasoned vegetarian dish, just made me struggling to dispel the gnarly thought of throwing the book across the room. As far as the relationship between readers and author is concerned, whatever mr. Vollmann had in mind when writing Last Stories and Other Stories, economy was not one of them. The commitment in ineffectual story-telling, more often than not, without disclosure made me feel left-out and duped somehow. To expect anything else here would be equivalent to shouting at the imperturbable face of death, or so it seemed to me.

Still, all the blunders notwithstanding, let’s give credit when credit is due. My exasperated nitpickings at mr. Vollmann can only mean that I have high regard in his exotic, long-winded style, no? Saved the exhaustive researches, some parts of Last Stories and Other Stories can be wholesomely darling, dreamy, and heartrending indeed, especially in convergence of correct elements. While a few stories are just silly, some other stand out above the rest. The story "When we are seventeen," which calls to mind some connection to the story "The Atlas," narrates a phantasmagorical adolescent love between a middle-aged protagonists and his seventeen first love. Reenacting the day before persecution of Mexican emperor Maximilian, "June Eighteeth," which peers into his dream of ascending, descending and again rising to meet his executioners at a temple’s summit, where “he smiled at them, although he could not understand why he must die.” was succulent as well as ethereal, a trippy banquet mixed between fiction and historical facts. Without a doubt these are to revisit.

To sum up, Last Stories and Other Stories is not a wholly fruitless business. Taking the tempo as slow as possible for the imagination to kick in, employing right mood, plus the determination to persist without getting sidetracked through a chock-full of demanding dead-bored supernatural tidbits, the novel might surrender itself at your feet, divulging its otherworldly tales, where love, sex, and death altogether commingle: “too much contemplation of any object, however unwilling the gaze may reveal a secret.” said Vollmann, and hell if it isn’t true. As for me, I take his introduction seriously, as a tacit nod at changes, a turning of tide, a ball to attend, stories to invent: reroute, to remain.

“But the loneliness of God makes for no story in and of itself. That is why our scribes added people to the Bible.”

To create something out of nothing: a possibility of living the postmortem life, of chartering into the terra incognita called death for evermore inexplicable stories and treasures.

“Sometimes I wish I might never desire the beautiful things which dead eyes can no longer see… not yet, not yet; nor will I pray to lose my delusion. When I finally leave this world in funeral-smoke, may all I have seen remain.”

Reason being that the business of living, its toils, its beauties, after all, are so hard to part way with.

“All is vain, even escaping from vanity.
My only hope, blind death, kills the eyes on my face;
but each eye remembers the other
and new pictures bloom up for the plucking,
so that I can never rest, never rest.

Here is the dwelling place where all is seen and nothing is known,
the place of those removed from this world,
who offers this world their love.”

Be that my reading between the lines hold in it some truths, perhaps he writes for his own sake: to appraise, understand, treasure, belong, and retain.

“… please remember that the least pleasant aspect of being dead, its monotonous too-lateness , practically demands to be circumvented by souls of the slightest self-respects; for what makes life bearable is our illusion that we can undo the mistakes of our condition, be they the sins we inflict on ourselves or the impoverishments of fate;”

By now you’ve all been warned, that…

“… honesty can be unkind, while filthiness derives no more frequently from culpability or innate foulness than from helplessness or brokenness”

So take your pain pill before diving in.
Profile Image for Jonathan Rimorin.
151 reviews2 followers
August 7, 2014
Gruesome, encyclopaedic, rambling, wistful, horrific, grotesque: so many words come to mind to describe this weird and wonderful book, which spans centuries and continents to slowly detail one or two themes, namely death and love (or sex) and their tangled interrelationship. Vollmann evokes Lovecraft and Poe in his baroque sentences and lushly, eroticized thanatomania (especially Poe, in that Death is often personified, and often [okay, always] a woman) as well the dark folklore of many cultures (Norway, Bohemia, Japan, Mexico, the former Yugoslavia), resulting in stories resembling perverse fairy taies, or a secret history book. There isn't one disappointing story in the bunch, though I have my favourites: "Escape" and "The Leader," about the war in Bosnia; "The Narrow Passage," about an emigration to America gone awry; "The Madonna's Forehead," about the nightlife of statues in Trieste; and finally, the longest story, "When We Were Seventeen," an uncharacteristically nostalgic and wistful story about a dying American and his prickly relationship with the ghost of his first girlfriend. It reminded me in certain respects of Peter S. Beagle's "A Fine and Private Place," in its tenderness and weirdness.
Profile Image for wally.
2,530 reviews4 followers
August 11, 2016
6 aug 16 1st from vollmann for me.
10 aug 16 finished...ummm. a few i passed over...several at the get-go caught my attention...the balkans, back when clinton unleashed the american death star...and the crowds cheered, unlike bush, who got a d in iraq, or was it an e? but no problem. when the next clinton gets in the white house i'm sure she'll unleash the drones, not available to slick willie who couldn't keep his pecker in his pants...and maybe a young mother holding her infant daughter will be one victim...or maybe hill will top bill and kill more than one young mother holding her infant daughter.

