Douglas Smith’s short story collection Chimerascope is a chimerical creature itself, a creative hybrid of diverse genres of the fantastic ranging in temporality, theme, characters, and the questions it evokes. Smith names the series after the Chimera, a creature from the ancient Greek world that is a hybrid of multiple animals. The Chimera is a point of intersection between diverse bodies, and Smith’s work represents a similar walk down the seams between genres – a connection between diverse evocations of the speculative. Like many monsters, Smith’s chimera of diverse speculative stories evokes questions while resisting easy answers. His work is contemplative. It is the ‘weirdness’ of the Chimera, its unfamiliarity that causes us to pause and ponder, and Smith constructs narratives that assemble diverse pieces of the monster in the reader’s mind until she or he suddenly realises that they have been led to more of a question than an answer, a space of unfamiliar ground where they need to pause and reassess who they are and where they have come from. And when the reader looks back in the mirror at the end of their expedition into the unfamiliar, they find that they have changed – that they are chimerical hybrids of themselves and an undefinable other that has slipped into the edges of their consciousness.
The stories in this collection range from tales of future circuses where the bodies of the alien are put on display for a staring, othering humanity to convince themselves that they are just in their genocidal colonialism, a Japanese-inspired warrior-tale that questions the very ontology of war, a cautionary story about the vulnerability embodied in the artistic process, a virtual reality nightmare, a tale of gods left behind by human change, an urban shape-shifter tale that questions ideas of predation in the city and the perceived safety of concrete walls and well-lit areas. The diversity and complexity of his stories require individual analysis and exploration and on overview of this sort can’t get into the depth of his narratives.
Smith approaches issues as complex as addiction, colonialism, the point between pain and pleasure, militarism, violence, art and mass consumption, vulnerability and love, the construction of reality, and ideas of urban safety. Many of his stories revolve around concepts of the gaze – the spectatorship of the circus and the colonial experience of staring at the other, the predatory gaze that is part of the artistic process in consuming the visual material of the world to freeze it into an image, the idea that we create the world by what we see and believe, the idea that being able to see something in the dark means that it is not as threatening, and the questioning look that is evoked when one encounters something so amazing that it changes our vision forever.
One of the most impressive things about this collection are Smith’s introductions to the short stories. It is incredible to see an author who is so able to analyse himself and explore the dark reaches of the mind that give birth to speculations and eventual narratives. His interest in his own psychological process, in the bizarre mixing of ideas where stories are born is conveyed into the mental processes of his characters, their complex minds and personal quirks that make them likeable. His characters are psychologically deep and illustrate a complexity of the soul that comes from living on the edge of alterity, taking in ‘otherness’ and shifting and changing at the fringes. They are not ‘easy’ characters and Smith resists simplifying them for his reader.
There is something undefinable about this collection, a connection that cannot be easily quantified. I couldn’t point out what binds the stories together, but they seem bound in their ability to be unquantifiable, able to challenge barriers and evoke powerful questions that send the reader into contemplation about social issues, the human experience, and the nature of questions themselves.