The first volume of The Gate was a great collection of short stories written by five creative and talented authors. All of them are back, along with eight new members, for a second volume that is even greater than the first. I think this is mostly due to the choice of a common theme to all the stories, giving the anthology a better sense of direction and cohesion. "Isolation and Despair" may not sound really inviting at first sight, but that's the paradox inherent to such universal ideas: every story takes you in, trapping you and freeing you at the same time.
Like so many shelters... A shelter, whether it's big like the mall in "Plastic" or small like the attic in "The Indian Rope Trick", is also a claustrophobic closed space where characters are imprisoned like Jonah in his whale. Sometimes, said shelter progressively vanishes as in "39 days". It's even possible to be trapped within the prison of one's own disabled body, as in "Does Laura like elephants?". In "Black Mary", the kidnapped feel(s) isolated in their closed space, but it's the kidnapper who's lonely and insane in Exhibit C, not only his victim. Trapped as he is in the prison of his mind.
Whatever the case, imprisonment triggers the imagination. All the characters create or recreate a semblance of real life, even if it's fake and pathetic ("Plastic"). This roleplaying, telling oneself stories, looks like a return to chilhood, even to the mother's womb at times, where they think they'll find a protection: "Guido held the girl, wishing he had a womb into which he could stuff her for protection." ("The One That Matters"). Here again, there's a tug of war between something negative like the powerlessness to change things in reality, and something positive: surviving through imagination. In "The Candle Eaters", the main character has reached the age when childhood and its make-believe come to an end, and she senses that it "changes everything". Even if she plays the part on Halloween, it's only a mask... If dreams and thoughts can take one very far, like Laura the disabled woman, they can also lead to a complete loss of bearings, meaning and sense, which is lethal for sanity.
Death is omnipresent, surrounding narrators and main characters. Being left alone is a form of death in itself. "Night Night" is a brilliant metaphor of absence leading to a loss of meaning: Life is like the clothes line which is no longer there because there's only one useless pole left in the yard. When two becomes one - in the wrong sense of the expression - Life stops (the title is awesome in that regard, as a single "Night" points to something negative and lonely, whereas the double "Night Night" is warm and full of promise). Death can become a liberation when the situation seems inextricable, as in "39 Days". It can also become multiple, and therefore all the more common, in "Destination" (a reenactement of Charon ferrying the dead) or "The Ghastly Bath". But all these deaths gave birth and life to this anthology...
At times, solace is found in the unlikeliest circumstances, as in "The Candle Eaters" or "Chorus". At other times, there is no solace but a slow descent into madness and depression ("Plastic", "Dead Things"). There's a link to be found between the ideas that these short stories convey (solitude, isolation, despair) and literature itself. Solitude is both a blessing and a curse, as the introduction by Robert J. Duperre states. If it's creative and liberating, it is also alienating and sterile, because everything we do has to be measured with others, nothing makes sense in itself. Estrangement leads to drama ("The World Event", "The Canoe"). Even a blessing seems intangible when received alone. That's the paradox of literature, contained in one way or another in each of these stories: it is a sort of generous sharing of an act of selfish loneliness.
"Every book is an image of solitude. It is a tangible object that one can pick up, put down, open, and close, and its words represent many months if not many years, of one man's solitude, so that with each word one reads in a book one might say to himself that he is confronting a particle of that solitude" (Paul Auster in The Invention of Solitude).
P.S.: I always forget to mention the art by Jesse David Young. It's awesome, as always. Even inspiring one of the short stories (Chorus).