There is much that is whimsical in these stories and a few struggle under the weight of their quirkiness. An account of a 19th-century female balloonist who locates a tear in the fabric of the sky veers, not altogether successfully, into magical realism. But the one real folly is an aimless fable about an ancient Egyptian king with an insatiable appetite for knowledge. This is, however, a beguiling collection. Even though freighted with the influence of Conrad, Greene and Maugham, these literary journeys retain a distinctly American irreverence, with Mason producing playful riffs rather than straight-faced pastiches.
A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth is varied in form (letters, essays, reports), and only loses its poise when Mason turns a touch experimental in the title story, or when the balloonist’s quest gets metafictional. Despite the range, and the fact that the stories were written over 15 years, the subjects and settings provide a pleasing unity. The grand pleasures of fiction are all here: rich, cushioning detail; vivid characters delivering decisive action; and a sense of escape into a larger world. The best story of all, though, might be one of interior drama. “The Second Doctor Service” is a tale of possession that stands comparison with Maupassant’s terrifying “The Horla”, and reminds us that before we face our foes, first we must battle ourselves.