Asked in 2013 how speculative fiction can encourage readers to think about the world differently, the German-Canadian author Ursula Pflug answered, “By breaking down the barriers of how we define reality, obviously.” The follow-up question—what did she hope readers would take from her own work?—got the obvious answer: “I want people to be given more tools for breaking down the ways in which they define reality.” In Seeds and Other Stories, her third collection, she sets out to do this through stories that present the experience of the fantastic mostly not as rupture or intrusion, but as a fact of life, a perception that colors and filters her characters’ day-to-day experiences. Pflug is a veteran author—initial publication dates for the twenty-six stories here range from 1983 to 2020—and the deftness of her prose, sure without being flashy, helps sell the matter-of-fact nature of these realities, broken down and defined differently as they may be.
These are stories with a sense of deep compassion for outsiders, and for loners living in the cracks and outskirts of the modern world. Most have little in the way of narrative momentum, focusing instead on slices of life and character studies about people done wrong by the world. The wrongs they’ve suffered tend to stem either from systemic failures and obstacles or trauma preceding the narratives themselves, rather than current conflict. When specific antagonists do play a part in the stories, they’re usually past abusers, still present via the scars they’ve inflicted on their victims, but not an active part of the stories themselves. In response, Pflug’s protagonists—artists, writers, misfits, bohemians, addicts—find solace in their fellow outsiders, building communities that protect them from the larger dystopian world, alienating and judgmental as it is.
The collection’s publisher, Inanna, is a Canadian independent feminist press, and these are strongly, quietly feminist stories; never didactic, but focused on women finding their place in the world, channeling their voices and finding self-actualization and agency. Pflug’s work could be categorized, to use a term that’s largely fallen out of favor, as slipstream, stories of a liminal, speculative genre. You could even call her work anti-weird: if weird fiction is that which alienates and estranges the “real” world by means of an intrusion of the eerie and unsettling, Pflug’s has characters moving not through increasingly weird realities but living in those already weirded. One of her favorite ways to convey this is an off-handed remark from one character to another about the broken-down barrier of reality, given and received with the utmost nonchalance—as when the protagonist of “Mother Down the Well” reveals to her best friend that her mother has been living at the bottom of her farm’s well for decades:
“My mother fell in before I was born.”
“Really, Clarissa? You never told me you had a mother. I didn’t want to pry so I didn’t ask but I always assumed you’d grown up without one.” (p. 2)
Her mother has spent the intervening years “suckling at the portal down the well,” turning her back on her family in favor of “whatever other dimensional flavour it was she loved best, for it simply doesn’t exist here on Earth, not now and probably never. Ma never did tell me what it was either” (p. 10). The fact of the portal’s existence is almost unworthy of comment, its importance coming not from its novelty but from its providing nourishment and escape. Clarissa’s somewhat distant curiosity about it, unspoken and unresolved, is the closest the story ever gets to fixating on the weird, and is completely overwhelmed by her yearning for a human connection with her mother. The stone tablets that she pulls from her pond, inscribed with fortunes and held under the water by some invisible force, are similarly uninteresting to the narrative. When she finally manages to land one, its advice is simply the banal “Raise Your Mother.”
“Daughter Catcher” follows Clarissa’s friend Siena in an inverted setup: a mother set adrift by the loss of her daughter. Siena has since left home and normal life behind, living in the woods and endlessly cleaning up the garbage that the local townsfolk dump there (the same folk, she’s sure, who either murdered or drove away her daughter and now gather in church to talk about how weird and suspicious she herself is). Her daughter Noelle, like all the women in their family, was a witch, which might be part of why the townsfolk turned on her. On the other hand, she was young and full of fun and love and unafraid to speak her mind—and maybe that bothered people more than her witchiness.
