Adam McOmber’s newest book, Fantasy Kit, is hard to classify. The thirty-five very short stories in this extraordinary collection could be considered literary horror, speculative flash, or experimental fiction. They are dreamy, atmospheric, unsettling, and restless stories, concerned with queerness, eroticism, intimacy, the nature of fantasy, the passage of time, and the uncanny. They are formally inventive and interrogate what a story is and has the potential to be. Perhaps they are best described, as McOmber has advocated, as “kits,” or “objects that the reader is asked to assemble in various ways.”
And this is a book that the reader must participate in. Readers are often invited to work with the stories’ narrators to construct the worlds, plots, and emotional landscapes of these stories. For example, the story that the book borrows its title from, “Fantasy Kit/1942,” is presented in parts, organized as a sort of inventory. It begins, “A) Two American soldiers, midwestern boys with all their strength about them, eighteen and twenty-three. A dim-lit bar. Italy. The smell of chicory. Is it Christmas Eve? It is Christmas Eve. Snow falls beyond the darkened window” (p. 9). The subsequent items in the inventory include brief snatches of dialogue, direct address questions for the reader (“Question: Do you find erotic possibilities in violence?” [p. 9]), and several alternate scenarios, including a fabulist one in which a phantom in ragged sheets silently watches the two boys kiss, and one in which the reader is asked to choose whether the boys survive the war or not.
Although the stories share common themes and preoccupations, they all feel original and distinct from one another. In “Plumed and Armored We Came,” the young daughter of a British man who oversees a poppy plantation in Calcutta becomes increasingly feverish as she takes opium to calm her nerves. In “Man with a Pillow,” which is a genuinely scary ghost story, a couple wakes to a single footfall in the hallway outside their bedroom. In “Mars, 1887,” two men search for water on Mars as their rations run out and wind up having sex in a mysterious ziggurat, whose existence perhaps proves that there were once “men or something like men” on this dry and inhospitable planet. In “Pan and Hook,” the forgotten goat god Pan meets a dying Captain Hook in Neverland and tries to comfort him.
Populated with ghosts, werewolves, knights, saints, and pagan gods, these stories traverse the landscapes of myth, death, religion, and dreams, as well as ancient Rome, colonial India, a rural Ohio cornfield, and Mars. In the diverse settings of these stories, time is as important as place, and readers are often dropped into the past, or speculative versions of it. This takes on special significance because almost all the protagonists of these stories are queer men. In some instances, McOmber focuses on historical figures that were queer or suspected to be queer, such as King James VI and the Italian Renaissance painter Il Sodoma. In others, he writes about places with rich queer histories, such as the pleasure garden of Vauxhall, or historical contexts in which sex between men wasn’t stigmatized, such as ancient Rome. In other stories, McOmber inserts queerness into places from which it has been erased or denied: historical accounts, myths, legends, children’s stories, fables, and religious narratives.
In so doing, the collection deeply interrogates the act of storytelling, exploring what it means to imagine something into existence. The narrators tell readers what they “want to say,” but cannot. They sometimes flash between different versions of the same story, veering away from or dismissing a landscape that has just been lovingly established. In “Loup-Garou,” the narrator explains, “I write about a prince. But I do not mean prince. Instead, I mean a figure rendered,” continuing, “I render this particular figure (out of all possible figures) because I saw a play in Los Angeles last night in which actors pretended to be princes” (p. 50). Despite the self-referential narrative style of some of the stories, they are engrossing and evocative, and it is easy to get lost in them. Alongside the evident distrust of narrative authority and interrogation of the act of fantasizing, there also exists a clear love of the imaginative possibilities of speculative fiction.
The first story, “For Witches,” is phenomenal and my favorite in the collection. It begins, “Here is a language for witches. No. Here is a language for high school. No. Here is magic in all its occult guises. No. Here is a high school in all its occult guises” (p. 1). The story continues to deftly toggle between a midwestern high school hallway and a haunted forest. The story shimmers between these two realities, making them seem both equally real and unreal, equally uncanny, and, ultimately, equally horrifying and unknowable. In one branch of the story, a boy has a secret crush on his football-playing best friend, who starts to drift away from him. In the other, cow tongues are nailed to gray trees, and they try to speak in unison. It’s a remarkable story: daring, exquisitely crafted, and deeply creepy.
Another standout story, “Coil,” is narrated by Arthur, the protagonist of The Faerie Queene (1596), as he leads Sir Guyon deeper into the woods in search of monsters to vanquish. The only problem is that Arthur has invented all these magical creatures so that he has an excuse to go questing with brave and beautiful knights. As Arthur observes Sir Guyon’s loveliness, he wonders if “Guyon has ever been in love. The knight has pretended at such emotion, of course. All of them do. They write letters to maidens in their thick unschooled hand. But has he ever felt what Arthur feels now—the true sting of it?” (p. 79). To satisfy Guyon’s desire for a worthy quest, Arthur invents a giant serpent that they must slay, though he acknowledges that these creatures are only “extensions of his own passion” (p. 79). He wistfully wonders “if a quest like this could be made to last forever. Time might swallow them. Their names would appear side by side in ages of poetry. Their souls could mix forever in the higher air” (p. 79). But this softness and tender feelings, these attempts at intimacy, have an unsettling edge to them. For, when they arrive at the high mountain pass, oddly enough there is a cave that might be the den of a dragon. And then they hear the breathing of a deadly serpent, which Arthur seems to have conjured into existence, and Arthur wonders how he can set things right.
McOmber’s writing has been compared to the works of Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Angela Carter, and is reminiscent, at times, of Yoko Ogawa, Carmen Maria Machado, and Bennett Sims. But, truly, this book is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s disorienting, engrossing, sensual, astoundingly smart, deeply imaginative, and utterly bewitching. It’s hard not to be enchanted by a collection that includes, in its slim 133 pages, Winnie the Pooh, John the Apostle, a midwestern teenager brooding over his claustrophobic future, and Gilgamesh. Despite the ever-present sheen of horror, there is plenty of pleasure and delight in these strange pages. I feel that I could read this book ten more times, and I’d discover something new and wonderful each time.