‘Byzantium,” Ben Stroud’s collection of short stories, is proof, if ever it were needed, that the short story can hold its own alongside the novel. “Short” can still mean capacious, just as “story” can speak volumes. Indeed, several of the tales here contain more ideas, more depth — more life — than a longer prose work. Best of all, Stroud has mastered the great paradox inherent in the form: End where the story should end, but leave the reader wanting more.
Many of Stroud’s stories fearlessly traverse epochs and continents. In the fable-like “Byzantium,” a general’s son from the “pit of devils” that is Constantinople is sent out on an imperial mission involving labyrinths, monks and a gelding knife. “Tayopa” takes us to the mines and mountains of New Spain. “Borden’s Meat Biscuit” is a Conrad-esque tale of a colonial white man out of his depth in the fever-ravaged Caribbean. And “The Traitor of Zion,” about a zealous convert to a religious cult on an island in Lake Michigan, though patently not historical, nevertheless thrives on its otherworldliness.
When not plundering the past, Stroud ensures that his stories set in the present are just as inventive. Many play out in, or skirt around, Stroud’s native Texas. The compact but perfectly formed “At Boquillas” follows a couple on a trek along the Mexican border: both finding their feet again after his recent affair, unaware their relationship is on its last legs. “Amy,” set in Europe, also maps the contours of the human heart as one man flees a dying marriage and rekindles an old flame.
Universal anxieties and emotions infuse each story, whether Stroud is dabbling in the past or the present. Love, loss, friendship, betrayal, revenge — a whole range of noble instincts and dastardly deeds are covered. Justice is well-served in one of the strongest stories, “The Don’s Cinnamon,” in which we meet black detective Jackson Hieronymus Burke on the trail of missing slaves in 19th-century Havana. Burke reappears in Bismarck’s Prussia in “The Moor,” more a Roberto Bolaño-flavored biography of the protagonist than a whodunit. That said, it would be a crime if Stroud didn’t resurrect this colorful character in a later work.
The historical stories are meticulously researched, studded with fine period detail and streaked with creative license — oddities such as the Miracle of the Cisterns, the Book of Truths and the Cooling Safe — although sometimes to the detriment of pace. Also, Stroud’s quirky prose occasionally gets the better of him (“the tornado had deus-ex-machinaed my life”).
But these are mere blips among daring feats. Stroud’s stylistic prowess and panoramic range can be jaw-dropping. We encounter emperors and viceroys, conquistadors and false prophets; witness the horrors of castration, cannibalism and falling out of love. “Where does history exist, except in our imagination?” we are asked. Stroud’s fecund imagination and his ability to tell tales smack of tremendous writerly promise.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.