If you're in the mood to stare at a painting for a long time, you really can't go wrong with Edward Hopper, master of evocative urban scenes — a bit of noir, a hint of glamour, a suggestion of tawdriness, a whiff, perhaps, of danger. It's almost impossible to look at "New York Movie," for example, or "Hotel by a Railroad," and not think, "There's a story in there somewhere."
Which is why the concept of this book is such pure genius: 17 writers each chose a Hopper painting, then wrote a story inspired by it.
In his foreword, Lawrence Block (editor and contributor) remarks that "Hopper's work resonates profoundly with those of us who care deeply for stories" because within the "moments of time, arrayed on a canvas," a past and a future are implied, but "it's our task to find it for ourselves."
Because Hopper's paintings — and Block's foreword — invite us to find the stories ourselves, the best way to read this book is to start with a close look at the pictures. Each story is accompanied by a high-quality color plate of the work chosen by the author, and each plate repays imaginative scrutiny. What's going on? What just happened? What will happen next? And where do we find ourselves in relation to the scene? As one of the figures in it? As watching from a distance? Or as feeling uncomfortably like a voyeur?
Anyone familiar with the story's author — and who isn't familiar with Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, at least? — can gain an extra layer of pleasure by trying to guess, before reading the story, how the author might be likely to handle it. (I guessed wrong in just about every case, which added to the fun.)
And then, of course, it's time to read the stories. A number of authors kept the painting's original time frame (generally 1930s, '40s or '50s), with nods to Raymond Chandler and the hard-boiled detective school; others preferred a domestic drama or even a ghost story.
As is generally the case with anthologies, a few of the stories are rather disappointing or flat, but there are some absolute knockouts, too. Robert Olen Butler's "Soir Bleu" is a tour de force narrative of jealousy and insanity — well, yeah, a clown is a central character. I was mesmerized by Nicholas Christopher's "Rooms by the Sea," a dreamlike bit of magical realism (and one of only three stories based on a painting devoid of human figures). Another of the three, "Taking Care of Business," by Craig Ferguson, is a charming, rather sweet bit of whimsy.
Other favorites include Joyce Carol Oates' "The Woman in the Window," deliciously funny, though dark, and "The Preacher Collects," by Gail Levin, Hopper's biographer and editor of his catalog raisonné, a fictionalization of an actual episode in the artist's life.
Astute readers will notice that there are 18 color plates, but only 17 stories. "Cape Cod Morning" was selected by a writer who had to bow out of the anthology. Since the rights to the picture had been obtained, and since it is a lovely painting, the publisher decided to keep it as a frontispiece. There is no story to go with it, so, Block remarks, readers will just have to write their own.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
In Sunlight or in Shadow
Edited by: Lawrence Block.
Publisher: Pegasus, 278 pages, $25.95.