Joe swore when he saw Cath doing a kid. He had left her for just a minute, to get a beer from the booth on the pier before it closed for the night. Walking back now, he could see Cath on her stool, sketchpad on a knee, ocean breeze blowing her pale hair. A small girl sat on another stool facing her, a man and a woman, parents he guessed, beside the child.
Kid's not more than seven, he thought. Cath promised me no kids. She promised.
--"By Her Hand, She Draws You Down" (63).
Douglas Smith's second collection of stories (and his first longer collection) showcases his talent and his prolificacy. The best stories make excellent reading, and even where they perhaps miss a mark, I remain in awe of the range of writing he has produced, and how often his stories have merited award nominations or received awards. Released in 2010 by Chizine Publications, Chimerascope features seventeen of Smith's strongest forays into SF, fantasy, and horror. Smith generally uses familiar premise and tropes, but he spins them in ways that produce, for the most part, fresh and highly readable tales.
The collection begins with "Scream Angel," set in Smith's version of a Drake Equation Universe. One would think generations of Star Trek and space opera might have exhausted even that setting, but Smith finds his own, original niche. "Scream" deals with addiction, love, and social control as it follows the trials of a low-end interstellar circus. The story works well. I'm also impressed with how many ways it could have gone wrong—and didn't. A lesser writer would have seriously frakked up this particular mix.
Smith returns to the same universe in "Enlightenment.” It features some interesting fauna, an intriguing society, and a well-paced plot, but the characters lack the depth of the first story, the twist is obvious, and the themes, unsubtle. Elements that I would overlook in a tale from SF's Golden Age strike me as beneath this contemporary collection. Of course, those same elements may appeal to certain readers. However, Smith succeeds far more often than not, even with the most familiar premises.
Given the prevalence of vampiresque creatures in contemporary genre fiction, I’m impressed with how the author handles his variation on the breed in "By Her Hand, She Draws You Down." (I write vampiresque because we're really not dealing with a vampire in this story; that's just the closest species that comes to mind). "By Her Hand..." works because of the relationship between the fantastic and the familiar world, the horror and those things for which that horror could be a metaphor. In 2010, Indie TinyCorePictures adapted this story to film.
Every SF writer, I'm convinced, must write at least one dystopia. "Going Harvey in the Big House," one of the longer pieces in this collection, is Smith's. Some people will anticipate the conclusion; others will be shocked. Never mind. The story features a memorable protagonist. Many readers will not find him terribly sympathetic, but his motives make perfect sense. We understand the choices he makes, and that makes the conclusion all the more tragic. Incidentally, Smith claims the story boasts his best title; I'm inclined to agree. One cannot always judge a novelette by its title, but this one meets expectations.
Smith examines individual motivations and the personal Jonbar Point in "State of Disorder," a time travel tale. Clear imagery differentiates the different realities created by the plot. When we first meet the plotter, Dr. Harnish, he inhabits a "dirty-grey, three-storied building"(115) with "a lobby of stained wallpaper and couches sprouting foam rubber and springs." The "stooped and shrunken"(117) academic within fits all to well with his environment. The man and his residence present a very different image the next time he and his visitor experience the same evening. The use to which Harnish puts time-travel? Base revenge.
"Out of the Light" takes us into urban fantasy. Some monster hunters, possibly created with a future series in mind, track the sort of were-creature who might pass unnoticed in a modern city. "The Red Bird" gives us a Japanese martial arts story told in prose that reflects its fable-like nature. "Memories of the Dead Man," a dark post-apocalyptic story with a female narrator and a Western flavour, explores the implications of acting from love or hate. The plot takes turns for the disturbing that not all readers will appreciate. Above all the stories in this collection, I recommend readers approach this one with caution.
Smith himself notes the influence of Roger Zelazny on "The Boys are Back in Town." The bar where the ordinary and the mythic mingle may remind others of L. Sprague de Camp or Spider Robinson. The placing of gods in the present world may also bring Neil Gaiman to younger readers' minds. He returns to old pantheons with "The Last Ride,' which features a valkyrie who falls for a man. I found it too predictable to be really interesting. He does, however, give his protagonist a choice to make that matters, one that will resonate with us lesser mortals.
The better stories, such as "By Your Hand..." and "Going Harvey..." generally feature the most natural dialogue. In some of the others, the dialogue does too little to differentiate and characterize the speakers. Smith tends to create characters who speak in rather formal English. Too much of this dialogue sounds artificial, and can hamper our understanding of otherwise well-drawn characters. Add to that occasional expository dialogue (a problem in genre fiction generally. Smith fares no worse than many more famous writers in this regard, and better than some) and one encounters a barrier to really understanding characters.
I would not make too much, however, of that criticism. I recommend Chimerascope to fans of the fantastic. Smith's original takes on familiar genres will give you much to enjoy and much to consider and, if one story does not appeal to you, several others will.