Millhauser’s bizarre wit on display in new story collection

VOICES IN THE NIGHT: Stories. By Steven Millhauser. Knopf. 290 pages. $25.95.

At first blush, this collection of offbeat stories (plus one novella) seem rather like a clutch of “Twilight Zone” episodes set in bland, Anywhere USA towns with little to distinguish one from the other, apart from their insularity and curious goings-on among the locals.

But then Steve Millhauser’s celebrated talent for finding the bizarre in the most mundane of places begins to take hold, with enough wit and literary experiment to make Rod Sterling and Richard Matheson look like pale imitations. Where the cleverness and social comment of “The Twilight Zone” was entertaining but superficial, Millhauser delves deeper into our conflicted psyches.

In “Mermaid Fever,” what appears to be a humorous rehash of J.G. Ballard’s classic “The Drowned Giant” is in fact a crafty homage, filled with observations whose apparent simplicity reveal themselves to be anything but. What they are, throughout the book, is elusive, tantalizingly close yet just out of reach.

Just as it should be.

An obsessive, sometimes dark, search for perfection and fulfillment underlies many of these tales, which overcome a certain, perhaps unavoidable, sameness of tone and tenor to exert an hypnotic power. Meticulously detailed and visualized, “Voices in the Night” offers tales shot through with originality, invention and admirably fluid prose.

From the wryly comic (“Thirteen Wives”) or disturbing (“A Report on Our Recent Troubles”) to the haunting (“Phantoms”) and shocking (“Miracle Polish,” a brilliant Narcissus-meets-Dorian Gray fable), the echoes and after-images of the collection stay with you long after the final page.

Millhauser, a professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., whose “Martin Dressler” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has produced a book that defies easy categorization and leaves us wanting more.

Reviewer Bill Thompson, author of “Art and Craft,” is a writer and editor based in Charleston.