Spencer Holst is one of those rare and special writers, like Jorge Luis Borges, who, for better or worse, deserves the title “a writer’s writer.” Indeed, in sly recognition of that debt, in one of his stories, a typewriter repairman, who has returned Holst’s ancient upright, types on a virgin white sheet, “Borges is better.” Although Holst’s miniature prose pieces in some ways have the universal appeal of the ballpark hot dog (see for example, the longest work in this collection, “The Institute for the Foul Ball,” in which the batter stands on the plate and thus can swing either to the right or the left), by and large his fiction is an acquired taste, like caviar (see, for example, “The Language of Cats,” in which cats are revealed to be the original civilization who created robots to take care of them—something all cat-owners will immediately recognize as truth).
Holst is an impish writer (there seems to be no better word) who sees himself equidistant between Hart Crane and James Thurber, with a bit of Edgar Allan Poe thrown in, but whose wife more accurately describes him as halfway between Hans Christian Andersen and Franz Kafka. He is an “artificer” in the classic sense of the term, for in none of his stories is he limited by what most people understand to be “reality” or “common sense”—both of which are either merely real or much too common for his own rarified taste. In this collection, which Holst says contains every story he has ever written, we discover that Sherlock Holmes was really a cat and that Mrs. Claus has taken over the role formerly held by her husband and has done a much better job of it. In addition to zebra storytellers, herein live giant rats, magical frogs, dingo dogs, demons, blond bats, ghosts, purple birds, magicians, bullfinches, and goblins.
Pure storytelling is what this book is all about—with some pieces so shorn of irrelevancies and mere matter that they seem to shimmer with essence.