This New and Poisonous Air
McOmber’s collection of short stories has been likened to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Isak Dinesen. Although, for me, McOmber’s stories never reached the gothic macabre of these authors, they were tinged with the bizarre enough that the comparison was apt.
There are ten stories, ranging in time and setting from 18th-century France to late 20th-century America. Some, like “There Are No Bodies Such as This,” a short account of Madame Tussaud’s early career, are fairly straightforward historical fiction. Others, like the curious “Fall, Orpheum,” told in first person plural, border more on the fantastic. When the lost and lonely stumble into the Orpheum, they literally become part of the small theater.
McOmber does an excellent job of creating multilayered characters, all somehow ill-at-ease in the situations in which they find themselves thrust. I did feel that some of the stories sacrifice character arc for the sake of deeper characterization, though I suspect this was a frustration on my part in wanting to follow the characters further than the pages allowed. The stories themselves aren’t as dark or grim as I would have thought, given the comparisons to Poe, but beneath each runs a subtext that a darkness resides in us all. As Madame Tussaud says about the Chamber of Horrors, “There is no fantasy about it … It is an embryo, a showing of what is to come.” Those who like literary, slipstream fiction will enjoy this collection.