The pitch-dark yet often comic stories in "Tyrannia," the second collection and third book by Twin Cities writer Alan DeNiro, throw the reader headfirst into strange, menacing worlds whose contours only gradually become clear (or, perhaps, more complexly mysterious). We sometimes seem to be in a dystopian, totalitarian future, sometimes in a brutal present, sometimes in eerie borderlands.

The poetic title story is like a macabre landscape painting in which a corpse — the body of a fallen revolutionary, we come to learn — is slowly scavenged by birds and colonized by insects. "The Philip Sidney Game" starts in an amiable metafictional vein — I'm writing a story about how I wrote a story — but becomes a different sort of game, a kind of choose-your-own-psychodrama played out in a Borgesian library of mirrors.

Evocative of Kafka, Italo Calvino, Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick, DeNiro's stories reveal his fertile imagination and a knack for using fiction as a lab for thought experiments. His creations, always intelligent and often captivating, at times flirt with the tedium of recounted dreams, and readers who would have the playfulness and world-building balanced by psychological depth or narrative elegance will not always be rewarded. Still, there are many thorny pleasures to be had here, and DeNiro is as deft at negating genre distinctions as he is at blurring the line between comedy and terror.

Dylan Hicks