While this summer’s superheroes of the silver screen fly, grow giant and shoot lasers, the ones on parade in the anthology WHO CAN SAVE US NOW?: BRAND-NEW SUPERHEROES AND THEIR AMAZING (SHORT) STORIES sport less conventional powers. Like the power to divert televangelism donations to the truly needy. And to always remember a name. Or to never pee or poop.
Eccentricity is the name of the game in this collection, edited by Owen King and John McNally. The 22 tales within aren’t your standard adventures, but more grounded in literary settings and riddled with angst and humor, rather than battles and bravery.
Stephanie Harrell gets it going with “Girl Reporter,” a Lois Lane-esque journalist’s account of embarking on a sexual relationship with a dimwitted Superman-like do-gooder who always refers to himself in the third person. Graham Joyce’s “The Oversoul” is about an outsider teen who’d like to have sex, especially with that MILF he spies on from his cliffside perch. Perhaps he’ll get his chance when he faces a potentially fatal situation involving her kids.
Richard Dooling’s “Roe #5” is a sci-fi-ish story in which a son a woman aborted decades ago shows up at her door. Yes, you read correctly. Journalist profiles superhero in Tom Bissell’s “My Interview with the Avenger,” a semi-parody of the ESQUIRE style.
One of my favorites was “The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children,” in which Will Clarke examines the aftereffects of a promiscuous costumed crimefighter and a town full of easily seduced Baptist women. The result is a slew of snotty kids who can fly and wreak havoc on their neighbors’ privacy and well-being. It takes a rather dark, disturbing turn.
Another highlight is the heartbreaking “The Horses Are Loose” by Cary Holladay. Its little-girl protagonist is born with the knowledge that she has the power to fly, but can only use this power once. She’s saving it for a grand plan that she hopes will save her single, clinically depressed mother from a lifetime of misery. If it doesn’t move you even a little, read it again.
Some pieces are straight humor, like the Sea Monkeys-oriented “The Snipper,” from Noria Jablonski, and Sam Weller’s “The Quick Stop 5®,” in which a chemical accidental transforms a quintet of convenience-store employees into mutants with the powers of beef jerky, a Slushee, condoms and the like. It’s one of the better stories in the entire volume, marred only by an over-reliance on pot humor.
The editors themselves don’t take things seriously. McNally offers “Remains of the Night,” about a guy who dons a silverfish outfit, told from the perspective of his long-suffering butler, while King — the son of Stephen King that’s not Joe Hill — tackles “The Meerkat,” about the problems of the title anthropomorphic creature. It’s amusing in an oddball way — Russian robot included — but too long.
With Jim Shepard, Sean Doolittle and the unlikely Jennifer Weiner among the other contributors, WHO CAN SAVE US NOW? could use a little more levity than it already has, as the quality is wildly uneven. For every great piece, there’s one that sinks, but it’s worth reading just for its unorthodox modus operandi.
A project like this wouldn’t be complete without some illustrations, and they’re provided by the talented Chris Burnham. It’s just too bad that several of them fall into the book’s gutters, defeating the purpose. —Rod Lott