Even more than many of Pflug’s other protagonists, Siena’s life is overwhelmed by yearning, and aside from cleaning the forest—which is clogged not only with the town’s refuse, but with more broken sticks and fallen branches than would seem possible, as if nature itself is broken there—she spends her time leaving charms throughout the woods:
She unwound string from a tangle of sticks and sat down on a pile of other sticks and began to make a spider web, part God’s eye, part dream catcher. It was obsessive but she couldn’t help herself; when Siena found string she had to make something out of it. Something more or less circular to hang in a tree. Siena told herself she was making magic; it was a witchy thing, not a dream catcher but a daughter catcher. Still the objects never seemed beautiful and powerful as she’d intended when she was done but rather sad and lonely as she felt, and possibly mad. (p. 271)
And so Siena goes about her work, as exhausted by cleaning up after the unappreciative townsfolk as she was when she had to take care of her family—so exhausted that she can’t remember what her dreams were for herself or even if she ever had any. But then a community of teenagers takes shape around her, who view her as their patron, believing the daughter-catchers to be talismans that bring luck in love, and join her cleanup effort. While Siena was afraid her creations were full of madness and malice, the teens sense and encourage the love behind them. A creek running through the forest, physically occulted by garbage and also somehow obliterated from her mind, turns out to be hiding her submerged daughter, “wiggling not just with the current but with life” (p. 281). Siena, the teens tell her, has to teach Noelle to love herself in order to get her out, just as she did for them. In a collection teeming with strong stories, this is the standout, a masterfully crafted story of perseverance and love. It’s telling that, for all that Siena is sure that the townsfolk are behind whatever ill has befallen her daughter, everyone who actually shows up in the story itself shows her kindness—not only the teenagers, but the only other adult who appears, the pastor’s wife fallen on hard times. Siena wonders what happened to bring her low, and resolves to ask someday, but never does so within the confines of the story.
A third story assembled from similar materials, “Harker and Serena,” is less successful. Serena’s husband, a doctor, has left with their three daughters, leaving Serena (how similar to Siena!) to raise their two sons, Jake and Blake. She supports them by fishing magical poles from a nearby creek with the help of her new lover Harker, who has leaves instead of hair. Like Clarissa’s stones, they’re mysteriously inscribed and seem actively to fight against being pulled from the water, and like Siena’s forest, they have some sort of garbage-junk magic about them. Serena sells them to mysterious cloaked figures at night, but after she keeps one for herself to save Jake’s life (which he’s wasting playing video games, an unusually modern detail), the strangers slaughter almost every other character that’s been named in the story, leaving their heads mounted outside her home. She’s left to regrow Harker from a cutting and track down the two daughters who were spared. It’s a grim, brutal ending, jarring in anyone’s hands but especially in comparison with the compassion evident in “Daughter-Catcher.”
“The Lonely Planet Guide to Other Dimensions," meanwhile, doesn’t center mothers and children (although there is a niece searching for her mad aunt) but instead follows thematically from a comment in “Mother Down the Well,” and centers portals as sources of creativity. A writer, Rachel, comes to a hotel for a writing retreat:
The Red Arcade Hotel, she suddenly felt, existed in another dimension. Although it didn’t, not really, of course not. But it felt out of time or out of place or both, as if it was all there was to the universe and her life. No past, no future, no world at all, just this hotel and time to write. The hotelier, a young queer songwriter from Toronto called Berndt, was a big supporter of the arts. Maybe he had bought the hotel because he too, could intimate the presence of the portal even if, unlike Rachel, he didn’t have the word for what it was. (p. 15)
Rachel hopes that “information oozing through the portal” will help her regain the vibrancy of her previous work, rather than the dull plodding of her current projects (“all the main characters became words, the settings became obvious strings of words, the plot became words” [p. 18]). Fiction, like a mother down a well, only worked when it suckled from something otherworldly, when “the colours of the tea cups were as bright or brighter than the colours in this world” (pp. 16-17).
