Reading a short story is like peering through an open door into an unfamiliar house. You're dropped into the lives of the residents. You watch for a while, people talk, things happen, and then the door closes – sometimes with a slam and sometimes very quietly. So my criterion for a good short story is simple – did I hang around until the door closed or did I just shrug and walk away?
When I chose to read a short story collection entitled Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned I didn't really expect the stories to be about good deeds rewarded or true love conquering all. So I wasn't surprised that many of the characters in Wells Tower's stories were in some way either ravaged or burned or both. But they all passed my test – I never walked away before the door closed (although there was one where I maybe wish I had).
Tower's characters are bumbling, conflicted and confused, and they keep bumping up against forces they can't quite handle. If you think this sounds like overworked territory it's only because you haven't read Tower's prose. It's dark and funny, tight but beautifully descriptive. His characters recognize their own shortcomings in refreshingly honest voices.
My one caveat concerns the last story which, unlike the others, which are set in present day, deals with a band of marauding Vikings. Its title is the same as the collection's, and there's plenty a ravaging and burning, a little too much for my tastes. But the other eight stories more than make up for it.