“Night Stories: Fifteen Paintings and the Stories They Inspired” is like a traveling gallery show bound between hard covers.

The Maine painter Linden Frederick was intrigued by the idea of it for several years, believing that his oil-on-canvas paintings of night scenes stirred rich stories in the imagination, given all the authors, screenwriters and playwrights who had collected his work. He found his way to Maine writer Richard Russo, who seized hold of the idea, sparking a friendship and an invaluable collaboration that led to the creation of this most captivating crossbreeding of fine arts and literature.

The paintings, as the title suggest, depict night scenes, a few embracing twilight. All of Linden’s work gathered here holds hints of human habitation, but it is devoid of any figures. The art bears witness to life, but leaves it to viewers’ imaginations to tease out what lies behind, for example, a lit basement window, or hidden in shadows of an alley, or lying inside tired storefronts that withhold true warmth.

The 15 strikingly unique tableaus were the starting points for the 15 writers enlisted to spin from their imaginations stories about lives that lie unseen, just out of view in each picture. The stories are as varied as the writers, a who’s who A-list of Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and National Book Circle Critics Award winners, as well as winners of and shortlisted writers for every prestigious award imaginable. The list also includes novelists and screenwriters with Oscars on their mantles. Russo, who already has a Pulitzer, was named a winner of France’s Grand Prix de Litterature Americaine award this week.

Opening “Night Stories” is like stepping into an elite campfire circle of literary superheroes gathered to tell stories about the dark.

Some writers borrowed titles for their stories from the paintings they selected, including Anthony Doerr and Daniel Woodrell. Others, like Ann Patchett and Lawrence Kasdan, did not. Some stayed relatively within the visual frame of Frederick’s images, like Lily King and Joshua Ferris – though they both colored outside the lines – while others roamed more widely from the visual boundaries of their selected paintings, as Elizabeth Strout and Louise Erdrich did. Russo does both, borrowing the painting’s title for that of his story and diving deep into the square of light of a basement window to tell a dark, disturbing tale of familial secrets and estrangement.


All the stories probe dimensions of the human condition that beg more illumination.

Luanne Rice’s “Alley’s End” is the perfect story to open the collection. The story’s off-cadent voice is that of a homeless woman huddled with a fellow traveler in an alley seeking sleep. But the woman’s mind won’t stop chattering about all that she needs to regain custody of the son she lost. Frederick’s’s painting of the same title is of a dimly lit alley that disappears into darkness. The unwelcoming backsides of brick buildings frame the night sky like a knife point. The tale is about having nothing left of one’s own but a body and the grief it carries.

Linden Frederick’s “Takeout” inspired a haunting tale by Tess Gerritsen.

“Vital Signs,” by Lois Lowry, plays off a surreal image of a large, brightly lit picture window in a small, dark house, showcasing an interior scene of half-a-dozen female mannequins dressed in beautiful evening gowns. Off to the side in the yard is the white light of a portable marquee. A group of local middle-aged men who went to high school and played football together, who now call themselves the “Athletic Club,” gather regularly to drink beer, complain and reminisce, debating who and when exactly somebody they had known had died. The woman of the house with the mannequins, the deceased wife of someone they went to school with, becomes the focus of their annoyance over the sign.

They plot to gather again the next night to “expire that damn sign.” But when the time comes, they are stopped in their tracks by sight of the widower walking in the light among the mannequins.

Like Lowry, Andre Dubus III borrows the title of his story from Frederick’s painting. The painting, “Ice,” depicts a store on a dark and empty street corner, lit enough to hint that it is open, with a large white, double-door commercial ice chest that stands outside near plowed snow piles. The narrator, unnamed, has owned the store with her husband Dickey for several years.

The painting comes to life in Dubus’s story, telling of the narrator seeking to sneak out to deliver six cans of soup to a sick man with beautiful eyes who’d come in earlier in the week to get soup with food stamps. Now he is too sick to return. The narrator dresses up, but is careful not to arouse the suspicions of her husband as she leaves. A line in the story crystallizes it all. “Lies are so much easier to tell when no one’s paying attention.”


Tess Gerritsen tells a sad, haunting story in “Takeout,” about how turns in the road can take us places that we never could have imagined when we were young, and from which we can never return when we are older.

It opens with a man walking into a restaurant, the ringing bells on the door drawing the eyes of everyone gathered there. “A stranger, they think. Just some nameless traveler who’s been blown in by the January snowstorm,” Gerritsen writes.

” ‘Sit anywhere you like!’ the waitress calls out from behind the counter.” When the young server comes and pours him coffee, “he notices that her eyes are as green as sea glass, and there’s a scar under her chin, a tiny ridge of white from some long-forgotten childhood tumble.” Later, he asks why she lives here “when there’s so much more out there in the world?” She answers simply, “It’s my home … everything I want is right here.”

It might have been the same once for him, too … until he broke a promise.

Ted Tally breaks out of the short-story form to tell his tale, “Repair,” in the format of a screenplay. Frederick’s painting by the same title shows a small, squat, weathered corner building, a square garage door in its face, its office dimly lit against a black night. The vignette is a powerful tale about how some things cannot be fixed, no matter how much self-inflation and money one has. The turn at the end is deeply satisfying.

Dennis Lehane uses the painting’s title, “Offramp,” to great effect in his story about a U.S. marshal dispatched to a town near where he was raised to pick up a young female drug addict for failing to appear in court. Henry Dale, the protagonist, is just weeks away from retiring after 30 years, and he has long since grown weary of being called upon to clean up the messes of others. He realizes, however, that the department’s computer coughed up the wrong address, putting the target’s house on the upscale end of the street rather than across town in the land of broken dreams. What to do? The answer is easier than he imagined.

Linden Frederick’s “Night Stories” is an inspired collection of short stories. Night is a realm that harbors deep, resonating meaning for everyone, conjuring emotions that range from melancholia to loss to disturbing disquietude. Readers will find all that and more here between the covers of this portable gallery show, one that proves a feast for the eye and for the mind.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver. Smith can be reached via his website: frankosmithstories.com

Correction: This story was updated at 10:04 a.m. on Nov. 22, 2017 to correct Andre Dubus’s name.

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