When it comes to book-length fiction, there is a tendency to privilege novels above short stories, as if the latter were merely stunted novels that failed to reach their full potential. But stories are an art form of their own and short story collections offer pleasures that novels cannot. Themed anthologies present multiple facets of a single idea, while single-author collections at their best offer the opposite: a wide spectrum of ideas with their origins in one mind and crafted by the same hand. In his introduction to Chimerascope, a finalist for the Sunburst and Aurora Awards, Douglas Smith promises “a disparate collection of impossible fantasies,” inviting the reader to examine the strange, uncanny creatures he has assembled from elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
The opening story, Aurora winner “Scream Angel,” is one of the strongest, with the tension between two contrasting forces already set up in its dissonant title. The opposing sides turn out to be a ruthless paramilitary organization pitted against a travelling carnival of displaced aliens, connected via a psychoactive drug and the compelling character of Captain Trelayne. One could forgive a writer for taking just one of these ingredients and building an entire story around it, but Smith goes all-in on this one. It is a feat of alchemy that even Smith himself cannot quite duplicate — the later story “Enlightenment,” though set in the same universe, doesn’t reach the same heights.
But it’s not only the stories that overflow with ideas that are successful. Some of the most haunting entries in the collection are based on a simple premise well executed, like the pitch-perfect “By Her Hand, She Draws You Down,” which it’s unfair to describe as a vampire tale, and “State of Disorder,” a sinister time-travel scenario that manages to feel truly unsettling rather than simply ironic.
Smith is a master of beginnings, with opening sentences such as these:
- “They stopped beating Trelayne when they saw that he enjoyed it.” (“Scream Angel”)
- “Joe swore when he saw Cath doing a kid.” (“By Her Hand, She Draws You Down”)
- “The shrill cry of a harpy sounded as I stepped into our tavern.” (“The Boys Are Back in Town”)
- “Big G’s first thought each wake time was how much he missed his drawer in his old sector of the House.” (“Going Harvey in the Big House”)
- “The man known only as Stranger lived and died in a town with no name.
“Each day he lived.
“And each night he died.” (“A Taste Sweet and Salty”)
These are some of the most well-crafted hooks you’ll find anywhere: deft introductions to the characters and their not-quite-familiar worlds packed into just a sentence or two that draw the reader in. As for the endings, they rarely serve up real surprises, but the pleasure is in watching the events unfold. Smith’s tendency is to forego the shocking twist for endings that feel satisfying and right, a trade-off that I’ll take any day.
For those who are interested in where writers get their ideas from or what goes into creating stories like these, each story is accompanied by a brief commentary from the author. Smith notes that he uses short fiction to experiment with form or theme, and this is evident in the range of stories in this collection. This range can also mean that any one reader’s mileage will vary from story to story. For me, the Y2K tale “New Year’s Eve” feels dated more than a decade later, and “The Dancer at the Red Door,” while offering a good dose of evocative imagery, unfortunately has one of my least favourite tropes at its centre, the sleazy businessman who gets his comeuppance. “Memories of the Dead Man” is a captivating character portrait that is hampered by a heavy-handed framing story.
Reading Smith’s stories is like taking a series of guided tours through strange places — you don’t expect any bombshells to be dropped on you but you do expect to see something new and memorable. Chimerascope delivers that in spades and is well worth the price of admission.
Chimerascope is available from ChiZine Publications in print or electronic editions. You can also buy stories a la carte from the author in a variety of eBook formats.