In an intertwined narrative, meanwhile, a woman named Esme gets off a bus at a hotel, after finding that the bus route no longer visits a town called Dream—which used to be the last stop. The hotel physically moves up and down the dusty highway it adorns, always uselessly situated in the middle of nowhere. She’s trying to visit her aunt, who lives in the vicinity of Dream, and has been abandoned during her descent into madness. The other world Esme accesses via the hotel, though, is dusty, dull, mired in nostalgia, the red paint of the arcades fallen into disrepair, as mundane an alternate universe as you can find—but the instability of the aunt and the town of Dream threaten to upend things. It’s Rachel’s inability to finish her story that’s destabilized Esme’s world, and it’s a human connection between the two that revitalizes both. Perhaps it goes without saying, but the revelation that portals and alternate worlds abound is found barely worthy of comment by the characters, as in the following exchange between a hotelier and Esme:
“She’s not from here.”
“Who even is? It’s a hotel.”
“I rent a few rooms on a monthly basis. But I meant she’s staying in the other hotel.”
“Oh?” Esme asked.
“The hotel is a node. People from another dimension can stay here. What I mean is. The hotel exists in two dimensions at once, and in the other one it’s called the Red Arcade.” (p. 22)
Esme responds by asking what the author’s name is.
“Big Ears” also links talent and the otherworldly, but rather than writers and portals we find musicians and their muses, animalistic manifestations of artistic drive. Joey, a legendary NYC sax player, watched his muse go from beautiful gryphon to frightful, drooling, hairy thing as he himself descended into addiction and poverty. He’s already kicked heroin when he strikes up a friendship with Rickie, a young singer, as full of potential as he is of squandered promise, who encourages him to stop yearning for his lost success, lost talent, and lost wife—“One day she’d have to ask about Sally,” Rickie muses in a typical Pflugian aside (p. 49)—and draws him back into active artistic pursuit rather than complacently wallowing in misery and defeat. Rickie’s name immediately brings Billie Holiday to mind, and indeed she becomes a vocal model, suggested by Joey (the world needs more odes to Billie Holiday), and it’s a wordless improvisation on “Strange Fruit,” complete with Joey’s obbligato on sax, that manifests Rickie’s muse in public for the first time. Another friend, Phoebe, is encouraged by Joey in turn, sharing his demons but not his musical talent, which gives Pflug the opportunity to extol the virtues of math as a practice that she can foster just as they can their music and earn her muse just as they did. It’s a deep, heartfelt story, with a very strong sense of place and self and compassion.
In three of the stories, it’s the drugs themselves that provide the fantastic element, known as “Colours”—Green, Purple, Blue. These allow their users a glimpse outside of reality, with varying degrees of authenticity. In “Washing Lady’s Hair,” a gallerist lives in a day-after-tomorrow dystopia, where power outages are regular and people are giving up increasingly unreliable smartphones in favor of paper again. The gallerist, Karen, has fled Vancouver, and her mother’s abusive boyfriend, for Toronto, her own boyfriend Rick in tow. Rick is a sculptor, and “[t]he dreamy oceanic peace in his work implied another world was possible, in a way nothing else ever had” (p. 74). He has, however, turned his back on real life entirely: he is addicted to Green, a catalyst for shape-shifting into marine animals, a beautiful alternative to the rot and stench of their inhumane real lives. This rot has set in as Karen has waited passively for help, bottling up her abuse and blaming herself for their destitution. Rick has abdicated his own agency in favor of waiting for “the Green Lady” to fix things for them:
She was magic, mistress of synchronicity, of providential solutions appearing as if out of nowhere to solve even seemingly insoluble problems.
“Why didn’t Lady help us before?” Karen dared to ask. “We’ve never seen her, not even once.”
Green Lady was an aquatic goddess vision who appeared occasionally to divers. Rick and Karen had been waiting a long time. “Because we didn’t ask for help before we dove,” Rick replied, the perfect logic of it creasing his face into a delighted elven grin. (pp. 76-77)
It’s following this dive that they finally notice the Green Lady’s hair, spilling from sewer vents into the streets, and proceed to clean it of the garbage and detritus of modern life, in one of the most beautiful scenes in the collection. Ending on that note would have been hopeful, uplifting, but perhaps a little trite, and so instead Pflug situates it as the end of a flashback and as the impetus for their move to Toronto, where things are better than Vancouver, mostly: Rick’s dreams are coming true, even despite his addiction, while Karen struggles to figure out what her dreams even are; but she is at least removed from the abuse and misery she faced on the West Coast.
