One of the reviews on the back cover of First Love, Last Rites reads, "There's an assured and terribly macabre depravity about Ian McEwan's short stories..." I would have to agree with this statement. However, McEwan saves what could be a read about despicable people by coloring them with a sense of innocence, of curiosity. Most of their horrific deeds (including trying to have sex with one's younger sister, a husband and wife who make Taylor and Burton in Virginia Woolf seems like the Bradys, dressing your adolescent nephew as a girl and getting him drunk on wine, etc.) are not predetermined. Most of their actions are spontaneous, the characters' motives unknown to both the reader and the character. Even a story like "Butterflies," a first person chronicle of one of the worst crimes imaginable, is rendered mildly sympathetic, at least enough so that we don't turn away and shut the book, or move on to the next story.
These are not stories for the faint of heart. McEwan is tapped into the darker recesses of the human psyche, those parts we don't share with the world, or even admit to ourselves. But the writing is so crisp, vibrant, assured, that we will follow it anywhere.
The world is not all rivers of gumdrops and candy cane mountains, this we all know. Everyone has creeping thoughts that, for the most part, they don't act on. Thankfully we have Ian McEwan to show us what the people who do act on those thoughts are made of. And that these people are still human.