Inspecting the Vaults by Eric McCormack (Penguin 1987, 1993).
The 1993 edition includes the novella The Paradise Motel. It also includes a cover blurb from a Montreal Gazette review: "odd and unsettling ... murder, deformity and cruelty are treated as everyday occurrences."
McCormack taught contemporary literature at the University of Waterloo while I attended that institution in the late-1980s, early-1990s. I didn't take his course, but I sat in on a couple. He taught Raymond Carver, Borges, Donald Bartheme. None of whom I'd heard of before.
He was also known as the author of a freaky collection of short fiction, Inspecting the Vaults.
I read it after I left Waterloo, during a period when I trembled with desire to write decent short fiction. What was that even? What was a short story?
I remember one McCormack class when he described meeting a woman whose grandmother had sat on the knee of Thomas Hardy (if I remember correctly). "There's a direct line from this classroom to Thomas Hardy," he said. Then he went on to describe a Hardy novel as one that turned on a plot point: "she drank a cup of tea."
No such subtlety to the degree of manners in the curriculum of McCormack's class. Later, after I'd asked McCormack to read some of my budding short fiction, I mentioned the blurb on his book to him.
"But murder, deformity and cruelty are everyday occurrences," I said.
He nodded knowingly and made a clever comment.
Cleverness is what shines out of his stories. Pessimism, too, likely. More than a flirtation with the gothic. A deep knowledge of world literature and movements away from realism. A fantastical imagination.
An un-Canadian disinterest in earnestness.
Reading this book helped me to define for myself what was the essential "storyness" in a short story. It wasn't the movement of action within a plot. It wasn't a twist or surprise ending. It was a manipulation of language and an attempt at a new kind of see-ing.
A digging deeper past surfaces and a stark honesty to reveal what one felt.
Eric, thank you. I haven't forgotten.