In “Fires Halfway,” a woman and a wannabe rock star share lines of another of Pflug’s fantastical drugs: “Purple,” a surreal hallucinogen. They’re visiting the drugged-out rock scene of pre-reunification Berlin, surrounded by derelict bars, junkies reading Tarot, and rumored sightings of Lou Reed. Like “Washing Lady’s Hair,” the story is presented achronologically, and looking back from decades later the woman reveals that she co-wrote the man’s sole hit during this trip (that last word used in both its senses), having impossibly heard a completed version on the radio. In the present day, decades after their short-lived fling, the prosaic has overwhelmed both of them, impossible beauty having given way to her limited (but satisfying) artistic success: designing upscale maternity clothes while he “sells real estate now, or software or something” (p. 162). For her this was a conscious choice, to use a fantastic vision to redefine reality while continuing to live in it; but for him it is a failure, unable to make art work as a career, falling instead into addiction and obscurity.
The oldest story of the Colours, 1994’s “One Day I’m Gonna Give Up the Blues For Good,” centers on a group of therapists at a Clinic, government-run institutions that provide a controlled environment for people to work through their psychoses, supplying them with the Blues and a skilled empath. Just as the Blues appears to be a harder drug than Green or Purple, this is a harder story than the others, even more preoccupied with misery and abjection. Our first-person narrator Ruby is reeling from the loss of her lover Little Davis, a fellow therapist, even as she channels her own history of trauma and abuse into helping remake and rehabilitate abusers who visit the Clinic. The Blues, painted onto the body, enters the bloodstream and makes you feel loved, and loving. Is it any surprise the therapists rely on it for self-medication too, to fight burnout and their own misery? But, just as Kim found that the beauty revealed by Purple was fleeting and Karen’s experience with the Green Lady was more of a call to action than an external savior, Little’s death has shown Ruby that what the Blues gives you isn’t the real thing. Instead, it offers “an imitation, and a cheap one, and the closest so many people ever get to love” (p. 125). Unlike Kim or Karen (or Siena), Ruby is unable to make the leap from external revelation to internal self-actualization. It’s an almost unbearably sad story.
Of course, not every offering here is entirely successful. I didn’t think the flash-length prose poems added much, and I found the particularly dark science fiction piece “Hamilton Beach” to be jarring rather than satisfying, much like the ending to “Harker and Serena.” One does wish, at times, for a bit more narrative tension or forward momentum. “Myrtle’s Marina,” originally published in an anthology of stories inspired by Robert W. Chambers’s “King in Yellow” stories, gives Robert Aickman a run for his money for sheer inscrutability when it comes to the possible inclusion of the supernatural, and is surely one of the most subtle homages of all time. “Seeds” itself, one of the earliest stories here, is a little rougher around the edges than Pflug’s later offerings—“I hear this is a place you can come, if you lookin’ for a name,” the narrator says at the beginning, before immediately dropping the vernacular affect (p. 81)—but prose immaturity aside, Pflug’s concerns were already firmly in place even at this early stage: the story is a brief vignette in a post-apocalyptic Garden of Eden where a maternal presence oversees the growth of a new Adam and Eve, guiding urban reclamation through gardening and rebuilding community by putting in the work to make something beautiful in the world.
As the world emerges, unequally and haltingly, from a pandemic, many of us feel a desperate sense of hope, that same eagerness to find or make something of worth after working through such trauma. Seeds is a fantastic distillation of that attitude, a remarkably consistent collection of authorial intention and human compassion set down over a period of almost four decades. If Pflug’s characters can embrace their own agency, informed by all their past traumas to choose to redefine reality and to focus on their art, their work, rather than the pain of the world, how can we do any less? As Phoebe notes in the close of “Big Ears,” “[s]he might never grow a creature, be able to call its strength and beauty to her, but she had to try. What else was there?” (p. 56)