Reviewed by Robert Runté
Brain Lag is a small Canadian press joyously defying conventional wisdom by publishing brilliant single-author short story collections. Everybody 'knows' those don't sell (unless by a Stephen-King-level 'name' author) but here again we have a collection from a dazzling author who for over thirty years has been toiling in the obscure fields of Canadian speculative fiction. Sally McBride has always deserved a much wider audience for her subtle, emotionally engaging speculative fiction: real people who find themselves in weird situations.
This collection covers 14 stories that illustrate the depth and breadth of McBride's speculative writing, from "Totem", her very first story (published by the legendary editor Judith Merril in the first Tesseracts anthology back in 1989), to two stories published just last year. A third of this volume is reserved, however, for previously unpublished work (including a 70+ page novella) which add a metric ton of value for even those already familiar with McBride's canon. The rest first appeared in such venerable venues as Tesseracts, Asimov's, On Spec, and Realms of Fantasy, and newer Canadian venues like House of Zolo and Polar Borealis.
The tone ranges from the dark horror of "Hello, Jane, Goodbye"— brain surgery gone terrifyingly sideways—to the cozy mystery of "The Faraway Club", in which the ghosts of murdered teens set out to catch the serial killer responsible for their deaths. (The villains might have got away with it, too, if not for those meddlesome ghosts!)
The title story, "The Fragrance of Orchids" originally appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in 1994, won an Aurora Award for short fiction, was reprinted in Tor's Northern Suns anthology and Van Belkom's Prize-Winning SF&F. It stands up surprisingly well after 30 years, a rich tapestry of conflicting motivations, tiny but revealing moments that mesh to become both story and an almost philosophical analysis of loneliness—with the 'alienated outsider' as both metaphor and literal alien. The story deserves every accolade received, and reading it again here was every bit as moving as the first three times, and left me marvelling once again at McBride's mastery of nuance.
Listing the premise of each story, however, would be counterproductive, for two reasons. First: spoilers. With the possible exception of "Softlinks" (an AI story, now thirty years old), the common link here is unpredictability. McBride's brain just works differently, wanders places others could not, or would not, so following where she leads—discovering the premise—is half of what makes these stories so absorbing.
Second, McBride then uses that unique setting or idea to reflect back to the reader the universality of the human experience: loneliness and grief, ambition and greed, art and compassion. One feels rather than read her stories. Her stories are almost never about the plot or action or the 'story' part of the story. The experience is often unsettling, disconcerting, but ultimately life affirming. There is always an underlying optimism in everything McBride writes. Things may be bad—may be about to get a lot worse—but still, life goes on. And occasionally, there is an underlying wry humour that goes some distance towards acceptance of the need to confront the dark.
Another thing I appreciate about this particular collection is that McBride and Brain Lag kept the author's introduction to each story brief and spoilers-free, while still managing to convey the general thrust and the impetus for each story. Here, for example, is the intro to "Hello, Jane, Goodbye":
"That most excellent Canadian editor of horror, Don Hutchinson, very delicately indicated to me that my work, while lovely in its own way, just wasn't scary enough to be included in his new anthology series, Northern Frights. Despite his good looks and suave demeanour, I felt rather insulted. I cracked my knuckles and confronted my fears."
"Hello, Jane, Goodbye" did indeed make it into Northern Frights and is every bit as disturbing as her introduction implies. Although I urge you to still read the story, one cannot claim the reader wasn't warned.
Lest I leave the wrong impression, it is not all, or even mostly, dark fiction. The collection nicely balances McBride's deeper work with delightful lighter pieces, all written with a distinctly Canadian sensibility.
Finally, there is the "Forward" by Peter Watts, arguably Canada's top writer of dark fiction. As expected, Watts provides a concise and insightful analysis of McBride's writing, while managing to avoid too many spoilers. Unexpectedly, Watts also succinctly identifies, almost in passing, the fundamental failings of jump-scare horror or formulaic CanLit as written by most others. Watts nails exactly why McBride's work transcends one's expectations of either of those genres to create work that resonates with authentic emotion and generates meaningful reflection.
Fragrance of Orchids and Other Stories releases onJuly 14, with the launch party at Bakka-Phoenix Books in Toronto, July 15, 1-3PM (https://fb.me/e/2DfsVcVQV). You're invited.