A few years ago, Joy Williams, revered for her short stories in the US, was asked to speak to students about her craft. The gaunt older lady – Williams is now 79 – then came to the desk wearing sunglasses and did what she also does in her short stories, namely thwarting everyone’s plans. All the work of famous short story writers, she explained, has never been anything other than longing; since Mark Twain, short stories have also been written with a pen from hell.

After all, if you read Williams’ devilish short stories, hell is never far away. When Dwight and Lucy, two of Williams’ many characters, come into possession of a hearse-black Ford Thunderbird, they don’t drive anywhere, instead they park it in the living room. Something, Lucy realizes as she sits in the car without expectation, has “robbed the world of its promise.” The story is called “rust” because not even the T-Bird remains.

“Rost” can now be read in Williams’ “Stories”, a best-of that has reached German bookstores with an almost scandalous delay. After all, Joy Williams already rivaled Thomas Pynchon’s “Ends of the Parable” for the National Book Award with her debut novel “State of Grace” (that was in 1974) and is now admired by three generations of American great writers: Raymond Carver and James Salter used to sing her praises , today authors as different as Jonathan Franzen and Lauren Groff do it. Bret Easton Ellis, himself a child of terrible sadness, even claims to dread Williams’ stories.

That’s not unreasonable. Even when Williams’ characters don’t suffer from brain cancer (and, for lack of better wishes, end up buying a pair of sunglasses), inexorable fate has nothing in store for them. “That every human being faces eternity at every moment” is not only one of the convictions of those terminally ill, who, as if in mockery, are then also called Gloria. In her unrelenting unsentimentality she is a typical Williams heroine: brave enough not to expect anything, but human enough to do it clandestinely.

Love, for example – others have come up with this – seems to be the best option against death, and in fact Williams’s very first story in the collection, entitled “Love”, fuels this hope – but apparently only to disappoint them for twelve stories : A nameless “girl” hangs on a married man out of fear of her own inner emptiness; a mentally ill woman does not want the care of her clinging friend at all; a group of mothers come together because their children, raised with love, have become murderers despite everything. “We gave birth to disaster and made history,” says the eldest of them. “Oh, women, my friends, we have not settled anything, and the earth is no longer beautiful.”

That last sentence (from the most recent of the Collected Stories, published between 1972 and 2014) is revealing: Williams is telling of people “virtually allergic to life itself.” In one of her happier moments, the terminally ill Gloria is hoping for a dog, and at her best, the names of “Löffelente, Mallard, Gänsesänger” come to mind. Unfortunately, the ducks she encounters are not real, and the dog is chased down one of those streets that are just motels for people who, by their very nature, are homeless.

While the early Joy Williams relies on a psychological realism, as known from Raymond Carver, the later one has more in common with the grotesques of a George Saunders: In “Congress”, first published in 2004, the main character Miriam no longer clings man, girlfriend or child, but to a lamp made from the legs of a deer and seeks salvation not in love but in the natural history museum.

The taxidermist there, who, even if he wanted to, could not make an animal appear dead, is widely regarded as a wise man. You can ask him questions and hope for the big answer. But beware: the taxidermist could be the revenant of a radio host that Joy Williams talked about years before. When one of Williams’ heroines asks when her hour might be, the answer is, “She was there while you slept.”

Joy Williams: Stories. a.d. English v. Brigitte Jakobeit and Melanie Walz. dtv, 304 pages, 25 euros.