and maybe she'll kill more than what was it? 76 in waco, children among them? and liberal democrats cheered. kinda like when that guy was gunned down, the dog not used, up in washington recently...and the liberal asshat democrats cheered.

some of the mid-term stories i skimmed.

some of these are a real hoot. i get the ole driftola that vollman spent time in and around the lake. demons come out of the ground and stand there. that, or run for public office.

i'd like to take this time to say greetings from the authoritarian-ship. and what say, nsa happy campers? ooga booga!
Profile Image for Christopher Leonard.
Author 1 book27 followers
July 20, 2014
A wonderful book, and a wonderful addition to Vollmann's body of work.
Last Stories struck me as an extended meditation on death. How we face it. How we obey it, how we try to fight against it. Vampires are subversives who get hunted by well-armed Church functionaries. A Serbian smuggler in 18th century Italy is both blessed and cursed to have a foreknowledge of death's coming. A journalist is submerged in death in war-torn Sarajevo, only to survive and find out that death plays a long game, stalking us over the decades and taking away our physical health even as we're haunted by the past.
The language is hypnotic, beautiful and even jarring at times. In other words, it's written by William T. Vollmann.
Full warning: There are vampires in this book, but it isn't built to be an easily palatable crowd-pleaser. As Vollmann himself seems to admit in one of the novellas, he is: "a merchant of sorts, retailing paragraphs by the sailmaker's yard." And a lot of sailmaker's yards are found here! All of them utterly unique, illuminating, funny at times, and always fascinating. A beautiful work by one of America's best writers.
1,066 reviews17 followers
July 23, 2017
sometimes William Vollmann gets away from himself. Last Stories and Other Stories is a collection of mostly spooky stories from around the globe, checking out Sarajevo, Japan, Iceland, France, Italy, etc. We've got vampires and ghosts and goblins and trolls. The stories are grouped geographically and thematically and often interact with each other in interesting ways that go beyond character or theme. Some of these stories are really good. But they're all just so densely packed, not just each story but each sentence, that it's nearly unbearable to read. Every one of these stories is incredibly overwritten. Even when it's trying to be fun, that makes it no fun.
Profile Image for Greg.
156 reviews2 followers
July 26, 2020
Vollmann never fails to surprise and impress me. He has taken his vast experience and knowledge of world travel and history, and constructed thirty-two stories about the human experience in different time periods and countries, framed by the supernatural. As is his habit, he fills each work with constant references to color, and can't help the occasional bizarre sexual simile. Frequently his trail of words take very strange detours, but just about every story wound up exploring interesting and unique relationships in a way that is part surreal, part absurd, part acid-trip, yet completely recognizable.
Profile Image for Daniel.
648 reviews30 followers
October 31, 2014
If this Halloween you are looking for a new and unique type of ghost story, and if literary fiction akin to a dry red wine is your treat of choice, then Vollmann’s gigantic new collection Last Stories and Other Stories may be just the thing for you.

Each of the seven parts of this collection is made up of multiple, connected stories. Varying in setting and time, the parts are linked together both in style and theme. From the war-ravaged years in the former Yugoslavia, to the romantically haunting mountains of Japan, to the memories of a dying man, Vollmann’s stories are preoccupied with all aspects of death. Drawing on regional legend, many of these stories contain elements of fantasy and horror, but in each case to service the literary meditation on the passing of people and things, not simply for the advancement of some plot. Sometimes the ghosts are literal, sometimes they appear more figuratively. Throughout, they are rendered with some delightfully beautiful prose.

Vollmann’s collection stands as a comprehensive and meticulous literary study on “Last Stories”. The stories here confront death at the moment of its personal arrival or its expected visitation on a beloved one, in the last gasps of a people or in an existence that is only defined in memory. Though written with very similar style and voice, the variety of international and historical setting allows the reader to glimpse the human understanding of death through the lens of multiple traditions and myth.

The downside to Last Stories and Other Stories is just how comprehensive it is: it’s density and its girth. At close to 700 pages, this collection could easily contain multiple single collections. In fact, each part could stand on its own. The first parts are the most grounded in realism, and given the book’s description of being about ‘ghost stories’ I was surprised to find this a huge stretch of interpretation until hundreds of pages in when that element finally arose as one aspect of the collection’s theme. Echoing the size of the book, many of the stories are particularly long, and Vollmann’s style of storytelling tends toward the rambling. The language may be beautiful throughout, but it is still rambling.

I personally found Last Stories and Other Stories most effective in small doses, rather than in reading cover-to-cover. These tales are filled with particularly insightful and lush reflections on the grave. But there is only so much of the rich text that I could handle before it simply became daunting in its scope and frustrating in its pace.

If you are a fan of highbrow literary fiction, and particularly if you would like a slight dose of the supernatural or grim for the season, then this is a quite brilliant collection that should be checked out. I’ll return to it again just for the sake of studying its language, but only in small doses at a time. You may wish to approach it similarly.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Ethan.
77 reviews
February 18, 2015
When the concept of death as an ending is removed from narrative structure, everything can fall apart. But instead of dismantling the dramatic tension of life lived vs. lost forever (i.e. any narrative that brings a character back to life), Vollmann has a dance with death, and a wicked good time doing it too (naturally).
Vollmann asks and answers: if there is another level of consciousness after death, then why not another level after a short story's own end? Using his geographically-themed sections to display cycles of stories that interact in ways that don't simply provide new plot points and broaden story-worlds, Vollmann pulls of a kind of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" without bothering with the post-modern flourishes. Story worlds, all story worlds, are bigger than you ever imagined and not just because very character is alive and exists, but because they will eventually be dead...and still exist; even the epigraph that starts these stories comes back to haunt the rest of the book both in mentions of its never-present speaker and its contents.
With stories that progressively ramp up the supernatural (the first section is devilishly ghoul-free) till it reaches a fascinating mix of terror, disgust, heart, and hard-ons, Last Stories and Other stories is not just a collection of Vollmann weirdness to ride his weirdo fans over until the next Seven Dreams novel is released, but a cohesive and classically-based engagement with our worlds' many and fascinating views of death and the supernatural unknown.
Profile Image for Ben Bush.
Author 4 books42 followers
May 18, 2017
"Now and again I hear some things that make me uncomfortable or humiliated, but I’m reminded that, in a way, that is what I set out to do." I interviewed Vollmann for Bookforum about Last Stories, The Book of Dolores project, his upcoming project on fossil fuels and climate change, and the FBI's surveillance of him as Unabomber suspect. http://www.bookforum.com/interview/13467
Profile Image for Jack Waters.
261 reviews96 followers
Want to read
October 9, 2014
“This is my final book.” — riiiiiight.

“This wall of ill, won’t you view it with me?” — yes, WTV, I will as soon as I finish The Luminaries.
Profile Image for Trixie Fontaine.
358 reviews104 followers
Shelved as 'returned-to-library-before-finished'
September 30, 2022
Started reading this & realized I bit off more than I can probably chew at the moment / is just too brainy or complicated or foreign or stressful for me RN (and also too long: 704 pages), but I want to remember to try it again when my little grey cells are primed for giving this enough prolonged concentration and continuous reading to not lose track. I can't remember exactly why I started reading it in the first place, but probably resulted from searching for short story collections and seeing "ghostly" used to describe this one. But when you open it up and see the table of contents (LONG/extensive, partitioned, Balkan, war-torn, globe-trotty, etc.) you understand they are all meant to go together / you'll be missing out if you try to pick them up and set them down as stand-alone stories. I think. And I don't want to think this much, so ... later, maybe. This is what happens when you check out ebooks and can't tell how long a book is by how heavy it feels.
Profile Image for Susan Marcus.
Author 6 books54 followers
October 30, 2016
This masterful storyteller has let fly his darkest visions and gloomiest notions of humanity.
My reading is a slog, only because the short stories (here an oxymoron) are so dense and convoluted. When your darkest heart soul chamber opens and demons captive there escape through a hole in your metaphysical bricks and mortar, horrified, you realize you are peeking into the terrifying world of William Vollmann's mind.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
577 reviews11 followers
Shelved as 'abandoned'
June 19, 2017
Encyclopaedic, cycling and recycling our fascination with mortality and immortality across the continents, contracting when it should expand, speeding up when it should slow down, based on fascinating research, swimming in subterranean imagery it's like stepping in compost, witty and philosophical, yet with a stoic, frosty style of storytelling; Vollmann has spooked me off this time, but I've already bought Europe Central, so I'll return once more with a bright torch and warm gear-.
Profile Image for Joyce.
558 reviews11 followers
March 16, 2018
vollmann remains as transcendentally talented as ever, his sentences drag onwards and twine around. like all his other fiction i was carried along breathless by his beauty and heart, we are all lucky to have him
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